The Sun on Sunday Festival of education: Birbalsingh goes old school, AA Gill, and Starkey's undercarriage.

Manners we can believe in.
Are we still allowed to say Sunday Times? I’m worried in case Hugh Grant bursts in through my stained-glass parlour wall and reads me the well-mannered riot act. Even though the festival was almost two weeks gone, I thought I’d write down some final thoughts, and I promise I’ll be brief. And in a world where the star of 2009’s barrel-scraper ‘Did you hear about the Morgans?’ is apparently anointed as the Messiah of integrity and probity, I suspect no one will notice anyway. God is dead: we killed him. Now, anything is possible. Next year, it’ll probably be called the ‘The Sun On Sunday Festival of Education and Tits.’ Anthony Seldon better change his voice-mail pin. Or break out his mankini.

Day two was hot: I know this because I took my jacket off, and normally I refuse to acknowledge the Sun even exists, because I’m British, and when (billions of years from now) Old Father Sol starts to  turn into an enormous Red Giant that slowly engulfs the entire Solar System, just before Earth is vaporised into quantum pieces, I might- might- take my second pair of socks off.

Cricket was being played on an immaculate lawn in a way that doesn’t happen in my school, i.e. at all. And there was a fire juggler warming up (yeah, I said it) in a way that really, really doesn’t happen in my school, unless you count the time years ago that someone thought that a can of Lynx would make a dandy flamethrower, which it did incidentally. 

Birbal Sings

Birbalsingh, apparently.
If you follow the popular press (guilty) or the educational blogosphere (send him down) then K-Singh can hardly have escaped your notice. And you could be excused for thinking that, beneath her mighty curly thatch the number 666 could be found tattooed. Great Krypton, but she gets a mauling, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that I agree with the entirety of her analyses (I don’t) or that I think she’s the spearhead of anything transformational, but the majority of things she claims about the descriptive reality of teaching in many inner-city environments is as controversial as custard. But every time I see her in the forum of public opinion, she’s being crucified. Is it because she represented at the Tory conference? Possibly; endorsing the nasty party has never been a PR gold mine, as Kenny Everett, Floella Benjamin and Peter Stringfellow can testify. Is it because she criticised mainstream state education? Possibly; there’s a worrying trend in contemporary debate to see any criticism of state schooling as an enormous land war on the entire abstract concept of state schooling. Which is like pointing out that someone’s got spinach on their teeth, and being arrested for genocide. It’s also probably because she writes for the Telegraph, which is normally enough evidence to damn someone. But these days? I don’t know, the Telegraph is smelling pretty flowery compared to its Wapping/ Hades cousins. Wait ‘til Hugh Grant gets medieval on their asses.

Her speech was called ‘Tradition is the Best innovation,’ and she had a pretty good turn out; cameras, photographers and all. What she said- which was essentially an extended prospectus for her new school- was pretty uncontroversial. If I had been expecting her to announce that all children would be hung upside down and bled to feed the basement gardens of despair, or that Moloch of the thousand talons was Head of PAL, I was disappointed. Absolutely NO promises whatsoever to sacrifice the Jannie every year at Summer Solstice to appease the Old Ones and raise CVA scores to exceed FFT targets, like Edward Woodward in the Wicker Man. Nothing like that. It was all boundaries, discipline, community outreach, uniform and that. Her idea is that state schools benefit from traditional curricula and behaviour standards, which is absolute tosh, because as we all know they learn best when they act as full stakeholders in their own education, partners in learning with the teachers, who are themselves lifelong learners, devising their own syllabi and learning rules for themselves.

I might have made the last bit up. Because it’s moronic. 

Actually, it was all very reasonable, and she seems very reasonable, and I’m still a little baffled as to where the shit storm blew in for her. I think she’s the fulcrum of a number of factors (mentioned above) that draws attention to her like the gravity well of a wormhole. I mean, I’ve read her column, and I don’t always agree, but who cares? Where does this anger come from? I even read a horrible hatchet job on her in the Grauniad by a ‘former friend’ which even Rupert Murdoch would have pulled, saying, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit near the knuckle.’ Still, I guess that’s what one contends with when heads are pushed over the parapet. 

