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A test of character

February 12, 2014 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

It’s strange how ideas that have simmered in the policy undergrowth, sometimes seeming to have been totally extinguished, suddenly burst out like bush fire. A dedicated group of academics, policy makers, charities and educational practitioners have long argued for the importance of character development in children’s life chances. Over the last twenty years, as evidence suggesting the importance and teach-ability of character has grown, there have been flurries of interest from the political and media mainstream, but the respective reform models pushed by the last Labour Government and  Michael Gove either side-lined this agenda or positively worked against it.

We may look back on this week as unexpected tipping point with first the All Party Parliamentary Group report on social mobility and now, today, a speech on character by Labour’s thoughtful and self-assured education spokesperson Tristram Hunt. I welcome this shift and if it does mark the beginning of a genuine change in the direction of debate and policy the people who have ploughing this furrow for many years, often with little official encouragement (Anthony Seldon and Yvonne Roberts for example), deserve recognition for their efforts.

But there are both gaps in the evidence and weaknesses in the argument which need to be addressed if its current prominence is to be sustained. One weakness lies in relying too heavily on poor quality or contested evidence.  As outlined by the all-Party Group and Hunt there are plenty of studies that support both the value of character and the idea that there are certain educational practices that help to instil it.

But despite some areas of promise, the gaps in the evidence base here are substantial: research shows strong associations between pupil attainment and certain character traits (such as self-control or positive attitudes towards schooling), but robust, causal evidence of impact is much more limited.  Most studies look at single non-cognitive skills in isolation, and over relatively short timeframes, whereas the evidence is much weaker on the long-term impact of such programmes.  As a recent review for the Education Endowment Foundation concludes, the evidence shows that no single non-cognitive skill is the crucial ingredient or “silver bullet” that predicts positive outcomes for young people.

Furthermore, as Professor Robert Coe patiently explains in this brilliant lecture the biggest thing we know about new educational practice is that little or nothing is proven to have the kind of major, consistent, system-wide effect we might hope for. If a dedicated team of researchers and practitioners try something out in a context in which they are motivated and focussed there is a pretty good chance it will have an effect. Roll that same idea out across a whole system made up of people with different levels of talent and motivation, and against the backdrop of varying contexts and competing pressures, and the clear and hopeful findings from the pilots turn into contested and marginal evidence of change at scale.

Also, even if the argument for character is won, there will still be fierce argument about what it comprises and how it should be instilled. [LB1] For traditionalists the emphasis will be on hard work, responsibility and respect for authority, all of which they will say can be transmitted through a fairly conventional pedagogy, while for progressives the emphasis will be more on emotional resilience, self-confidence and creativity which requires children to have space for self-expression and to feel engaged as partners in learning.

The evidence problem is exacerbated by the tendency in both the All Party paper and, from what I can see, the Hunt speech to treat character development as a means to an end – greater social mobility and better life chances for the individual (usually defined as earning power). But with both the evidence and the concept itself contested, the advocates of character development need to admit to their normative starting bias. Surely part of the reason we want a particular idea of character instilled is because we have an underlying view of what it is to be a good citizen and live a full life. Politicians and researchers tend to fight shy of value based arguments, worrying that they will seem ideological or arrogant, but to hide our beliefs behind instrumentality and weak evidence is ultimately self-defeating.

Finally, I freely admit there is no evidence either for a hunch I have about a missing element of most lists of measures to instil character in the young. What about the nature of educational institutions themselves? On the whole, character is not something we consciously learn, it is imbibed from our experiences and relationships, which take place in the context of formal (schools, colleges, sports clubs)  and informal (families, close knit friendship networks) organisations. Surely, therefore, the character of those organisations and institutions is an important part of the story?

