National Education Conference at Downe House

21 June 2024

In his latest blog post, Mr Godfrey (Deputy Head) writes his account of Downe House’s Academic Conference on the topic of Maximising Pupils’ Potential.

On Thursday 13 June, Downe House welcomed nearly 200 school leaders and teachers from across the UK to an Academic Conference about Maximising Pupil Potential, hosted at our beautiful campus. 

The event was a highlight in the UK’s educational calendar and provided outstanding examples of thought leadership. Our principal Keynote Speaker was Amanda Spielman, who was the UK’s longest serving Chief Inspector of Schools, at Ofsted, from 2017-23. 

In a wide-ranging and optimistic speech, Amanda touched on topical debates such as the use of AI in education and the changing world. “AI has the potential to remove children’s natural thirst for knowledge,” she said, going on to assert that humanity needs the all-important skills of knowledge and analysis, and that the challenge has long existed around preventing children from taking shortcuts.

“I remember reading I Robot, by Isaac Asimov,” Spielman recalled during her speech. “I think that perhaps more young people should read this and take inspiration from it,” she said. She pointed out that there are many positive impacts to the use of AI in education and argued that young people will all need a good foundation in maths up to 18 years to ensure they thrive in a future driven by technology. 

Ahead of the Conference, Amanda Spielman said: “I am delighted to be speaking at Downe House’s Conference. Ilook forward to talking about how we make sure children leave school ready to make the most of their lives.” 

Our second Keynote Speaker was the current Principal of Gordonstoun, Lisa Kerr. Lisa shared her own personal journey of entering the world of education. A musician, Lisa’s career spanned commercial media, transport, health, technology and the arts before being appointed Principal of Gordonstoun in 2016. The school has thrived under her leadership and in September this year she will take up the post of Principal at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, which is the UK’s largest single campus school, with around 2,400 pupils aged from 3-18. 

Lisa highlighted the importance of transferable skills in education and how her school has staff with skills across a variety of sectors. She argued that schools need to look beyond the traditional sphere of teaching when recruiting if they are to provide the right support in the future. 

Lisa Kerr said: “Downe House’s Conference is an excellent opportunity to reflect on how society is evolving and how educators can and should adapt to help our students succeed.” 

Our final Keynote Speaker was the leading businesswoman Jane Boardman OBE who talked candidly about young people, careers and job interviews from a corporate perspective. She spoke about the selection process for candidates and noticing an obvious shift towards acceptance of difference and generosity of spirit. She said that nurturing character development in children is vital as attitudes and approaches to working life are different today and that kindness and curiosity are important traits to have. A large group of Downe House’s Lower Sixth students benefited from a special Q&A session with Jane, who gave them excellent advice about how to prepare for and excel in the modern workplace.

The Conference attracted a great deal of attention across a variety of social media channels, and the national press. Several journalists attended, including the education editor of The Times and The Telegraph. Coverage also appeared in The Daily Mail and The Sunday Express. 

Former Ofsted chief: Why children need to learn to make and mend 

from The Times, Sunday 16 June 

Labour’s VAT raid on private schools poses ‘existential threat’, says Gordonstoun head  

from The Telegraph, Thursday 13 June 

The school provided a delicious lunch and afternoon tea for delegates in a summer marquee set within the historic ‘Cloisters’ area in the heart of their campus.  

After lunch, delegates were then treated to a fascinating range of other breakout discussions, each of which was chaired by an educational leaders, one from the state sector, and one from the independent sector. We were delighted that such a distinguished set of speakers agreed to contribute to the Conference. The speakers and their discussion topics are shown below: 

Daisy Christodoulou, Director of Education at No More Marking
Will Technology Transform Education? 

Professor Cassie Wilson, Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Bath
Ensuring Students Thrive at University and Beyond

Chloe Combi, Author, Speaker, Futurist & Researcher
Understanding the Mindset of the Next Generation 

Will Goldsmith, Head of Bedales
Reforming the Secondary Curriculum in the UK 

Downe House always aims to be outward looking and at the forefront of educational debate and discussion. This Conference was another example of fascinating thought leadership. As the organiser of the Conference, I am grateful to all the educational luminaries who came to Cold Ash to share their experience and expertise. Our host team here at Downe did an amazing job preparing our campus for this important event: it was looking fabulous on what was a lovely, sunny day.

We received some wonderful notes of thanks from our delegates, including the following: 

“The event was extremely well organised and the speakers were excellent – a good mix of experiences and knowledge. The pupils and staff who guided us were knowledgeable and friendly. Lunch in the marquee was a great time to network.” 

“In all honesty the Conference delivered on so many fronts. Not only for networking opportunities, seeing former colleagues and friends along with learning from industry leaders, educational experts and to discuss some weighty and worthy issues facing the independent sector and beyond.” 

“The quality of the speakers was fantastic. The best I have seen in many years of similar conferences.” 

“Incredible speakers. Lisa Kerr and Jane Boardman were particularly insightful and delightful to listen to.” 

“Thank you so much for the conference – thank you! It was really interesting and I will be taking it back to SLT and feeding back to Careers advisors and Head of Sixth Form.” 

“The Conference was very well organised and provided a wealth of valuable information and intriguing ideas. The sessions were insightful, particularly the discussions on educational reform and the impact of technology on education. They were thought-provoking and relevant.” 

“I thoroughly enjoyed the day and the networking opportunities. Downe House’s hospitality was outstanding, and I look forward to attending again next year.” 

“A fantastic conference. I would highly recommend!” 

“I really enjoyed the conference and it has re-sparked my interest in learning about how children learn and the pedagogical practices we can use to promote and make learning stick.” 

“Well done for organising such a brilliant day for all. Very inspiring and thought provoking.” 

Click to see our full photo album from the conference here:

Academic Conference 2024

Mattew Godfrey smiles at camera


Mr Matt Godfrey

Read more of our Deputy Head's blog posts

A flexible and modern approach – Full Boarding | Flexi Boarding | Day Pupil – what’s your Downe House journey?
Back to top