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The sincerest form of flattery

October 2, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

Obviously and for good reason, those who – like me – cherish the RSA’s independent, non-aligned status would be worried if the Society started to praise the policies of one particular political party.  But what if a party adopts a pre-existing RSA idea?

This is happening today as Ed Miliband unveils his idea of a technical baccalaureate for those students who do not intend to pursue an academic route to university.

Which school is arguably the lead in developing and piloting just such a qualification? Step proudly forward: the RSA Academy.

Emerging naturally from its commitment to a balanced, competency based and demanding curriculum, the RSA Academy has been at the forefront of developing the IBCC (the International Baccalaureate Career Related Certificate). For a slightly tongue in cheek introduction to the IBCC this article in the Telegraph (not a newspaper one might normally  associate with educational innovation) is useful.

So two cheers for Ed Miliband. One for focussing on the less academic – a group generally given a shockingly low profile in national educational debate. Two, for giving the RSA Academy a great opportunity to showcase its fantastic work. However, as is typical (and perhaps understandable) for politicians, there is a danger that Miliband is being a little simplistic.

For example, the IBCC, while absolutely being aimed at those who do not want a classic academic route into a Russell Group University, can be a very good stepping stone into HE. Also, while the IBCC has strong vocational and competency based elements, academic study is also integral to it. Indeed like the EBacc there is a requirement to study a modern language. Finally – and it is a separate point emerging from other RSA research –  while there is a strong case for Miliband’s insistence that pupils continue learning English and Maths up to aged 18, it is also important that what they learn is integral to the overall curriculum. So, for example, pupils who have not achieved a C or better in Maths GCSE should not necessarily be expected to keep plugging away at the same content (a dispiriting and generally unsuccessful endeavour) but be offered a maths qualification which is more vocational and practical in content.

So, there is a lot more thinking required before Labour’s new idea is watertight. And as Michael Gove’s response seems to be that the Government is already planning to do what Labour is promising, there is plenty of scope for the RSA to be involved in the debate without showing favour to any individual party.

Having said which, it can surely only be good news that for once the politicians are fighting to win credibility for their offer to all pupils not just the academically- inclined sons and daughters of the middle class.


The compassion test

March 1, 2012 by · 22 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

As someone who for various reasons (almost none of which bear critical examination) feels in need of a little compassion right now, I was drawn magnetically to this item on the BBC website. A high powered Commission has reached the conclusion that the possession of compassionate values is a vital attribute for staff providing caring services to elderly people.

This immediately raises a whole series of fascinating issues. In no particular order:

How might job candidates be tested for compassion? Good employment practice encourages adhering to strictly objective criteria in recruitment, so how would an ostensibly subjective quality like compassion be assessed?

How might we go about teaching compassion, whether in schools or colleges? Traditionalists would presumably suggest studying the lives of compassionate greats (although often figures we associate with compassion – like Florence Nightingale – turn out to be rather fierce on an interpersonal level), and also extra-curricular volunteering. Progressives, in contrast, would see the Commission’s view reinforcing an emphasis in the mainstream curriculum on the whole child and the development of emotional intelligence. I am more in the latter camp and would argue that instilling compassion is also about how people learn to treat each other in educational establishments. I am particularly impressed by the use among pupils of restorative practice (something done very impressively in the RSA Academy Tipton).

Is it right to see compassion primarily as a personal attribute?  A couple of days ago I was reporting research which suggests the rich are more selfish partly as a consequence of the social norms of the privileged. I am sure Philip Zimbardo – he of the Stanford prison experiment – would argue that compassion is primarily a function of social norms within institutions. Zimbardo famously argued ‘it’s not the rotten apple, it’s the rotten barrel’ to which presumably ‘it’s not the compassionate person, it’s the compassionate institution’ is a corollary.

As machines get cleverer and cleverer, human added value will increasingly reside in things that only we can do. One of these things – certainly for the foreseeable future and arguably forever – is feeling empathy and compassion. The Commission’s conclusion therefore reinforces a critique of the connections between attributes and rewards in the labour market. If compassion is without doubt going to be a skill in greater need (both in terms of quantity and quality ) then isn’t it about time we started finding ways of rewarding it properly?