Take just one dimension of this: the RSA has often worked with school leaders in areas experiencing  low standards. Speaking to them a difference is often immediately observable, between those whose attitude to challenge it to take personal responsibility and to be optimistic and those who have a well-developed script of self-pity, impotence and blaming others. How likely is a school, which is led by someone who exudes a mixture of self-pity and complacency, to be the kind of place that – whatever its curricular or extra-curricular offer – teaches characteristics like self–confidence and initiative? Similarly, too few teachers seem confident either constructively to challenge or be constructively challenged by their colleagues. We know a big issue for teenage boys men is brittle self-esteem, I wonder how often they sense the same fragility in those supposed to be their elders and betters?

Unlike one-off policies which often fail when taken out of their experimental setting, aiming for whole schools to be intelligent, character-forming communities focusses on the institutional context itself.

The renewed interest in character is welcome but we need to understand why it has proved a short term enthusiasm in the past and take this opportunity to build a more powerful case.

Many thanks to my colleague, Louise Bamfield, of the RSA’s education team for helping me write this blog.

 [LB1]The evidence on the potential impact of the early years is strong, it’s just that the current set of policies aren’t delivering.  The evidence shows that extra-curricular activities are most beneficial when focused on academic learning.  I suggest taking the first part of the sentence out.


Collaboration: oiling the system

September 5, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I argued in my last post that ‘clumsy collaboration’ might be the key to strategies for schooling which are both effective and progressive. By ‘clumsy’ I mean collaboration which combines the three contrasting change models of individualism (collaboration has to be based in clear and coherent self-interest), solidarity (collaboration needs to be underpinned by trust and shared values) and hierarchy (collaboration must be enabled, structured and incentivised by system and school leaders).

An overly individualistic collaboration becomes a ‘deal’, an overly solidaristic one a ‘friendship’ and an overly hierarchical one a ‘committee’. Unless collaboration is truly clumsy it will, at best, be ineffective and, at worst, be a dishonest waste of time. Because the impulses and world views associated with individualism, solidarity and hierarchical control are inherently in tension, clumsy collaboration requires skill and commitment to maintain.

What is the evidence that collaboration can make a difference at the various levels which make up a schooling system?  First, the system as a whole: a step change in improvement is more likely if the key players have been part of a public and professional conversation in which ambitious goals, strong but flexible systems and demanding expectations are agreed. This seems to be the evidence from successful change processes like that in Alberta, and also London Challenge. It was also the way we tried to approach the Raising the Bar (RtB) inquiry which the RSA led for Suffolk County Council.

Central to the recommendations that came out of RtB was school to school collaboration, which can also play a vital role in improving performance. Lots of schools claim to work with other schools. In Suffolk I spoke to staff in a ‘collaboration pyramid’ of a secondary school and its primary feeders. The staff claimed the partnership was very useful but under examination it turned out that they didn’t even have a structured conversation about the progress individual pupils made across transition, let alone agree accountabilities for ensuring that performance claimed for KS2 continued and developed in KS3. As David Hargreaves and colleagues have shown, achieving results depends on a deep and sustained whole school commitment to collaboration as an integral part of improvement.

Teacher to teacher collaboration is the key part of school partnership. For teachers to work with other teachers on inquiry based collaboration should be seen as an essential element of their professionalism. Teachers must always be learners and they learn best by working with colleagues to solve practical challenges. But these ways of working are psychologically and intellectually demanding, particularly for front line teachers facing many other calls on their time and energy.

There are lots of collaborations between schools and outside organisations including charities, private sector employers and other public agencies. But too often these are not as ambitious and creative as they could be. For example, employer engagement can be powerful for children’s life chances but schools and employers both complain the other is hard to work with. Back in Suffolk we worked with a group of teachers and employers to develop an agreed set of core competencies. On the one hand, this meant that schools were committing to giving the pupils the competencies employers said mattered; on the other, it meant employers would try to ensure that their offer – visits to school, project materials, work-experience – was based in a wider understanding of what schools are trying to achieve. In Peterborough we found that getting schools and local institutions to work together on an area based curriculum was exciting and full of promise. It was also very hard work and could only succeed if it had buy-in from school and civil society leaders.

