Wellington College in Berkshire hosted its 13th Festival of Education

Sorting my schedule for the Festival of Education was problematic. There were eye-catching speakers like Eddie Izzard, Chris Packham and Will Self. But what about the fascinating workshops I wanted to sit in on too?

Sacrifices had to be made. Sorry Will and Eddie!

Artificial Intelligence, the topic of the moment, dominated the agenda in many marquees. Professor Miles Berry of the University of Roehampton, managed to flip fears that AI is a cheater’s best friend by enthusing about its potential as a study aid.

Over in the main auditorium the Chief Regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, said her bottom line was that AI can have a role in quality assurance but was miles off replacing humans.

As for digitising assessment, Dr Saxton favoured a mixed approach using the best traditional approaches with some added modern innovations.

But, she made clear “we are not getting rid of handwriting any time soon.”

Dan Fitzpatrick, author of The AI Classroom, was walking through the college’s woodland, when I gently asked what he thought the future held. Children’s schooling, he replied, in the medium to long term would be chosen subject by subject from a menu of online schools by their parents because the traditional education system will be disrupted by the speed at which AI is advancing. Wow!

A short stroll away in AQA Venue 4 Venue 4 Alex Scharaschkin of AQA brought AI back to earth by likening it to actors on Casualty – ‘they can learn to use the language of doctors and sound like a doctor but they can’t perform an operation.’ So true.

A couple of hours later Daisy Christodoulou of No More Marking took to the same stage to talk with AQA’s Reza Schwitzer. Like Scharaschkin before her, Christodoulou kept AI grounded, arguing that ChatGPT is not much of a time saver because it still makes so many errors.

As much as the future of education and AI is fascinating and one we all need to watch, I did take in other topics during the two days.

Autism and education was the theme of Chris Packham’s talk.

The Springwatch presenter told us of his time at school in the 60s and 70s with undiagnosed autism.

His compulsion for order left him battling classmates so he could sit on the exact same chair every time, and unsymmetrical shadows cast on the wall of another class left him discombobulated.

Details of Packham’s school life were, at times, uncomfortable listening but hopefully his sharing them means others will now look out for signs of autism he expressed as a child.

In a tent backing onto the college cricket field Amanda Moorghen of Voice 21 revealed trials of comparative judgement to assess oracy are producing reliable results. With further research this could open the door for oracy to be more widely used as an assessment tool.

I found myself the only man in the talk about women leaders by Parm Plummer of WomenEd. There I learnt that women account for 75% of the education profession but only 40% of heads. And, the gender pay gap in teaching is 23%. That should make everyone think.

Nirvana Yarger of The Edge Foundation Youth Network kept the session on Project Qualifications topical.

Just a couple of hours after Sir Keir Starmer announced that oracy skills were to be a key plank of Labour’s education policy, Nirvana suggested that Project Qualifications could deliver many of these ambitions

My final word has to go outgoing Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman. Speaking with Schools Week editor, John Dickens, Spielman said she was broadly happy with how she has gone about her job over the past seven years.

She didn’t think single word grades for schools were wrong – although she spotted Dickens’ trap question and refused to give herself a one-word grade!

Spielman’s advice to her successor was ‘listen to everybody and get to know about the things you don’t already know about.’

That short sentence sums up my experience at the Festival of Education.

Read More:
Estonia: A small country with big results
Extended Project Qualifications: A success story
A view from inside AQA's Student Advisory Group