An Inspector Calls…

On Wednesday, Bedales held an education conference as part of its series of ‘leading independent thinking’ events. Two years ago the subject was innovative education, whilst this one focused on leadership. These are, arguably, the two most important facets that the ‘industry’ needs to address in the early 21st century, a time when traditional educational models seem to be breaking down and the respective authorities seem unwilling, too-slow or even incapable of making the changes required – a theme that very much came out of the day.

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Sir Michael Wilshaw

Kick-started by a keynote address from Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the title of this year’s conference was ‘Liberating Leaders’. The day was designed for people across both age ranges (student and teacher) and did what it said on the tin! At least that’s my experience given that, writing this the next day, I now find myself feeling a breeze of liberation which has seemingly put me on a track that I was struggling to find.  This article is the first of several, in it I will provide an introduction to the day, the speakers and the initial effect on me. In later articles I will discuss the messages of each speaker, my thoughts and inspired actions.

As you may have guessed, Bedales, a school with a long history of innovation, did not stick to the educational-conference norms, with one speaker pointing out that this was the first one she had been to that involved students as well as teachers. Later in the day, the conference split into two programmes, with the students splitting off to take part in leadership workshops. They later re-joined us for the educational debate. Below is a brief account of each adult session.

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That knighted rebel, Sir Michael Wilshaw, started the programme of events and called for more “Mavericks” in state education. He defined ‘Mavericks’ as being extraordinary, flamboyant, colourful and slightly strange characters. Characters have long been a traditional facet of the independent sector but largely lacking in the state sector. He went on to give examples of what sort of characters these Mavericks might be, giving several real life examples from his own experience (he’s a lucky Knight to have been exposed to such a rarity).  He then went on to talk about the ‘act’ that these Mavericks need to put on, to facilitate a good education.  However, I got the sense that Mike’s idea of a good education is different to mine. For him, it seems, a good education is about tradition, imperialism, discipline to authority, GCSEs and A-levels, and this is where the Mavericks in him and me vary. Mike is, what I would class, a pseudo-maverick, a traditionalist who uses un-orthodox measures to achieve orthodox aims, whereas the Maverick in me is less of an oxymoron. I am the type of Maverick who believes current education is inadequate and that we need major changes in-line with the modern world, instead of measures that attempt to hold on to imperialistic values of a once ‘great’ Britain. Thankfully the room was largely full of delegates who had a similar vision to mine, as final questions and Twitter revealed. Moving on we heard from some other Mavericks who are doing great things in schools.

Firstly, two scholars from the States (where education is much less restricted by government) gave two extremely inspiring talks about their Maverick journeys. Barbara Oakley talked about her inspirational story in education and ‘learning to learn’, turning academic research into tangible metaphors, thus delivering exemplary content. Danielle Harlan gave some entertaining anecdotes with strong and powerful underlying messages that have helped shape her into the Maverick leader she has become. In her second year of teaching, she was able to get her Special Educational Needs (SEN) class up to either the peer-group’s grade or above, simply by redesigning the curriculum in small but measurable increments.

Bill Lucas tweetAfter lunch, complete with Bedales sausages, focaccia, chilli chutney and onion jam – all produced by the Outdoor Work department – we heard from Bill Lucas -a Maverick, pioneer and founder of the Expansive Education Network. It seems to me that Bill’s contributions to education already surpasses the Knight’s, but whilst Bill was involved in British education during Labour’s tenure, the Conservatives have sent him to the ’naughty corner’. Nowadays, or rather nowayears and despite being based at Winchester University, the Welsh Government is the only political force in the UK that seems to value him; internationally, he is dealing with the Australian Government as well as many other schools around the world, including England! Bill gave his 14 top tips for improving future education that left me dreaming of a rational world in which our political leaders understood the needs of the people.

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Keith Budge and Geoff Barton welcome Mike Fairclough to the stage

Next, we heard from three Maverick Headmasters, two from the state sector: Geoff Barton and Mike Fairclough, as well as Bedales’ own, Keith Budge. Geoff, who bravely called Ofsted a “Monster”, took to the stage first. It was a shame that Sir Mike had already left the building, as I feel he needed to hear Geoff’s extremely good argument about the problems of Ofsted’s model of inspection and the bullish role it has in education. But I doubt Geoff would have had much of an impact, the Government does not always respect the opinion of stakeholders such as professional educators – as Gove proved with his A-level reforms. Moving on, Mike Fairclough’s story was my favourite, he is so Maverick he’s off the scale! With his innovative school, containing a farm and a Bronze Age site, where they make arrow heads, use paddle boats, learn country management skills and have a partnership with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that aims to dispel media health and safety myths (how ironic that HSE takes more of a supportive role than Ofsted). But what really brought a tear to my eye was the fact that this was done on a council estate, a demographic in which education is known to fail. Finally, and being left short of time, Keith concluded the talk by discussing the recent innovation that is the Bedales Assessed Course (BAC), giving the audience an insight into the history of the BACs, what they have taught Bedales, and our future aspirations for them.

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Education panel

To close, there was an educational panel debate involving Keith, Geoff and four students: Flora and Charlie from Bedales and two girls from King Edward VI School. I must say I was particularly impressed by the ability of all four students to talk intelligently and respond so well and quickly to questions they had only just heard. The debate was not only a nice close to the day but also highlighted to me just how lucky I am to be able to work in an institution that creates free, open-minded and independent adults – something we do here, we are certainly doing right.

View speaker’s biographies and presentations from the conference here.

By Scott Charlesworth, Teacher of Chemistry