Professional/pupil collaboration has two elements. The first relates to pupil engagement in school governance, which needs to be both authentic and realistic, again, with a clear and honest account of what both sides are hoping to get out of working together. In the classroom we know that pupil feedback is one of the most powerful factors in driving up standards. Feedback is best delivered as part of a collaborative model of learning in which teachers, pupils and parents agree goals, understand mutual obligation and share a commitment to the potential of learning.

It may seem trite to argue that a single concept could be of such value in so many contexts. And, as I have emphasised, when it comes to collaboration, it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that gets results. The dominant ideas in schooling over the last fifteen to twenty years have been ‘national standards’ and ‘school freedom, diversity and competition’. Both of these are necessary parts of the engine of improvement. But without oil engines overheat and seize up, which is often what feels to be happening in our schools. Clumsy collaboration is the oil that can enable the different parts of the school system to work together to achieve more ambitious and more progressive aims.



Falling in love with the ‘c’ word

September 3, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Becoming excited by an idea is a bit like falling in love: sometimes, it is an instant, head over heels moment but it can also come from the dawning realisation that a presence at the edge of your world has the potential to be at the centre of it.

As an example of the latter, over the next couple of days I want to explain why I am becoming besotted with the concept of collaboration in the development and reform of school education.

I have an old friend to thank for my new commitment; the three powers theory (derived from ‘Cultural Theory’ and the work of Mary Douglas). As regular readers will know, this theory argues, first, that change can be pursued using hierarchical, individualistic or solidaristic means; second, that often the most effective solutions find some way of combining these sources of power (if they are not combined they will often undermine good intentions); and third, that this is always difficult; such solutions are contextually contingent and ‘clumsy’ because the three forms of power are inherently in tension with each other (indeed their power partly derives from their critique of each other).

My shaft of light was to see that ‘collaboration’ when done properly has enormous potential to achieve this clumsy mix of forms of power:

- From an individualistic perspective, collaboration must be seen to be in the interests of those engaged.

- From a solidaristic perspective, collaboration needs to be underpinned by trust based on sufficiently shared norms and values.

- From a hierarchical perspective, system and organisation leaders – recognising how hard it is to establish and maintain – have to enable, incentivise and support collaboration

However, each of these ways of valuing and pursuing collaboration could unbalance the whole endeavour:

- If collaboration is too individualistic it becomes merely transactional, less creative and more prone to abuse and conflict

- If collaboration relies too much on solidaristic values it will often lack clarity and strength and end up being more of a friendship (how often are you really challenging to your friends?)

- If collaboration is too controlled and managed by hierarchy it can become bureaucratic and lifeless

At six distinct levels effective collaboration could enable a step change in the functioning of the schools system.

- Relationships between the centre, localities and schools; which are too often characterised by suspicion, misunderstanding and resentment

- Relationships between schools; which are rarely as robust and committed as they should be

- Relationships between teachers; which are too often absent or shallow but could be the foundation for continuously improving professional practice

- Relationships between schools and other local bodies; which tend to be weak or merely transactional

- Relationships between teachers and pupils; learning is still too often seen as something that is done to pupils not with them

- Relationships between pupils; even though team working is vital in the modern workplace, and children can powerfully support each other, we still see schooling primarily as a process of individual endeavour and ranking.

In my next post I will offer some evidence of what ‘clumsy collaboration’ has achieved and might achieve at these levels.

Fortunately, given my lack of educational scholarship, members of the RSA education team have kindly agreed (as if I gave them any choice) to comment on my thoughts and add their own.


Schools: clumsy synergy or load of codswallop?

August 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social brain 

A school system can be analysed at three distinct levels: national, regional or local governance, schools as institutions, and the system of teaching and learning. We can apply the three powers* framework to each level.