I’ve mentioned ‘those’ sort of questions that people sometimes bring to the Q&A at the end; where people stand up and apparently recite their life stories in the form of an epic poem, and the panellist has to use an Enigma machine to decipher the question. This one was half way through Beowulf and into Paradise Lost. Birbalsingh’s eyebrows practically knitted a scarf as she waited patiently for the punchline; it was like, ‘Blah blah, at my school we grow turnips, blah blah the state of education in Denmark blah blah 22% increase of deprivation index blah blah....’ and so on until the end of time and all that was left was this woman talking and nothing else existed except for this bloody monologue. Birbalsingh response was surprising: putting her feet up on the table, leaning back and saying, ‘What’s got two thumbs and doesn’t give a shit?’ *points thumbs at herself* ‘Me!’

She didn’t really.

'Ha ha ha ha- your tears mean nothing!'
Restaurant critic famous for being rude 'is rude' to someone shocker

Scrambled to the next gig: AA Gill, which was a big draw for me, as I like the man’s writing- restaurant reviews, TV reviews; good God, the man must have Rupert Murdoch’s penile corona on a chain. Gill is by now the stuff of cannibalistic, media navel-gazing legend: the bromance with Clarkson, the cuffing from Ramsey, the fact that he can apparently bear Michael Winner, and so on. He wrote one of the best food review lines I can remember, and frankly that’s rare.*

But he wasn’t there to talk about all that- this was an education festival. He was there to talk about Dyslexia, of which club he is apparently a member. No, I didn’t know that either, and of course the irony of one of Britain’s most celebrated wordsmiths emerging from what most schools would probably call the Literacy Nurture group, escapes no one, least of all Gill, who dictates all his work. (As Bernard Manning once said, ‘Can I use your Dictaphone?’)

We were in the Driver Lecture Theatre, which looked like a set from a Bronte period drama, and it filled up fast. There was a pause as the previous session over ran, and when the tardy first speaker left he brayed at us, ‘Was I running late?! Why weren’t you all at my session?!!!’ Satisfyingly, no one laughed. Gill arrived, escorted to the premises by the sort of strapping sixth form girl that the Daily Mail puts on the front page on exam results day; a minute before I had seen him accosted by a geyser of a woman, and all I could hear was the phrase, ‘You’ve no idea how much you’ve made my day by meeting you...’ before I passed on by. 

Reminded me of a story I heard about Dean Martin: a lifelong fan sees him in a bar, and goes over, gushing about how fantastic he is, and how thrilled he is to meet him. After a few minutes of fawning, the fan adds, ‘I have so much respect for you,’ to which Martin relied, ‘Buddy, save a little for yourself.’

It was odd to see him: he looks exactly like his by-line, sort of tanned and imperishable, as if he and Cliff Richard made a deal one day with Old Splitfoot (only Cliff stopped feeding the meter). He also exuded the calm, commanding ease of a man who knows he writes a fabulously well paid and well-read series of columns, the bastard. And he was wearing exactly the same linen suit as me, although I suspected that there was a margin of several zeros separating my tailor (the famous Jewish designer ‘Emandess’) from his (something unspeakably unique and unpronounceable, I imagine). I was right at the front, and whenever he stopped to think, or for effect, he invariably stared at the spot on the floor where my frayed hem dragged. I’d like to think he was using it as a mandala.

But he was very, very good- polished, and funny of course. He was the first person at the festival I heard drop the F-bomb, although I gather that Geldof would be along later to rectify that deficit. And of course, the first person to swear always gets a laugh. But he was good: honest, most of all- about his traumatic experience of well-meaning but useless education; honest about the limits of his own expertise in the field ‘I’m not here,’ he said right at the start, ‘As an expert in dyslexia. I don’t have the answers for you,’ he said candidly, and for once I thought, thank God, a non-educationalist who doesn’t think he’s got the magic bullet for us all. Thank God.

He talked about how school was great fun- ‘I got laid and smoked drugs,’ he reassured us- but that it was mostly useless for him academically. About how his working life subsequent to school was a patchwork of jobs and incongruity, until he stumbled into the Sunday Times. If people were looking for stories of hope and inspiration, they were barking up the wrong tree; if they had come to find out what education should do to cater for dyslexic children, the cupboard was similarly bare. Like I say, it was refreshing; he didn’t claim to be a guru, or a swami of kids that don’t read real good, like Derek Zoolander. No, he was just here to tell us all how his education was a bit rubbish, make a few wry comments about it, and flash his immaculate, slightly terrifying gnashers at everyone.

