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Getting a buzz from the RSA Academy

July 15, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

A short post on my way back from the RSA Academy.

My regular reader and hammer of progressives,  ‘OldAndrew’, won’t like it but, as well as core necessities like standards, discipline, and safety, what I most prize in a school is:

a) what I call – for want of a better phrase – ‘modern student centred learning’ (such as that provided by the best Opening Minds schools)


b) it should be an intelligent community which fosters the habits of good citizenship.

Which is why I always get a buzz from the RSA Academy. Not only are the exam results improving but exclusions and allegations of bullying are falling (the latter more or less to zero). The pupils – largely drawn from a working class community with limited parental educational attainment – are also enjoying amazing enrichment opportunities, including educational trips to South Africa and the USA, and visitors flocking in; in the last couple of weeks alone, some of our eminent RDIs have put on inspirational sessions to explain the work they do in their respective fields of design.

There is also a splendid Student Parliament. Not only has this overseen the successful policy to eradicate bullying but it has done great work with pupils from feeder primary schools. The new dimension we heard about today was student awards to teachers, developed by students, voted on by students and awarded by students. What a brilliant idea.

No wonder the most common feedback from Academy parents (most of whom went to the predecessor school) is ‘I wish it had been like this when I was a kid!’


Academies – a long journey to who knows where

May 27, 2010 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

I have a chequered history when it comes to Academies. When I first went into Number Ten I marginalised myself by allowing it to be known that I shared some of the concerns being expressed by the Treasury and the local government department about what was then a new policy. Picking an argument with Andrew Adonis was a fast track route to internal exile.

After the 2005 election I was in part responsible for trying to persuade Labour backbenchers to vote for the Schools Bill which established Trust schools. This time I had learnt my lesson and kept it to myself that I had some sympathy for rebel Labour MPs’ concerns, particular over school admissions.

When I arrived at the RSA, by this time more open minded about Academies, I inherited the Society’s bold (in the ‘Yes, Minister’ sense) decision to set up its own. Following through on the Trustees’ leap in the dark was a tough call but it all felt worth while when the school opened, and my faith is reconfirmed every time I visit Tipton as a governor and hear the great progress being made (and we don’t even occupy the new building until September).

Meanwhile my older son’s school was being given Academy status against the wishes of an alliance of leftists and trade unions, plus a group of middle class parents not wanting to lose the special privileges that their musically talented offspring had enjoyed in the failing predecessor school. For a while I was the chosen scapegoat with it even being rumoured that, in order to legitimatise the Academy take-over, I had used my influence in Government not only to get an unannounced OFSTED inspection of the old school but to rig its dismal report.

So I felt deeply ambivalent about yesterday’s Coalition announcement. What had reconciled me to the Academy policy was, first, the way it channelled new capital expenditure into deprived areas and second, that the extra element of diversity and innovation would be good for the system as a whole. The new policy is different in both aspects. The redistribution element has gone, indeed it must be most likely that it will be more privileged schools and sets of parents who take up the new freedoms and funding streams. Second, rather than putting grit in the oyster of the local schools system the policy is now to smash the oyster entirely.

It is up to those of us interested and involved in schools to make the best of the policy framework set by our Government. This was very much the mood of the very successful launch this week of Whole Education, an RSA sponsored alliance of organisations, interests and schools supporting a more holistic and collaborative approach to learning. But I do have doubts about whether the efforts of those committed to improvement and innovation will be helped or hindered by the new policy.

It is important, first, to recognise how much freedom ‘bog standard’ local authority schools already have. In most places successful schools are left to their own devices and have been gradually getting more freedoms from the centre in areas like the curriculum. Indeed the greatest area of extra regulation recently has been in relation to ‘safeguarding’ which is a child safety, not an education, policy. But local authorities can play a vital role in addressing problems in schools that are not succeeding or in danger of getting into trouble. Getting rid of a weak but stubborn headteacher is, for example, very difficult for a group of part time volunteer governors to accomplish and most rely heavily on the local authority to guide them through the process. 

Michael Gove wants an open market in schooling, but markets only succeed if businesses are regularly allowed to fail. Children only have one education so we can’t be as relaxed about failure in schools as we might be about failure in the high street. There is absolutely no question that the combination of encouraging all manner of new entrants into school governance along with residualising the local authority role will lead to many more school failures (this is not scaremongering, it is the logical consequence of the policy). It will be interesting to see how the Coalition deals with this but my hunch is that any solution will see central government effectively taking over the oversight currently vested in councils.

