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Festival of Education Update – Can we Measure Progress? Are we Testing too Much? Must we Listen to Piers Morgan?

Helen Mulley reports from Wellington College where Professor Becky Allen, Tom Sherrington, Debra Kidd, Sir Michael Wilshaw and others have been weighing in on all things education...

  • Festival of Education Update – Can we Measure Progress? Are we Testing too Much? Must we Listen to Piers Morgan?

The sun is shining benevolently on red bricks and white canvas alike; impossibly well-groomed, polite and confident young men and women are strolling around the campus, making me feel somewhat inadequate (even more so because I’m pretty sure they’d be mortified if they knew – they all seem so nice); and I’m trying to decide between 20 or so options available to me for the next session (and work out if I’ve got enough time to get to the front of the coffee queue before it starts).

Hold on to your free canvas tote – it must be Festival of Education time again!

Opening acts – Comedy and Piers Morgan

Held, as usual, in the insanely gorgeous buildings and grounds of Wellington College, this is a festival that’s never afraid to make the most of its connections.

We’ve already heard from comedian Naz Osmanoglu, an ex-student who opened the event with a stand-up slot which defied both the early hour and the fact the most of the audience were still traumatised from battling the Ascot traffic (“Any racists in the audience? Oh, that’s good…”), and Piers Morgan, who was very keen to let it be known that his son is currently being educated here – clearly, as usual, the Master’s contacts book must have come in jolly handy while the programme was being finalised.

Becky Allen – Making progress?

Choosing which session to attend for each of the day’s five slots is always something of a headache – not to mention a gamble – however, I reckon I made a good call in putting an asterisk by Prof Becky Allen’s talk, ‘What if we cannot measure progress?’ for my first selection.

Director of the Centre for Education Improvement Science, UCL Institute of Education, Allen is an engaging and hugely convincing speaker, and deftly used the massive amount of data she has at her disposal to demolish the notion that making comparisons between one-shot assessment can ever prove that a student has genuinely ‘made progress’.

Tests are, at best, “noisy measures of attainment”, she pointed out; using single results to plot students – and schools – on a performance-and-improvement graph actually tells us very little about their ability and effectiveness respectively. “A year ago, I thought we knew what we were doing with progress,” she mused. “Now, I’m not so sure.” Still, at least no one’s job depends on progress measures, eh? Oh, hang on…

More Piers Morgan, but with Sir Michael Wilshaw

I do try and resist the more ‘starry’ sessions at the Festival – but having managed to avoid Piers Morgan last year, I thought I should probably make the effort to see him in conversation with Sir Michael Wilshaw.

The pair certainly seemed to get on well, chummily ranting about how Love Island is a sign of everything that’s wrong with our country (a point smartly contradicted when questions were invited from the floor, by Times education editor Rosemary Bennett, who was rewarded with the most enthusiastic applause of the day thus far as a result), and the curse of “lazy parents” [Morgan] who “don’t give a monkey’s about their children’s education” [Wilshaw].

However, they parted company on the issue of whether or not Wellington College represents the best schooling our country can offer – with Morgan taking every opportunity to remind the audience just how much money he’s giving our hosts each year, and Sir Michael suggesting that the next Festival should take place at an inner London comp, where they really know what they’re doing.

The former Ofsted chief also argued that parenting should be put on the curriculum; that we need more ‘characters’ in teaching; and that Michael Gove will “go down as one of the great Education Secretaries”. I am looking forward to hearing Amanda Spielman this afternoon.

The big debate – ‘Too much testing?’

For the final session of the morning, I sat in on a panel debate, chaired by Laura McInerney (“Trump isn’t funny this week” I heard her warn the panellists earnestly, off microphone, whilst they waited for the audience to take their seats), in which Martyn Robinson, Tom Sherrington, Debra Kidd and John Cloughton discussed whether there is ‘too much testing’ in UK schools.

Nothing startlingly new or original emerged from the conversation, in truth, with everyone pretty much agreeing that tests are very useful indeed for teaching and learning, but problematic when they become too tied to accountability, and start to drive curriculum design.

Tom Sherrington did make an interesting point about the values we attach to summative assessments, though. “We need to get over this idea that it’s somehow a national scandal when 50% of students come in the bottom half of the list of results,” he observed; why on earth should a grade 4 (or 5, depending on who is Education Secretary this month) be a ‘pass’, and anything below that, a ‘fail’?

And finally…

On the menu for lunch: a chicken Caesar wrap (for a fiver). On the menu for this afternoon: Geoff Barton on ‘the next phase of educational leadership’; Amanda Spielman, presumably talking about banning mobile phones; and another panel debate, called ‘teachers’ perspective: what really matters?’ – which, from the title alone, I’m hoping might turn out to be the most important session of the day…

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