I do hope the RSA can sometime soon have an event about compassion; what is it, what are its foundations and how can it best be fostered and rewarded.

And, by the way, if you think this blog is nonsense I know I can rely on you to tell me very gently.


Always look on the bright side …

December 7, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Life is full of ironies, one being that bad things often turn out good. This is my argument about the British Social Attitudes Survey which has received extensive news coverage today.  

The overall thrust of the findings was captured in a quotation from Penny Young, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, which undertakes the annual survey 

“In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year’s report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves? An emerging sense of self-reliance may take the government some way toward its vision of a more responsible society, but an emphasis on individualism, not Big Society collectivism, may present as much of a challenge as it does an opportunity.”

With its undercurrent of individualism, scepticism towards the state and limited sympathy for the poor, the survey points to a pendulum swing away from what might loosely be called social democratic values. The survey also confirms other research in pointing towards a mood of social pessimism as well as a gap between some of the things the public say they want – such as less inequality and more affordable housing – and their willingness to make sacrifices to achieve these objectives.  

The survey can be seen as a sign that an era of austerity will inevitably be one in which self interest triumphs. But I prefer a less deterministic view. These findings, and the interest they are generating, should be seen as part of a vital conversation about how we as a nation deal with the hard times ahead. If people are repeatedly told ‘there is not enough to go around’ a natural first reaction is to try to protect what they have. But after this, as the new reality sinks in, a more thoughtful response may emerge. 

I have written in the past about the need for a ‘plan C’ in which the focus is not how to minimise austerity (although we should, of course, try to) but how we cope with it. If this sounds unrealistic, it is worth noting that many people in Japan consider their ‘ lost decades’  of low growth have enabled the country to reconnect with core values including respect and solidarity, and that in retrospect it was the boom of the eighties which was the regrettable aberration. So what appear to be rather bleak survey findings might actually be just the spur we need for a deeper conversation about how society can grow stronger even when its economy isn’t. 

The other reason I am humming ‘always look on the bright side of life’ is more personal. This morning, discussing the social attitudes survey on the Today programme I had a terrifying moment when I completely forgot what I was planning to say next. It was in my second contribution to the discussion when talking about fairness. I just about got away with it but if you listen carefully you can hear a little wavering in my voice.  

So when later in the day I got to the RSA Academy I has something to prove to myself. I strode into the pay and personnel subcommittee and really drove through the agenda. As we got to AOB, after a meeting which I had chaired with a combination of authority, control and determination, I felt reassured that my faculties were fully in order. It was at that point that another member put her hand up: 

‘Thanks Matthew’ she said ‘it’s only a little thing and I don’t want to seem proprietorial, but actually I am the chair of this committee’.  

Utterly mortified I stammered back the inevitable question ‘but why on earth didn’t anyone say anything earlier?’ ‘Well’ said the real chair ‘we did keep exchanging glances but you seemed to be enjoying yourself too much to notice’. 

I could at this point conclude that I am now firmly set on a path of decline, inexorably becoming one of those men of a certain age whose capabilities are declining in exactly inverse proportion to their self importance. But ‘no’ I will resist such pessimism. The big lesson to take out of the day is very clear: we could all do with a bit of time for reflection. That’s why I have just booked myself some extra days’ holiday at Christmas. 

Richly deserved as I am sure you’ll agree..


Cog blog

February 3, 2011 by · 29 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I tend – perhaps inevitably – to get fewer comments when I blog about the RSA. But as well as wanting feedback from Fellows, I would be really interested to hear what people outside the Society think of the model I am about to describe.

The RSA to which I was appointed over four years ago had a lot going for it and much to be proud of in its recent and longer distant history.  But the Trustees and senior staff had also identified some major challenges which needed to be addressed, such as the external profile, image and impact of the RSA, and low levels of Fellowship engagement.

It is tedious and self-serving to go through the progress we have made on these fronts (and anyway I am hardly the most objective witness). But even as we have seen the RSA brand spread globally through RSA Animate or our influence grow through nationally respected research projects, conferences and engagement with senior politicians, and even as we have seen higher than ever levels of fellow engagement through channels like RSA Catalyst and our regional, local and issue based networks, I have found a big question nagging away at me: ‘There may be good progress on many fronts but where does it all end up?’.