The RSA is seeking to develop a stronger family of schools committed to the approach of our curriculum, Opening Minds. We are pragmatic as to whether this family might one day morph into some form of shared governance. It would be an irony if there indeed were lots of RSA Opening Minds schools, as Michael Gove has made no secret of his hostility to competency-based approaches. To be fair the new Education Secretary has always recognised the tension between his own quite prescriptive views about the curriculum and his commitment to school freedom. Intellectually such openness is commendable, in practice it may prove a harder position to sustain.


Michael Gove’s response

January 19, 2010 by · 26 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

Here is Michael Gove’s reply to my July Questions. As I said yesterday, I am very grateful to him for finding the time. Instead of giving my response to his response today – which would make an already long post even longer – I’ll wait until tomorrow, by which time I hope also to be able to draw on comments from other readers.

1. Curriculum content should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people. Young people should be discouraged from pursuing newer or non traditional subjects like media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities.

MG: I know what you’re driving at but I think the distinction you draw, the “dividing line” if you like, is too stark.

I have nothing against new programmes of study per se. I certainly have no wish to   dissuade any one who wishes to pursue a course in media studies if that is their whole heart’s desire. And I certainly have no bias against innovation more broadly. Indeed our reforms are designed to encourage new ways of thinking and doing. In particular, they make it possible for teachers to play a bigger role in shaping schools, the curriculum and teaching.

The current problem with subjects like media studies relates to the way our league tables work. They encourage schools to push a subject which, currently, actually limits opportunities. 

Irrespective of my views, it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors.  

But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject. 

But let me stress again, my aim is to widen the scope of choice available to the next generation. I would like students to choose the course of study which most inspires them, and best prepares them for the future, by widening the range of opportunities available to them. 

In that context, I am indebted to the work of the Scottish social democratic thinker Lindsay Paterson. If you’ll allow me to quote from his essay “The Renewal of Social Democratic Educational Thought in Scotland” he puts better than I ever could what I think is the right approach to take… 

“The anger of radical campaigners against a divided secondary education was because it denied working class people access to a general education; they shared the aim of extending access to the best that has been thought and said… the democratic intellect was to be as much about the intellect as the access to it; and yet policy since the 1980s has rather neglected the importance of enabling students to engage properly with intellectual difficulty and intellectual worth. Instead policy has approached the problem of motivation by diluting seriousness, by fragmenting difficult programmes of study into modularised segments and by trying to divert students into intellectually undemanding courses of ostensible vocational relevance.”

 2. The curriculum should be delivered though traditional subject disciplines and not through approaches emphasising cross cutting themes and competencies, like for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds.

 MG: Again, my view is that choice is what matters, and more schools should have more freedom to pursue the curriculum path which they believe will enhance the opportunities available to their students. 

But, also again I would quote Lindsay Paterson: 

“Programmes of general liberal education are better at preparing people for life as decent citizens than any other kinds of learning. That was something which old radicals understood well. You could make citizens for the new era of mass democracy by equipping them with the cultural capacities which the aristocratic or bourgeois ruling classes had acquired through their schooling. Citizenship should permeate many types of study – literature, history, geography, politics, science, religion.” 

It is instructive that many of those schools with the best record in raising achievement for children from poorer backgrounds – from Mossbourne Community Academy to the KIPP schools in the US follow a traditional curriculum which provides the sort of general liberal education Lindsay admires.

 3. (Something I heard emphasised by your number two Nick Gibb), the practice of the best schools shows traditional chalk and talk forms of pedagogy are superior to practical, project based, forms of learning.  

MG: It is certainly the case that the tried and tested methods of whole class teaching, followed up by personal tuition for those who need it, are highly effective. 

But I am a strong believer in practical learning. I would like to see a bigger place for practical experimental work in science teaching. I believe practical problem solving as part of outdoor learning, whether in geography or sport, is hugely important. And I very strongly believe we need to improve practical education for those who do not wish to pursue academic learning beyond sixteen with much more rigorous and robust vocational qualifications. 

