Where are the dangerous ideas in education? Go to the Dangerous Ideas Festival to find out…

The topics and speakers at the Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times festival, taking place this coming Friday and Saturday in London, set me wondering about where the dangerous ideas are in education.

The festival’s main focus seems to be political issues. Leading political commentators like Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, Owen Jones, Danielle Obono, and Laura Penny are talking about a whole host of vital topics: the austerity cuts, the media’s attack on benefit claimants, the Palestinian and Middle East crisis, the current direction of the Left, and capitalism’s stake in warmongering.

There’s an education panel too which is entitled “Fighting Gove from playpen to PhD: imagining a better education system”: John Westmoreland, Henry Parkyn Smith, Alex Kenny and Faduma Hassan are speaking. Gove has thrown down a gauntlet to the Left. Putting aside his inflammatory rhetoric about Marxists and “enemies of promise”, most would agree that the most radical and dangerous thing he’s done is to increase the marketisation of education, which, as has been many times discussed on this site, has exacerbated unfairness in our education system and the wider society. And yet, I can’t help thinking that the Left has possibly misplayed its hand by being overly negative in its response. Perhaps it could respond more creatively. For example, while I don’t agree with the overall policy of free schools, I can’t help thinking that if the unions did set up their own free schools this could be a place where good practice could be modelled. Or perhaps if they’re not keen on this, as Fiona Millar has suggested, a blueprint for co-operative schools could be established and put forward as a proper alternative. Is more nuance and less posturing required?

I like the way some artists have responded to the dangers of these dangerous times. The event that I’m really interested in going to is ‘Culture Shock! Artist as Activist’, at 6pm on Saturday,  which Peter KennardCat Picton Phillipps, and Season Butler are appearing in. It seems to me that these artists are responding creatively to the difficulties of our current political situation by questioning existing hegemonic structures connected with gender, money, social class, politics, privilege and, of course, education. And they’re doing it in a really thought-provoking, hard-hitting and witty fashion. I love this photograph which forms part of Season Butler’s art work:


This is a performance installation which has the sub-heading:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats for a gentle disaster for two. Three courses, three times a night. It will be our pleasure to serve you.”

The humorous, oblique approach offers a powerful critique of the customer/salesperson relationship, and made me think of the ways in which teacher identity is being re-configured in these days of rampant capitalism. We are becoming like waiters to our pupils, who in the neo-liberal, free-market model of education are like customers expecting to be served up good grades on a plate. Art is unique in the ways which it can undermine the dominant ideologies of an age; I think it’s no coincidence that the current government has been so determined to downgrade its importance in the school curriculum.

I think it’s only by forging a new aesthetic way of thinking that we’ll really start to think of truly dangerous ideas about education. Education is really so much more than school. I gave a talk about this at the Goldsmiths graduate festival; as part of my PhD in Creative Writing and Education I’ve been trying to formulate a theoretical framework for developing what I call “aesthetic education”, that is an educational approach which fosters a love of life and beauty, which engages not only the intellect but the body.

You can watch the whole talk here if you’re interested.



About talesbehindtheclassroomdoor

Francis Gilbert was born in 1968 and grew up in Cambridge and outer London. He attended local primaries and the local comprehensive as a child, before being moved to a private school when he was twelve. He read English at Sussex University, achieved a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education at Cambridge University in English and Drama, and an M.A. in Creative Writing, where he was taught by Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. Since the early 1990s, he has taught in a number of comprehensives in London. He has held numerous positions of responsibility and has taught all ages in the secondary sector. He currently juggles being a parent, partner, writer, teacher and researcher in the east end of London. His latest project is his PhD in Creative Writing and Education that he is doing at Goldsmiths College, London under the supervision of the writer Blake Morrison and Professor Rosalyn George. He published I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here in 2004, which went to become a best-seller and serialised on Radio 4. After that, Teacher On The Run (2005), Yob Nation (2006), Parent Power (2007) and Working The System (2009), and a novel, The Last Day Of Term (2011) followed. Having once been a proponent of “privatising” education, he has changed his position now that a mass of evidence has accumulated showing it doesn’t improve standards overall. He is a founder member of The Local Schools Network, which aims to support and celebrate the achievements of local state schools. His personal blog is: http://www.francisgilbert.co.uk Local Schools Network: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk Twitter: wonderfrancis Contact: sir@francisgilbert.co.uk
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