events archive

Sunday Times Festival of Education

The Institute of Ideas is hosting a series of debates at this year's festival at Wellington College on 18 and 19 June.

2:00pm, Thursday 18 June 2015, Wellington College, Crowthorne, Berkshire, RG45 7PU

The Sunday Times Festival of Education, hosted by Wellington College, brings together the very best of education’s most forward thinking advocates, practitioners of change and policy makers.

This year, the IoI is hosting a series of debates on a wide range of subjects of interest to educators. Join us!

Thursday 18 June, 2pm

From Page 3 to Lads’ Mags: time to end the ‘top-shelf society’?

A special debate in the Student Zone Marquee
Earlier this year, the Sun newspaper dominated headlines when it seemingly dropped its controversial topless Page 3 girl – and generated even more when it reinstated the feature days later. The initial move was celebrated as a ‘victory for feminism’ by leading politicians and campaigners who argue that the presence of naked women in a newspaper (often featuring mostly male political and business figures) is an outdated display of sexism in twenty-first-century Britain. Their arguments are echoed by another campaign, Lose the Lads’ Mags, launched in 2013 by an alliance of two women’s rights groups, UK Feminista and Object. The campaign called on high-street retailers to withdraw lads’ mags and papers featuring pornographic front covers from their stores. The Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign argues that the ‘everyday sexism’ of Page 3 and of lads’ mags such as Zoo portray women as degraded sex objects and contribute towards normalising sexual violence against women. The campaign has had some success, with many university student unions forbidding the sale of publications on their campus outlets and major retailers including Tesco and the Co-op only permitting their sale in ‘modesty bags’ hiding their sexualised content.

Many, however, oppose such measures on the grounds of free speech: arguing that attempts to regulate what adults can look at and buy in shops is reminiscent of tactics employed by famous moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse, and that such measures reinforce the censorious idea that publications you don’t like should be banned. Some go further in their criticisms, arguing that campaigns such as Lose the Lads’ Mags hold a patronising view of the public, with women painted as passive victims of male sexual desires. They also raise questions about the connection between lads’ mags and violence against women. Yet while leading magazines such as Nuts or Loaded have gone out of business or rebranded in the face of competition from the less regulated content on the internet, both sides seem to agree that the ability to display such content in the public sphere is an important symbolic battle to be fought over society’s values.

Are lads’ mags degrading and harmful to women, or are campaigners exaggerating the impressionable views of the readers? Do calls to ‘lose the lads’ mags’ represent a plea for decency in the face of an oversexualised culture, or a prudish and censorious attack on sexual freedom? Is the content itself the problem or society’s seeming celebration of explicit material? Who should decide what is appropriate material to display in the public sphere? Has the rise of internet porn rendered debates around such publications obsolete or simply shifted the debate online?


Jessica Abrahams, journalist at Prospect magazine and a contributor to publications including the Guardian and the Telegraph
Kareem Belo-Osagie, IB student and scholar, Charterhouse
Dr Jan MacVarish, research fellow, Centre for Health Services Studies; founding associate, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury
Eleanor Mills, editorial director, The Sunday Times; chair of Women in Journalism
Ellamay Russell, columnist, spiked

David Bowden, associate director, IoI; arts journalist and critic.

Friday 19 June
All debates in the Old Gym
10am - Introduction to strand
Dr Alex Standish, lecturer in geography education, Institute of Education; member of the IoI Education Forum.

10:05 – 11:30am

Is teaching an art or a science? The great evidence-based education debate

Our national anxiety over the performance of our schools, and a desire to counter decades of educational fads and contradictory policy interventions, has fuelled an appetite for the certainty promised by evidence-based practice. There is increasing consensus that to be a good ‘practitioner’ (aka teacher) requires familiarity with the latest educational research because using the best data will allow us to draw reliable conclusions about how pupils learn and provide us with ‘actionable findings’ in best practice.