And he certainly wasn’t there to provide moral succour for anyone. One Yummy Mummy put her hand up during the Q&A and introduced herself as ‘His biggest fan,’ or something similar, and I could feel Cathy Bates floating around the room. She had a large book stuffed with writing and loose leaves of paper which even at my angle and distance I could tell was some kind of journal. She then proceeded with another one of those questions. Now I should point out that Gill had spent a good five minutes deboning and gutting what he described as ‘those bloody parents he meets all the time’ who in his opinion, did more harm than good for the dyslexic child by making them feel like they were causing all the problems in the family by being different (or special needs, as I believe Satan describes it). And she seemed, it must be said, like an avatar of that species.

She went on nervously for a minute; but Gill wasn’t Birbalsingh, and frankly wasn’t in the mood for it. He probably had a yacht to christen or something later on. ‘Do you understand the difference between a statement and a question?’ he asked sweetly, and the woman looked as if she’d been punched in the ovary. ‘Er, yes,’ she went on, before resuming her monologue about how her son was just like that, and he really understood, and so on. It was sad, because I could feel her yearning to do the right thing, to help her son, whoever he was, and to be the best mother. She didn’t want to be the smother mother, and she adored- and let me make this clear, she adored Gill. Perhaps she saw in him the future success that she hoped her son would be, winning, despite insurmountable odds. Well, whatever she thought, Gill wasn’t playing to her script.

‘You don’t understand the difference, do you?’ he said, or words similar. It got a laugh, because it was funny, and with a straight woman slightly more sturdy it would have passed with ease. But she wasn’t sturdy; she was a bundle of expectation, star-struck, excitement and need, and she fumbled with her notes, as if the question was there, and then she said, ‘I used to really like you,’ in a small voice. ‘Oh, I’ve lost what I...what I was going to say.’ 

And then she started to cry.

Nobody knew where to look. Well, Gill bloody well did: somewhere else. ‘Oh dear,’ he said, ‘That was rude, I didn’t mean it like that,’ he smoothed, before taking the next question as the poor woman put herself back together. It would have taken the heart of a restaurant critic not to feel a little sorry for her, but my sympathy is tempered by pragmatism: here is a man renowned for acerbic, caustic, sardonic, laconic, often misanthropic honesty and sarcasm. He is not, as far as I can see, a poster child for the WWF, or a member of the Care Bears. He is a funny, and honest, and clever and sarcastic and sometimes a bit mean, and that it the creature he is. To expect him to be the celebrity role model that inhabits your expectations is to have an unrealistic relationship with people simply because you read their writing and think that you know them, or worse, they know you, in that way that teenagers often dream that were they meet their celebrity crushes, they would be really great friends in real life.
I saw him in the Master’s Lodge just afterwards; so I thanked him for a great session and then buggered swiftly off before he commented on my cheap suit or something. I like to think that if we knew each other in real life, we’d be great friends.

The Horror, the horror

'Does this library make my junk look big?'
Finally, it was lunch and then off to another of the Big Beasts of the day: David Starkey, who was late, as befits his position of Grand Matriarch of Ye Olden Times,  and who has a vocal delivery as if everything he says is the coda to some devastating comeback. We sweated and waited in the Marquis, despite its extensive vents and gussets. On he hobbled, apologetic and infirm, having just had an operation to amend one of his club feet; as a result, he had to remain seated throughout his speech, and his injured foot was supported high by a small foot stool, a position which regrettably opened the span of his legs rather indecently into what resembled a collection of boiled shallots gathered in a small linen pouch. In spotlight. Oh, the humanity. 

It was an ignoble way to display one of our national treasure’s national treasures, and if the Sun does sponsor the Festival next year, I hope they’ve got a tent for budgie-smuggling academics along with the thinking man’s crumpet sessions. Phew, wotta scorcher!

His content was familiar, if you’ve heard him speak on the subject before, but always, always eminently listenable. As someone who makes a living speaking in public, to rather less slavish audiences, I have enormous respect for people who can talk lucidly and methodically on a topic for forty five minutes without making it insufferably narcissistic or simply dull. Starkey’s tour of the history of education, intermingled with his own personal history was fascinating. Before the session, I was deeply suspicious of anyone who pontificates about education without having had any experience other than their own in schools; mainly because it means that people end up talking rot about matters they have no expertise in (see: every minister since Pitt the elder, most educational consultants, Tony Blair), but for once with D-Stark I conceded that, from the point of view of class, history and the development of state education, he knew his onions (which were in  plain view, as I mentioned, winking evilly at everyone. In the hot clammy tent, I felt a cold chill).