The goal of clumsy solutions is to combine the three powers by fostering forms of each which are both benign and compatible with the others. Such a balance is unusual and only temporary when it is achieved. The more normal case is for one perspective to dominate in something like the following way:

System governance:

Hierarchical orientation – Political/administrative centre takes responsibility in some detail for schools and what they do.

Solidaristic orientation – Direction provided by a closed circle of stakeholders, what Professor Rod Rhodes termed a ‘policy network’:‘a set of formal and informal institutional linkages between governmental and other actors structured around shared interests in public policymaking and implementation’

Individualistic orientation – Focus on quasi-market regulation encouraging and facilitating consumer (parental) choice and easing market entry and exit (take-over)

The school:

Hierarchical orientation – Power centred in the hands of the Head (and or governors), school highly structured around centrally mandated goals

Solidaristic orientation –Organisation driven by shared and co-produced mission with emphasis on wider social goals (in terms of both content of learning and school engagement with other schools and wider society).

Individualistic orientation – School sees itself as a market player driving in turn a ‘sink or swim’ culture in which success is rewarded and failure seen as the responsibility of individual teachers or pupils

Teaching and learning

Hierarchical orientation – Focus on knowledge, subject and traditional (sage on the stage) model of pedagogy

Solidaristic orientation – Focus on learning process as collaborative (both between teachers and between teachers and learners) and on wider development of pupils as ‘rounded citizens’.

Individualistic orientation – Focus on developing pupils’ capacity for self-directed independent learning and self- determination; explicit encouragement of experimentation and innovation

The downside of each emphasis differs from domain to domain but, in general, hierarchical orientation risks being bureaucratic and overbearing, solidaristic being introspective and producerist, and individualism encouraging atomism and attenuated social responsibility.

Of course, these are highly simplified descriptions but they give some sense of the inherent possibilities and frailties of each emphasis. More interesting may be to superimpose this framework on current Coalition policy and on various explicit or implicit alternatives.

What might be termed Gove-ism combines an individualistic orientation at the level of the system (Academies, Free schools, consumer-focussed information) and a hierarchical one at the level of teaching and learning (standards, focus on traditional subjects and forms of pedagogy). While thinking systematically about schools as institutions is largely absent, the effect of Government policy tends to be to reinforce hierarchical control by ‘heroic’ head-teachers.

In contrast, what might be termed naïve progressivism tends towards solidarism at each level while tending to understate the inherent frailties of such an emphasis.

The clumsy approach seeks to combine all three power sources at each level.

Thus the system of governance provides hierarchical leadership by setting a clear but flexible long term strategy, providing an intelligent but challenging framework of accountability, and being a powerful advocate for schools in the wider polity. The governance framework also taps into (and fosters) solidarity by seeking to craft an open and inclusive dialogue which recognises and honours the agency of each stakeholder. The aim is to design an enabling system which maximises the degree of devolution from the centre and freedom at the level of the school and classroom.

A similar mix is recommended at the level of the school although here leadership is more personal while, in relation to solidarity, there is strong emphasis on responsibilities beyond the school. Teachers are held individually responsible for their performance but there are also powerful system of professional support and development (you must swim but there is a shallow end and lifebelts).

Things are more complex in terms of teaching and learning. A clumsy solution seeks to identify and promulgate those forms of practice and knowledge in which there really is one best route for learning. However, such codes are both underpinned by and interrogated through inquiry based practice based on a model of professionalism which sees outcomes emerging through collaboration between teachers (inside and outside the school), between teachers and learners and between schools and wider society. The goal of enabling children to be independent, self-motivated leaners and citizens is paramount, but there is also practical commitment to addressing the imbalances in social and cultural capital which make such a goal much harder for some than others.

To some this may appear like progressivism reheated, to others a back-door way of legitimising unpalatable elements of reform. But perhaps a more common reaction will be that just given by my long suffering PA Barbara (never a fan of Cultural Theory) ‘Matthew, what on earth are you going on about?’.