A myriad of initiatives aim to connect the educational research community with newly appointed internal school heads of research. A plethora of books featuring evidence-based tips and techniques that promise to produce predictable results are bestsellers; ResearchED conferences are sell-out, must-attend events. A much-cited paper by Dr Ben Goldacre argued that ‘which approaches work best’ should be embedded seamlessly into everyday activity in education. Staffrooms are expected to stay abreast of the latest research, to be familiar with the latest neuroscience breakthroughs, behavioural psychology theories and social sciences surveys. It is popular to cite high-performing Singapore (again) as a model, with Goldacre noting that ‘it is almost impossible to rise up the career ladder of teaching without also doing some work on research in education’.

This approach attempts to replace the allegedly subjective, unreliable art of teaching with an objective, measurable science of instruction. But some fear that this sidelines intangible factors that are key to good teaching, such as judgement, spontaneity, intuition, creativity and relationship-building. Sceptics note that education is a very human act, built on authentic encounters between real people. Surely no amount of evidence, however erudite, can anticipate every (unusual) circumstance in the classroom. What role is there for the individual classroom teachers’ experience of reading and understanding specific classes / student’s abilities and needs? Where is the room to adjust the lesson to accommodate the unexpected dynamic on that day with those particular kids?

Do teachers need to stop and ask what the research says when confronted with difficult situations, or should they trust their instincts, honed over time, even if the evidence contradicts it? Should teachers stop bringing their true qualities and personality traits (flaws and all) into classrooms or instead replace their all-too-human, sometimes erratic interaction with a toolbox of techniques? Some fear it is naïve to believe that evidence will empower teachers to make independent, informed decisions about what works. Perhaps ironically, as research across disciplines is growing, ever-changing, subject to correction, open to new findings, often contradictory and often commissioned by politicians, is it really more reliable than teachers’ own judgment? Or are the advocates of an evidence-based approach right to lampoon the romantics who defend teaching as an art as little more than defenders of an ‘anything goes’ defence of personal classroom fiefdoms? Is the art vs science debate a false dichotomy? Is there a scientific basis to the art of teaching?


Robert Coe, Professor in the School of Education and director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), Durham University
Tom Bennett, teacher; founder, researchED; author, Teacher Proof; columnist and blogger, TES
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, English teacher; PhD researcher, education, University of Cambridge; volunteer member of East London Science School project steering group.
Alistair McConville, deputy head, academic and director of teaching and learning, Bedales
Daisy Christodoulou, research and development manager, Ark Schools; author, Seven Myths about Education

Claire Fox, director, IoI; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze;  director, Battle of Ideas

12:15 – 1:30pm

Qualified or not? Qualified in what? The great teacher training debate

Between politicians, parents and policy-makers, argument is raging over what teachers need to be taught - or even if they need to be taught at all. On the one hand, initial teacher training (ITT) is moving out of universities and into schools. But more controversially, state-funded academies and free schools no longer need to demand Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) at all. It is argued that what is good enough for private schools should be open to all. However, Tristram Hunt has insisted that the rising number of unqualified teachers is seriously threatening standards - and slurring a bunch of nuns while he was at it. 

And yet, even if the infamous academic ‘blob’ who run the university teacher training courses no longer has a monopoly of defining what makes a good teacher - having drawn “gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory”, as Michael Gove would have it - this does not mean teachers are not under pressure to constantly upgrade their ‘key teaching skills’.  Regardless of rows over the pros and cons of QTS, there does seem to be consensus that teachers need to be on an endless treadmill of training courses, CPD accreditation and certification of competence on the job. The Coates Review, the Carter recommendations and the new College of Teaching seem to be focused on turning teaching into an evidence-based profession, with a new fashion that teachers must become active researchers. It would seem that the academic influence over teachers may simply be moving from teacher training to provision of ‘expertise’. Meanwhile teaching unions demand extra training to deal with a range of new social phenomena, from handling pupils relationship with new media (to deal with sexting and cyber bullying) to spotting would-be jihadis (via the new Prevent duty). The desire for further professionalisation is seen as a route to enhancing teacher authority. But is this simply a defensive search for a silver bullet to restore authority, a plea for recognition that is a distraction from the moral project of passing on a body of knowledge?

