This was my second year at The Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College, which David Willets described as ‘the Hay-on-Wye of education’. This perhaps goes some way to explaining why I feel so uncomfortable at both, surrounded a horde of the self-identified cultural and educational elite of Britain.
But aside from the terrible coffee and the appalling food queues, what really gets on my goat is the waste of the small number of truly brilliant people they manage to attract each year.
The worst failure today was the missed opportunity to leverage the amazing Professor Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders. I doubt there was a smarter or more influential educator in the whole of Europe today, let alone in the leafy surrounds of Berkshire. When I looked up her biography afterwards, I wasn’t at all surprised to see that by 18 she already held a Masters degree or that aside from Coursera where over 4m students are currently studying, she is a wife, mother and also finds time to be the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University.
Yet here was this educational Colossus, at what is supposedly a major educational thought leadership event, addressing an audience about 50 (including a young child playing Minecraft on her iPad) in a theatre that can hold 360! What she had to say was riveting not just in terms of the science and practice of learning, but will likely have a profound impact on education, at every level, in every nation for decades to come.
Her presence may be testament to the connections and skills of the festival organisers, but what she had to say merited being heard at the highest level; and by this I mean not Michael Gove or David Willets, but possibly by a joint session of Parliament. And if the media really were interested in education (as opposed to the banality of educational politics) then everyone from the BBC, Sky, ITV and the FT, down to the lowliest educational blogger (like me) would have mobbed her like a film star at Cannes.
The failure to give someone of Professor Koller’s stature the appropriate platform to help shape the thinking about UK education, is exactly what I saw last year, when the heads of three US state education systems were given just five minutes each to outline how they had transformed their schools. What they attempted to explain has huge relevance, because in 15 minutes what they outlined was how their programmes of fundamental educational change had not been driven by policy, politics or educational research, but disasters, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the collapse in property tax revenue (which pays for much of US education) following the 2010 global financial crisis.
So it’s not the sub-standard catering or attendees that I don’t like about The Sunday Times Festival of Education, it’s the opportunity cost of burying a tiny number of extraordinary speakers in a bloated programme of mediocrity!