By this I mean; ‘how do the key developments and functions in the Society cohere into a secure foundation for the RSA’s next stage of development?’  Or to put it (yet) another way; ‘we may have a new strapline – 21st century enlightenment – and many successful aspects to our work but how does that translate into a story about the organisation as a whole?’

Of course, I wouldn’t be asking the question if I didn’t think I was nearing an answer. Here it is:

The RSA impact engine

The model captures the unique (and I really think it is unique) way in which the modern RSA seeks to deliver its historic mission of innovation for the benefit of society.

The ideas and influence cog is about how we bring the most exciting ideas in the world into the RSA and how we use our brand, reputation and networks to get our ideas noticed by everyone from cabinet ministers to budding social entrepreneurs.   

The research and development cog is about how we develop, refine, test and roll out our own  ideas about how best to enhance human capability (with a particular focus on the capabilities of the least advantaged). 

The Fellowship activities cog is about how RSA Fellows are themselves a powerful source of ideas and a motor of change in both society and The Society.

Although perhaps seeming outdated in its mechanical overtones, the metaphor is intended to imply that each cog must be turning in its own right and that, as it does so, it should be helping to turn the other cogs. If I was better at PowerPoint art I would also have sparks flying out the machine which would symbolise the things the RSA helps to create which then spin out into the wider world (everything from the Great Exhibition to Tomorrow’s Company to the RSA Academy).

As I listened to some fascinating debates in our Fellowship Council yesterday I could hear many Council members describing aspects of this model.

There is further to go – much further in some areas – before all the cogs are turning as fast as we want and each is connecting as well as it could with the others. It is, for example, vital that we build swiftly on the early success of Catalyst to create a strong set of expectations about how groups of Fellows are encouraged and supported to develop their own projects. Also there are important aspects of the RSA – like 8 John Adam Street – which impact on different cogs in different ways. But this, it seems to me, is a powerful way of thinking about the RSA; what makes it special and what gives it such incredible potential for the future.


RSA Academy – let the success continue

November 23, 2010 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

Yesterday was a proud day for the RSA. Our President, Prince Philip, officially opened the new building of our RSA Academy in Tipton. Indeed, as he himself noted, this was the second time he had ‘opened’ the school having visited back in 2009 when the school officially came under RSA governance.

Our inspirational Principal, Mick Gernon, got the proceedings off to a great start by telling us that the school is now in the top one percent of performers in terms of improvement in pupils’ overall attainment. After some words from our President pupils then showed us around the new buildings which, as well as their many other qualities, were custom built to enable the teaching of our Opening Minds curriculum.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Academy is to see such a nationally prestigious institution based where it is. As I said in my previous blog, I am a great fan of the West Midlands (despite West Brom’s terrible form) but I’m sure I won’t be insulting anyone if I say that few people would have associated an area like Tipton, in the black country, with cutting edge innovation. As well as providing brilliant education, the Academy is both transforming expectations among pupils (all last year’s sixth formers who wanted to went to the universities of their choice to do the course of their choice) and changing the way a community sees itself and is seen from outside.

There was however one small cloud overt the proceedings. This week – in fact tomorrow – will see the Coalition’s schools white paper. In this we will find out more about how Michael Gove intends to reconcile his commitment to devolving more power to schools and teachers with his somewhat prescriptive views about what should be in the curriculum and how it should be taught.

I don’t have any problem with the idea that every pupil should acquire key areas of knowledge – although I think we should avoid the mistake that beset Kenneth Baker’s original national curriculum; swamping teachers with content they have to cram into the curriculum. But I also believe that knowledge can be taught through a competencies based curriculum such at the RSA’s Opening Minds. Yesterday, in the lessons we observed, the pupils were acquiring lots of knowledge but not through chalk and talk but by through working together in groups on projects structured around key competencies.

The RSA academy is a success story and I believe the  Society is poised to play a bigger role by working with more schools to offer engaging, demanding and innovative learning within intelligent institutions. So I, like many other champions of broadly progressive education, will be hoping that Michael Gove balances his own preferences for learning with the need to allow a wide range of successful practice in schools.


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