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The Tenth Anniversary Festival of Education at Wellington College Friday 21 June 2019

Updated: Aug 22

Wellington College hosts The Festival of Education each year

For the uninitiated, The Festival of Education is an annual event, held at Wellington College, consisting of a programme of talks, debates and new educational initiatives. Spread over two days, it includes the full spectrum of ideas across pastoral and academic teaching. In one sense at least it is very accurate in terms of the way it covers current pedagogy: much of it is very useful, but by no means all of it.

‘What happened when teachers stopped marking?’ asked Jason Lowe and Stuart Kime at 9.20am. Everybody has more time to plan and do their job properly without any detrimental impact on the students’ learning, I thought to myself. Still, I’ll go along anyway. For once I was right. Jason Lowe has trialled a whole school assessment and feedback policy featuring just four lines. The photograph is a little blurred and so I’ll quote:

  • No expectation for written comments or codes.

  • No expectation to do acknowledgement marking (ie ticking pages).

  • No expectation to evidence verbal feedback through stamps.

  • Expectation that most lessons include some form of feedback.

Jason Lowe with his marking policy

In an ‘outcome’ study over about four months the traditional marking style was compared to feedback without marking, including using visualisers to look at students’ work during the lesson for others to see - a sort of ‘live’ marking if you will. Then there’s ‘front end’ marking where the feedback from the mistakes made in the last piece of work is displayed before the students do the current task. Over the course of four months there was no difference in pupils’ attainment. In other words not marking made no difference either way to attainment. However, when the first cohort of GSCE students finished their exams the results were “very pleasing” by the standards of the school.

The Lowe model means that students are forced to think about their work critically instead of teachers making all the nuanced points at the end of students’ work. One parent at Lowe’s school questioned the new policy by asking whether there was evidence for adopting a ‘not marking’ policy. It struck me that no parent or teacher has ever asked in my presence what the evidence is that traditional marking works. We have just been programmed to think it does.

I was late for the next slot and so I entered the nearest room available at 10.10am: ‘Whole School SEND’. There’s a whole school SEND strategy which the Department of Education are overseeing. It attempts to integrate all schools, mainstream and non mainstream. There’s a website called Nasen and more teachers should look at it, not just SEND teachers. Dr Adam Boddison is at the forefront of this strategy. That’s all I got. Sorry.

At 11am a tweet came through from Owen Jones of The Guardian and I thought to myself, it is time for a debate with some left wingers. In the large performance arts centre at Wellington College, Rania Hafez ably chaired a tight forty minute debate: ‘Should primary schools teach children about LGBT relationships?’ Included on the panel of four was Sarah Hewitt Clarkson whose Birmingham primary school has suffered intimidation from angry parents over the issue. Luke Tryl, formerly of Stonewall, Judith Nemeth, an education consultant, and Zubaida Haque completed the panel.

Rania Hafez, Judith Nemeth, Sarah Hewitt Clarkson, Luke Tryl and Zubaida Haque on the panel of 'Should primary schools teach children about LGBT relationships?'

Clarkson was adamant that the Equality Act should be honoured irrespective of any parental views. We did not change, she explained, and the complaints emanated from parents who were assuming certain things about sex education at the school had changed. Haque was concerned that in a culture of rising ‘hate crime’ that the government needed to show more leadership by addressing insecurities about sex education. It sounded like the message here was that LGBT teaching is going to happen at primary schools, but we need to work out how to get parents to accept it. Luke Tryl felt that it was reasonable for primary school children to be taught of the existence of LGBT people, a point that confused me since people of faith acknowledge the existence of gay relationships at the point in which they say they are sinful. I think what he meant was, we will get all people to tolerate and accept all types of lifestyles. Judith Nemeth made the case that some religious parents are unhappy about their children learning an idea that runs contrary to the core beliefs of them as parents.