4. Schools should focus much more on the core activity of imparting knowledge. Children’s wider development is best enhanced through extra curricular activities such as schools clubs and societies but not through ‘teaching’ life skills or well-being.  

 Again, I fear the division you’re drawing up may be misleading. I certainly believe that the most important task a school has is giving children the knowledge they need to make the widest possible range of choices about the future and play the fullest possible part in our democracy. To that end the sort of liberal education Lindsay Paterson talks about is the right course to follow. 

But I certainly think good schools will also want to impart, complementary, practical knowledge, whether its cooking, sex and relationships education or basic questions of good manners and consideration for others. I’m not sure I like the term “life skills” but the sort of areas I’ve just mentioned would, I think, certainly come under that umbrella…

 5. Schools should be institutions that are primarily or even exclusively about learning and should not be required to engage in the wider delivery of children’s or community services.

MG: Schools should be about learning, absolutely. If schools wish to offer other services, wonderful. If other services support learning, fantastic. But schools are places for teaching and learning. 

6. Rather than blurring the divide between the academic and vocational learning we should assert it, with, for example, the 14-19 Diplomas restricted to vocational content. 

MG: The Diplomas have had a pretty poor reception so far, but I am interested in seeing how we can make the best of them. 

More broadly, I certainly do not want a rigid divide between the academic and vocational. I certainly want to see more and more students pursuing academic courses for longer, but I also anticipate that many students, as well as acquiring a basic grounding in an academic core will also pursue genuinely rigorous practical qualifications in fields employers value. 

7. Implicitly, strategies to widen participation in learning should not include developing forms of content and levels of assessment which enable more children to succeed: More should rise to the bar, the bar shouldn’t be moved to allow more to jump it. 

MG: The question contains a logical flaw. More children should certainly be helped to succeed. But not by lowering the bar. Instead we should help them to escape the constraints of disadvantage which may have held them back in the past, so they can aim higher.


Schools – back to basics

January 9, 2010 by · 59 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Sometimes a series of unconnected events conspire to turn a vague conviction into a firm opinion. Try these three:

I asked one of my sons, a bright boy in year nine of a fast improving school, why he thought the mangetout I was serving for his supper were so-called. As he failed to identify either the word for eat or for all, I realised that in nearly two hundred hours of French lessons he has learnt less than he could have in a single afternoon if the teaching was effective and he were motivated to learn. I am pretty sure this is true for many of the other subjects he has ‘studied’ in Key Stage Three, and that the lack of learning is common among his schoolmates. 

Yesterday a group of Cabinet Office policy advisers came to the RSA to speak to me and a member of our education team about future policies. As I spoke to them I found myself arguing that school education, particularly secondary school education, is simply failing; a huge amount of the time that older children spend in school is completely wasted. What is needed is not just a loosening of the curriculum or making marginal improvements in teaching quality (welcome though these changes are) but much more radical thinking, questioning some of the fundamental assumption about the purposes of education and the way schools are organized. 

This morning there was an excellent leader in The Times (not naturally one of our most radical publications) taking its prompt from the postponement of GCSEs due to the weather to argue that England’s pupils are over-examined and under-educated    

The RSA Opening Minds curriculum was developed precisely because so much of what went on in Key Stage Three (11-14) was clearly pointless, and the schools that have used OM best have transformed learning for this age group. But what has come home to me is  the system wide nature of failure. The problem is not primarily that schools aren’t doing what is expected of them but that what they bare being asked to do is deeply misguided.

I know from previous comments on these pages that many of this blog’s readers will agree (indeed will think it is blindingly obvious). But there will be much disagreement about what to do. My starting point is this; schools need the space to become intelligent institutions. By this I mean three things:

Places which have aligned what they do with the core real-world mission (not maximising exam passes, but helping young people enjoy life and achieve their full potential)

Places which are reflexive, by which I mean everyone in the institution (and its key external stakeholders and partners) feel they have been involved in developing the mission, sign up to it and have a stake in making it real.

Places with a high degree of accountability (particularly lateral accountability); so that people have the confidence and trust to be open about their own and each other’s contribution to the mission and how that could be enhanced. The problem with the Government’s focus on teacher quality is that it sees quality primarily as a function of teacher selection and training and (negative) performance management when what matters most is the way teachers are deployed, the way they collaborate and their motivation as members of the school community.  