What balance should be struck between learning skills on the job and engaging with knowledge and theory about education? Do new teachers need to be taught how to engage with ‘evidence of what works’? What role should university departments of education play in the development of today’s teachers? Can teaching ever have a codified body of knowledge like other professions? Is there a danger that this hyperactivity around creating an evidence-based profession focuses too much on process at the expense of something else called ‘passion’ that cannot actually be trained at all? Should we embrace multiple routes into teaching or decide on one? And, more fundamentally, what really makes a good teacher? What do teachers need to know to do a good job?


David Weston, chief executive, Teacher Development Trust
Toby Young, associate editor, The Spectator; co-founder, West London Free School; author, What Every Parent Needs to Know
Philippa Cordingley, chief executive, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE)
Kevin Rooney, politics teacher and head of social science, Queen’s School, Bushey; member of the IoI Education Forum and the Battle of Ideas committee

Cara Bleiman, acting English coordinator and year two teacher at Arnhem Wharf Primary School; musician; member of the Battle of Ideas committee

2:15 – 3:30pm

‘Jihadi Janets and Johns’ made in UK classrooms? The great British values debate

The revelation that the so-called ‘jihadi brides’ were intelligent, resourceful ‘straight A’ pupils with bright futures ahead of them has sent shockwaves throughout schools in the UK. What on earth prompted London schoolgirls Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Sharmeena Begum to abandon their GCSEs and their families to sign up to the barbaric Islamic State? Sadly, their flight to Syria is not unique and fits into a pattern of clever, resourceful teenagers, educated in British classrooms, choosing to embrace a destructive system of values that represents the very antithesis of a Western way of life.

Inevitably, schools have been told they must do more to stop this trend. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act charges schools with a statutory duty to prevent youngsters from “being drawn into terrorism”.  Even nursery school staff and registered childminders must report toddlers “at risk of becoming terrorists”. School staff are to be given Prevent training, but what exactly does a young person “vulnerable to becoming involved in terrorism” look like? Jo Shuter, former headteacher of Mohammed Emwazi (‘Jihadi John’), notes he overcome his “adolescent issues” to become “a hardworking aspirational young man”, hardly obvious signs of a future brutal poster boy for Islamic State. Sharmeena Begum was just like any other 15-year-old: listening to Rihanna, dreaming of becoming a doctor and watching EastEnders. And based on the recent cases of the Syria-bound Hackney teenagers, perhaps the logical conclusion is that teachers should be suspicious of all smart GCSE pupils. Critics, such as the headteachers’ union, the NAHT, are uneasy with the new guidance and complain such interventions are heavy-handed and counterproductive, treating teachers as spies.

There are other problems, too. It is argued that by laying down what must be taught, the Act undermines the very democratic principles that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan demands every school actively promotes as ‘British values’. The ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, despite seemingly more hype than reality, has led to a series of ‘snap’ Ofsted investigations into schools in ‘mono-cultural areas’. But targeting schools serving predominantly Muslim communities, as well as Jewish and Christian schools, has led to fears of a witch hunt against faith schools. Other critics ask if there’s a tension between the active promotion of ‘British values’ and the delivery of an open, knowledge-based education. Is it even possible for schools to uphold values that are highly contested in society more broadly?

Some educators prefer to view events through the familiar prism of child protection and safeguarding, and see these young people as vulnerable, passive victims who were ‘groomed’. But do we really believe these bright young people were hoodwinked, and didn’t understand that Islamic State is associated with beheadings and burning prisoners alive? How do we explain why a significant minority of young Muslims have such hostility towards the societies in which they are reared and educated? What can schools do about it?

Frank Furedi, sociologist, author and social commentator; emeritus professor of sociology, University of Kent in Canterbury; books include Paranoid Parenting; Invitation to Terror and Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating
David Goodhart, chair of Demos’s Advisory Group; former editor and founder, Prospect magazine
Rania Hafez, senior lecturer in education and childhood studies, University of Greenwich; past chair, Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT); founder director, Muslim Women in Education
Mohsen Ojja, principal, Crest Academies, Neasden
Fiona Millar, columnist, Guardian, co-founder, Local Schools Network

Claire Fox, director, IoI; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze;  director, Battle of Ideas