It seemed to me that a child who is taught to think critically will probably come to the conclusion that western society seems to have reached about LGBT: namely that people are different and that tolerance of difference is best. Where this doesn’t happen we still live in a democratic society in which people are entitled to hold view consistent with their religious conscience. What matters for equality is what the law says. In the end, though, I don’t really know what those Birmingham children have been told in sex education lessons.

Next I popped into, ‘In the age of hashtag me too how are schools tackling sexual violence and sexual harassment?’ Anna Cole and Rachel Krys outlined the new Department of Education guidelines to deal with sexual harassment in schools. The focus is very much on how children harass other children. This quickly translated into outlining what will happen to boys when they are accused of harassing a girl.

Meanwhile 64% of girls have reported sexual harassment at school.

The statistics are certainly frightening. There is, for instance, one rape a day in schools (I assume they meant UK schools). Meanwhile 64% of girls have reported sexual harassment at school. Furthermore, there was a slide which said that primary school children learn about sex through pornography. Included in the sexual harassment definition is a girl being called a ‘slut’, which might explain the high rate of complaints under sexual harrassment. I don’t know if a girl calls a girl a ‘slut’ whether that also counts as sexual harassment. The legislation attempts to deal with this by ‘protecting both parties’ in the case of an allegation. This could mean that schools may be obliged to keep two individuals apart during school (separate lessons and transport) in the event of an allegation. Parents could find themselves having to take their son into school so that he cannot meet his accuser on the bus.

The new guidance was at one point presented as “an antidote to Pornhub and Love Island”, although most people’s antidote to Love Island is the ‘off’ button on their remote control. At one point an anecdote described how a secondary school headteacher had attempted to deal with sexist behaviour by telling a mixed assembly that girls should wear longer skirts by way of contribution to resolving the problem. Whilst this headteacher announcement is undoubtedly ill advised the resulting invective against him (for just using words) sounded excessive. There was a lot to take in, and this included the way that criminal acts, such as rape, seemed to be discussed in the same way as "bra-pinging".

Government guidance is government guidance: if you want to stay in the profession you have to comply with it. Still, my personal opinion is that I dare not tell the several friends and family members I have, who are currently mothers with young children, what is in store for their children in a few years. These friends I have in mind would not know what MeToo is: they are far too busy bringing their children up to know or care. But when their beloved children (whom they love more than the children will ever love themselves) reach secondary school and find that teachers are investigating their adolescence to such a minute degree, I don’t think that anyone will thank the people who designed these policies. The gender war will not be fought between men and women, it will be fought between the contemporary feminists (as Cole and Krys described themselves) and the generation of mothers who will be nonplussed at why their sons and daughters are so suspicious of the opposite sex. I worry that this is the outcome: young men and women will be suspicious of each other. And their mothers will not, I predict, be happy about the new situation at all. In the ensuing gender war the contemporary feminists have forgotten that behind every accused male there’s a mother.

I needed something to lighten the mood so went into ‘Meaningful conversations: building relationships with your pupils’. This felt very much like the coaching sessions that are fast growing. You sit in a pair, you listen to each other and then you think about the conversation. Robin Chu, in my estimation, will never run out of energy or smiles. I always feel guilty when I come out of these sessions that I am not sentimental enough. If you met my family you would understand.

Goal-orientated questions in 'Meaningful conversations: building relationships with your staff and pupils'.

I finished the day with another interesting piece of empirical research. In ‘White working class boys: teachers matter’, researcher Mary-Claire Travers talked through her interviews, with white boys on free school meals, who had come through the education system with fine jobs and careers. On the whole white working class boys represent a low achieving demographic in education, with many receiving lower grades at GCSE. Her research looked at the reasons why some white boys, on free school meals, do well and the answers have something of use to everyone in teaching. These successful boys were influenced by a mother who took their education seriously. They also responded to high expectations from teachers, and there was evidence of a ‘Pygmalion effect’: talk to students as potential success stories and they will respond to the positive label, as much as they would a negative label. It struck me that in a high performing school there will be the irony of a quite bright student who feels like failure by virtue of the relatively high success around him or her. Travers has a book also called White working class boys: teachers matter.

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