A combination of over centralisation, narrow parental objectives and producerism (even though Government, parents and trade unions genuinely think they want what’s best for children) ensures that only exceptional schools with exceptional leaders meet these criteria, and then only by skating on thin ice. The ultimate measure of reforms should be whether they make it more or less likely that more schools can become truly intelligent institutions. 

Often in public policy the changes that can come from reform aren’t as great as policy makers and politicians, seeking a raison d’etre, imagine. But in relation to secondary schooling the transformation that could be wrought by a complete rethinking of how we do schooling are, I am convinced, huge.


Still no response from Michael Gove

August 18, 2009 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

I have given up hope that Michael Gove will reply to the questions I posed to him – on his invitation – last month. I’d like to say this is because he is on the run from my brilliant interrogation but I suspect it’s just that I’m not worth bothering with (even if other bits of the Conservative Party are quoting me!).

But I will keep nagging away: because I know a bit about education, because it matters, because I am fascinated by the gap between the rhetorical attractiveness of the Gove agenda and its less convincing basis in concrete policy. Also, given how highly disparaging the Conservatives are about what is going on now in most schools it is only fair that they should have their own ideas put under critical scrutiny.

Today and later in the week I want briefly to explore two recurrent critiques in Michael Gove’s pronouncements. The first is the allegation of ‘dumbing down’; the second is of onerous or inappropriate national interference in schools by Labour ministers, particularly through exam targets.

On dumbing down MG has been very clear that he wants to set the bar higher. Pupils will be discouraged from taking ‘easier’ subjects; examinations will be more rigorous; more use of streaming and setting will encourage schools more explicitly to separate the able from the less able. I don’t agree with this approach for reasons I have described before. But the point I want to make today is that the Conservatives need to be clear about the implications of this policy. There are three interpretations:

a) The Conservatives think that raising the bar and forcing more schools to do what works best will swiftly increase the number of pupils achieving a significantly higher standard. The problem with this is that most international evidence suggests it is very hard in mature school systems like ours to achieve this kind of step change in absolute attainment. If the bar rises quickly the number reaching it will, at least in the short to medium term, have to fall. Also, the Conservatives’ ability to force schools to do anything will be limited by their other commitment which is to free schools from central interference and let parents set up and manage their own schools. As an example, MG has been clear that he is very unenthusiastic about competency based curricula like the RSA’s Opening Minds but over 200 school have voluntarily signed up to OM. Will the Conservatives force them to abandon an approach which so many schools say works for them?

b) The Conservatives recognise that raising the bar will mean fewer pupils reach it but they see this as a price worth paying. If so then the Conservatives are abandoning a long held cross-party commitment to increase participation rates in post compulsory education. There is nothing wrong with this policy (the Treasury would certainly be keen on it), but it is a radical break not just from UK but from international practice. If the Conservatives are intent upon it they should say so explicitly.             

c) The Conservatives want to raise the academic bar and also maintain the trajectory of high participation. They will do this by more clearly distinguishing between those with academic and those with vocational abilities. The problems with this are, first, that as far as I can see, the Conservatives don’t yet have a policy for school age vocational education. Second, they will need to explain how they intend to overcome the historic failure in England to develop a vocational route into post compulsory education with the same status as the academic. The Conservatives are clearly intent on doing away with diplomas (they said the other day that they will not count them in assessing school performance), but we don’t know what – if anything – they intend to replace them with.

The reason ministers, schools, and universities have ‘lowered the bar’ on the academic performance needed to get into higher education is that we have wanted to increase participation rates (at post 16 and into HE) faster than we have been able to increase underlying levels of academic attainment. There isn’t much evidence that this has damaged the performance of the top 10% (in most international surveys it is among this group that England scores highly). The policy has arguably been unfortunate for the bottom 40% as it means that not going into HE is now a bigger hurdle to employment than before (for example, you can’t now become a nurse without a degree).

The group that will be most impacted by the Conservative reforms is that which has benefited from the expansion in post 16 participation, a group largely but not exclusively comprising middle class children. So unless the Conservatives can find a magic bullet to achieve a substantial and rapid increase in underlying ability their policy will presumably make it harder for above average (but not brilliant) middle class children to get to college. This is a policy that I think Sir Humphrey would have called ‘bold’.


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