A First Look at Ditchley

Lets be honest, who’s going to turn down an invitation to Ditchley House? It’s like being invited for a weekend at Downton Abbey. Ditchley’s history dates back to the 16th century when Sir Henry Lee, first owner of the Ditchley Estate, became one of the major courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I. The grounds, located in Oxfordshire, were once the site of a Roman villa and served as a royal hunting grounds and a weekend retreat for Winston Churchill during World War II, where he spent part of his time negotiating the Lend-Lease agreement with FDR. The place just drips history.

The pictures below show the main house and, inside, one of the many splendid rooms, the White Drawing room. The third picture is taken from one of the bedrooms and shows a portion of the handsome grounds surrounding the house.

In recent decades, Dtchley has served as an international conference center to examine ambitious topics.  This conference on modern education included delegates from England, Canada, Jordan, China, India, and, of course, several representatives from the United States. Participants include a Member of Parliament, a former member of the U.S. Congress, leading academics from Oxford and Cambridge, a columnist from Financial Times, and the long-time editor-in-chief of The Guardian.

Opening Discussion
The “Ditchley Rules” prohibit attributing comments or statements to individual participants, but a summary report will highlight the main topics of conversation. On the opening night, a roundtable of nearly 50 participants (below) engaged in a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that covered the waterfront from early childhood education, primary and secondary schools, and higher education and apprenticeships. Prominent themes included the two-track system for elites and the forgotten half, the challenges of inequality, funding inequities, the human effects of high-stakes testing, the emerging admissions scandal in U.S. universities, and the purpose of education, including the tension between assessment and accountability, on one hand, and developing whole human beings, on the other.
Following three hours of discussion, we adjourned for dinner and then a reception in one of the house’s great rooms (below).
On Friday, we are supposed to stop doing what did on the first day — admiring the complexity of the challenge in a large group — and turn to an even more intimidating task, working in three small groups to develop practicable and actionable steps to improve today’s schools.

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