*Derived from Cultural Theory in which there are four including the non-active frame of ‘fatalism’


No school an island

May 24, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

For those of you who waded through the self-indulgence and obscurity of yesterday’s post, it might come as something of a surprise than I do occasionally get out and try to make a difference in the real world.  So, today sees the publication of the RSA’s ten month inquiry into school education in Suffolk. Although the lion’s share of the work was done by my splendid colleagues Joe Hallgarten and Louise Bamfield, I chaired the Inquiry and the stakeholder group which informed it.  The background to the report is the erratic performance of Suffolk schools over the last decade. Despite recent improvements, Suffolk is still performing poorly in comparison with national averages and its statistical neighbours. Poor aggregate levels of pupil progress and attainment are combined with wide gaps in educational achievement between disadvantaged groups and other pupils.  In the words of the County Council, ‘Suffolk is stuck’.

The full report is available here. I’m particularly proud of the methodology we used, eschewing the usual closed door Commission and one way consultation process and opting instead for a set of Solutions groups which have not only informed the work but engaged hundreds of people and developed solutions which are already being implemented even before the County Council has responded to the report.

At the heart of the report is our belief in the power of collaboration. Our approach is to combine devolution of responsibility and resources to schools with an expectation that they commit to strong partnerships with:

‘Pyramids’ of secondary and their feeder primary schools and early years settings where objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the attainment and progression of every child;

Other neighbouring schools and organisations working with young people and the wider community where the objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the well-being of every child;

Schools with a similar profile to themselves in ‘families’, where the objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the quality of teaching and learning and school improvement.

For this collaboration to make a difference it must be long term, substantive, focused and based on measurable aims. We have called the report ‘no school an island’ to signal the importance that we attach to the principle that publicly funded institutions must take both individual and shared responsibility for the interests of the children and young people of Suffolk.  We believe that schools now need to open their doors more routinely and purposefully to a wider range of partners, engaging with employers to enable children and young people to have a richer understanding of, and engagement in, the world of work, and to involve the wider community, especially parents, in valuing education and raising children’s achievement.

Another key recommendation (there are twenty in all) is that Suffolk should form a strong partnership with an inner London authority. Partly to learn from the latter’s success but also to address the danger of insularity in Suffolk and to provide opportunities for schools, teachers and pupils to develop new relationships, insights and ambitions. Yesterday saw the first step as pupils from Suffolk and Hackney met and studied together at Holy Trinity School, Dalston under the encouraging gaze of teachers and councillors from both Councils.

Suffolk County Council has been supportive and encouraging but officers and councillors will now take a few weeks to develop a considered response to the report. When exploring successful improvement strategies there is a tendency to overlay a post hoc neatness on the process but, on closer inspection these change processes – from Ontario to London Challenge – turn out to have been multi-faceted and emergent.  Achieving a step-change in performance will require effort and adaptation. We hope many of our ideas will work well but others will no doubt need to be refined.

But whatever emerges from the County, many of the ideas in our report are already progressing. For example, there is the collaboration between two clusters of schools around the development of a 9-14 ‘mid-Bacc’ focussed among other things on ensuring  a successful and substantive primary secondary transition. There is also the work done by the employer engagement group which rests of the powerful foundation of a set of core competencies – communication, responsibility, teamwork and initiative – jointly agreed by teachers, employers and young people. Using this framework Suffolk schools can benefit from the palpable enthusiasm among local employers to engage more fully not just with schools as institutions but with the content of teaching and learning.

I have really enjoyed the Inquiry process and, although I say it myself, I think our approach is relevant not just to Suffolk but represents a robust and imaginative way to addressing the issue facing all localities: how do we improve standards and maintain some kind of local public accountability and engagement in the context of councils’ losing their provider role and of the establishment of more and more Academies and free schools?


This blog first appeared on the website of Public Finance


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