The Sunday Times Festival of Education held at Wellington College on 20-21 June, provided a rather clever blend of both serious and engaging debate on key educational issues. There were presentations, workshops, displays and networking along with light entertainment by various people including many talented musicians from Wellington College. The whole event created a dynamic and buzzing environment, where politicians, education experts, celebrities, researchers, school leaders and teachers, parents and students could come together to share a common interest.

After a fascinating series of debates on Day 1, I enjoyed a quick coffee in the College’s V&A Café, before the much anticipated Q and A session with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. Despite a crowd peppered with discontented teachers, Mr Gove boldly acknowledged the impact of recent policies and defended those which had clearly caused upset amongst the ranks. Although his plain speaking and honest answers were not particularly well received by a number of aggravated teachers, working at the coalface of our education system, personally I thought he did pretty well at explaining why his radical changes were needed.  He gave no apology for holding underperforming teachers and schools to account, while readily praising those who have done a great job.

The Festival’s debates and workshops were open to visitors, with opportunities to discuss themes on curriculum, sports, the arts, technology and a whole lot more, in a variety of locations around Wellington’s phenomenal grounds, conference rooms, theatres and magnificent halls. There was a great sense of collaboration in all the talks I attended and a refreshing openness and sense of purpose. Ideas were shared and debated for the common good. Despite the perennial arguments separating the state and independent sectors, the event was a shining demonstration of Wellington’s commitment to reminding the sector that, in fact, we’re all in education together for the same reasons.

I saw four former Secretaries of State at the Festival; Kenneth Baker, Estelle Morris, David Blunkett and the much awaited, (late, due to bad traffic apparently) Michael Gove. Estelle Morris and David Blunkett engaged in a fascinating and rather funny talk on their time in office, discussing what went right and what went wrong.

Other highlights of the day for me included listening to Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI and Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key who gave a report on their survey findings about what schools leaders, Heads and Governors, really think of the state of the Education sector.

Joe Nutt, Educational Consultant and author, gave a talk on the reforms he believes are necessary in the education sector to improve teaching. Kenneth Baker, ex Secretary of State and John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI engaged in a discussion about the sector and what they would do were they in Gove's shoes. 

Later in the day I was fascinated to listen to John Murphy, CEO of Oasis Academy Trust & David Hayes, one of the Oasis Headteachers, speaking on inspirational school leadership in challenging times. They gave a real-life and vivid account of how to unite a community and raise sustainable standards in a failing school.

Having recently been working with Wellington College to recruit their new International Business Director to lead their overseas ventures, I was pleased to be invited to dinner with Sir Anthony Seldon at the end of the first day of the Festival, along with an eclectic and intriguing group of people who all contribute to Education in different ways. I enjoyed pre-dinner drinks with Dame Alison Peacock, (pictured with me above) Headteacher of Wroxham Primary School, who was awarded her Damehood this year for her services to education. Bizarrely, I then found myself sipping champagne with a childhood hero, TV presenter and author Johnny Ball who inspired generations of children to enjoy maths with his TV series ‘Think of a Number’.    

As delicious as dinner was, there was little time to relax. Sir Anthony kept us on our toes, asking for debate contributions from his guests. But who would want to simply focus on the food, as good as it was, when there are serious heavyweights in Education around the table, keen to discuss and debate. We heard from the likes of radio and TV presenters, authors, entrepreneurs, a slightly over-enthusiastic researcher and a really interesting contribution from Siva Kumari, the Director-General of the International Baccalaureate. Sir Anthony’s unique hosting style is entertaining and engaging, and clearly says ‘speak up for what you believe in’.

I believe that the Festival proved to be an outstanding forum for people to do just that. I will be there next year without a shadow of doubt.