Thought Leadership at Downe House

Downe House Academic Conference
Tuesday 13 June 2023

17 June 2023

On Tuesday 13 June, Downe House welcomed nearly 200 school leaders and teachers from across the UK to an Academic Conference about Maximising Pupil Progress, hosted at our beautiful campus near Newbury in Berkshire.

The event was a highlight in the UK’s educational calendar and provided outstanding examples of thought leadership across the schools sector. It featured two very high-profile keynote speakers from the world of education: the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for Schools, and Katharine Birbalsingh CBE, founding Headmistress of Michaela Community School in Brent.

Minister Gibb reflected on his long service within the Ministry of Education where he has been a consistent champion of high standards and expectations within schools. Delegates learned about his experience within the sector, as well as the government’s vision for its continued improvement. He explained how the recent emphasis on systematic phonics during the teaching of reading in the early years of school was the reason that the UK is now placed fourth out of 43 countries in terms of the reading ability of nine and ten-year-olds.


Katharine Birbalsingh delivered a passionate and characteristically contentious speech which had all the delegates gripped. She explained how the distinctive and traditional values and culture of her comprehensive school had resulted in her pupils achieving the highest Progress 8 (value-added) score in the country last summer – an astonishing and inspirational achievement, especially considering Michaela serves an inner-city area with a wide range of socio-economic challenges. She covered a wide range of topics in her 30-minute address, including her view that too many schools, including many independent ones, adopt “progressive” teaching methods and approaches when their pupils would benefit from a more traditional approach to lessons and knowledge acquisition.

Following the two keynote speeches, Nick Gibb and Katharine Birbalsingh took questions from the audience. Topics raised included how to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis that many schools are currently facing; the challenges and opportunities provided by technology and AI; and how schools can help parents by building a strong and distinctive ethos that all pupils and parents can buy into.

Around twenty of our Sixth Formers, including all our LVI politics students, also watched the two keynote speeches. They found them fascinating but remained behind afterwards to take issue with some of Ms Birbalsingh’s comments: they challenged her assertion that technology was being used too much in schools, and questioned whether the teaching methods at Michaela would suit some neurodiverse pupils.

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, Nicola Woolcock, who reported on the event in her paper on both Wednesday and Saturday (June 14 and 17) – see links below:

Teach children to disagree politely, say leading heads – from The Times, Saturday 17 June

Private schools obsessed with social justice, says Birbalsingh – from The Times, Wednesday 14 June

The Times also ran this leading article about the importance of schools advocating free speech to their pupils, which was a topic addressed by two of our guest speakers, Jane Lunnon (Head, Alleyn’s School) and Clare Wagner (Head, The Henrietta Barnett School):

The Times view on free speech in schools: Opening Minds – from The Times, Saturday 17 June

Ahead of the Conference, Birbalsingh said: “I am delighted to be supporting this Conference because it’s all about how, as teachers, we should be ambitious and bold with our pupils so that they reach their potential. It’s also wonderful that the event will bring together professionals from both the state and independent sectors; rather than focusing on our differences, this Conference shows that by working together and sharing our best ideas, it’s all pupils who benefit.”

A delicious lunch and afternoon tea for delegates were enjoyed in a summer marquee set within the historic ‘Cloisters’ area in the heart of the campus.

After lunch, delegates were then treated to a fascinating range of other breakout discussions, each of which was chaired by two 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:

Guests Speakers Topic of Discussion
Clare Wagner: Head, The Henrietta Barnett School, London
Jane Lunnon: Head, Alleyn’s School, London
Helping our pupils to find their voices
John Moule: Warden, Radley College
Ron Skelton: Headteacher & CEO, Broadway Academy, Birmingham
Building the culture and values of a school
Gemma Piper: CEO, Kennet Schools Academies Trust, Berkshire
Andrew Atherton: Director of Learning & Research, Downe House
Putting effective principles of learning into practice
Andrea Arlidge: Chief Executive, Futura Learning Partnership, SW England
Jaideep Barot: Chair Elect HMC & Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School
Governance: Learning across sectors
Mariella Ardron: Principal, Cheslea Academy, London
Charlotte Harmer: Head of Schools, Oppidan Education
Developing character through pupil leadership

It was such a pleasure to be the Conference organiser. At Downe House, we always aim to be outward looking and at the forefront of educational debate and discussion. Our Conference was another example of fascinating thought leadership. We are grateful to all the educational luminaries who came to Cold Ash on Tuesday 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 have received some wonderful notes of thanks from our delegates, including the following:

“Very thought provoking and inspiring Keynote speakers, particularly Katharine Birbalsingh. I didn’t agree with her recommendations for independent schools, but we all could learn from her leadership and I came away much better informed in a very interesting area.”

“A superb event with genuine opportunities for reflection. The break-out sessions were particularly imaginative in their scope. Faultless organisation.”

“It was a fantastic conference and we were exceptionally well looked after. Thank you to the whole team for organising two inspiring keynote speakers as well as many opportunities on the day to speak with other experts and colleagues across both sectors. The day was memorable.”

“Thank you for hosting such a wonderful conference yesterday. I found the day engaging, productive and thoroughly enjoyable.”

“Today’s keynote speakers were inspiring. I felt moved to consider all sorts of things in new lights (both in terms of schooling and in terms of parenting!).”

“Thank you so much for hosting such a brilliant event today – I found it extremely interesting and learned a lot.”

Mattew Godfrey smiles at camera


Mr Matt Godfrey

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