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 @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing (fgipublishing.com) which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network, www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, www.francisgilbert.co.uk. He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.
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