But his analysis rang a resonant chord with me- coming from a relatively poor working class background as he did (we were regularly reminded) he defined the difference between the aspirant working class, and the lumpen proletariat- the deserving poor, one might say, versus the Chav. I liked how he tackled topics (and terminology) like that head on, with fearless academic rigour, unashamed to explore differences in need and desire among the working class communities. He is often depicted as a slavish lap dog to middle class values, entranced by the legends and myths of nobility; I would say that his vision for social mobility was more realistic than most: pupils from areas of unemployment and poverty need rigour, boundaries, and structure in their lives, to enable them to achieve the opportunities that otherwise appear invisible to them in society, and that if we want all children to have a fair chance at success, then we need to realise that some children need more boundaries than others, because sometimes they’re not getting them at home. 

After the speech he was whisked away in a car, presumably to some fabulous Tudor feast where swans were served in apple-butter, garnished with the eyelashes of virgin Harts and skewered on the horn of a unicorn, I’d like to think, but not before he was interviewed for the Sunday Times Film crew (who, I’d like to point out, appeared to have got lost on the way to my session. Just thought I’d mention that). They put to him the following question; ‘How would you improve education?’
And he, without missing a heartbeat, answered, ‘Get rid of all the faculties of education in every University.’ Say what you mean David, don’t hold back. His reasoning was that the proliferation of progressive thinking so popular in the early 20th century, had resulted in the creation of a kind of dogma, where traditional ideas of behaviour and curriculum had been displaced in favour of spurious, fanciful ideologies that actually destroyed the ability of education to educate.

David, you had me at ‘Get’. 

He’s probably off his dwarven trolley to want to abolish them , but then, he never shied away from going to DefCon 5 with his opinions. 

And after that, that was that. I’d like to say that I stayed for Geldof and Ferguson, but unlike the vast majority of speakers at the festival, I am actually a full time teacher in a full time state school (rather than a famous dilettante or a representative of a multinational conglomerate of educational suppliers), and I have a very real job to do, so I naffed off. It was, I must say a terrific, if exhausting experience. Besides I wasn’t sure what the lead singer of the Boomtown rats was going to be able to tell me about teaching children, so I took a gamble that I could miss it and live. I heard he was a great speaker, but then, the train home to a world of Film4 and lasagne was pretty great too. BBC News phoned to ask me if I could do a slot on the teacher strike when I got home, but I was too shattered to think of heading over to Shepherd’s Bush at nine o’clock so I declined. The great educational media machine ground on without me, and the world was probably a better place for it.

*’The food was terrible. It was the opposite of food. It was doof.’


  1. A very entertaining read Tom.

    However "punched in the ovary" I think is a rather bizarre choice of words for AA Gill's victim. It suggests to me sexual violence and would be impossible anyway I believe!

    Will (try to) punch you in the seminal vesicle next time I see you!

  2. Ach, I wis only kiddin'. Ovary wis an elaborate metaphor a' patriarchy or somethin' else from Dworkin.

    First comment: starts with a compliment and ends with a blood curdling (and specific) threat of assault. I need to get out less.


  3. Ah, Law. Just twigged. Feel slightly safer now :)

  4. I believe Mr Bennett is just making a harmless pop culture reference to "Anchorman".

    Cos he's TOTES down with the kids.

  5. Great read as always. Slightly jealous that you met David Starkey! Looking forward to the next installment.

  6. Oh, I didn't meet him; just cowered before his mighty apparatus.

    I really am talking far too much about David Starkey's balls.

  7. I have enjoyed your weekend roundup TB.

    I especially liked your salient highlighting of THOSE people who turn up and don't ask a question.
    They put their hands up to ask a question.
    But, they don't.

    THEY were infuriating.
    THEY were everywhere.

  8. Perhaps!
    You are becoming a regular go-to guy for the BBC though. They may even ask you in when the staff go on strike! :)

  9. A3: Sorry, was there a question there?

    Cheers. T

  10. There's always a question.
    It's just I've hidden it.
    Inside a soliloquy about myself.

    It's a special challenge for you to find.

  11. Tom, I think we were at many of the same lectures at the Festival of Education. Totally agree with the question/CV reading confusion. Perhaps a short blast of orchestra to signify time's up, similar to Oscar acceptance speeches would suffice? I'm certain there'd be a spare orchestra or two knocking about at Wellington.
    This is a great read and had me chuckling throughout.
    Cheers. S

  12. Thanks Sarah. I think that there should be someone blowing an enormous comedy hooter.


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