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The official opening of the RSA Academy – a big success

November 6, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The RSA 

In the next couple of weeks I hope to unveil a new format for my blog. As well as linking to all my favourite bloggers and making it much easier for people to make comments, I want to be able to cover both current affairs and news from the RSA. I promised on Tuesday to update readers on the Academy launch but then, like everyone else, I got caught up in Obama fever. My new blog will contain a reserved space for news about the Society.

So with apologies for being one day late I can say that the launch was a big success. Prince Philip was on great form with the pupils loving his characteristic no-nonsense style. HRH’s opening comments included the line ‘I was amazed when they said the RSA was going to run a school. Frankly I didn’t know they could run anything!’ The visitors for the day included local dignitaries, sponsors of the Academy, local people and many RSA Fellows. There will be another grand opening in 2010 when the new school building opens for business but, despite being in the old premises, Mick Gernon, the Principal, and his team had clearly achieved great progress in just a few months.

New uniforms, school bags and signage spoke to the sense of a fresh start, while the school’s organisation, its practical learning opportunities, five term year and application of Opening Minds underlined the Academy’s commitment to innovation. The RSA wanted to sponsor an Academy not as a status symbol but to develop innovative new ways of schooling. I firmly believe that soon the RSA Academy Tipton will be known across the UK and beyond as a symbol of what 21st century schooling can be at its best.

And while I am on the Academy I should pay tribute to Penny Egan, my predecessor, and her Trustees for having the vision and determination not only to commit to the Academy but to choose such a great place for it. We have ambitious plans for further development on the Academy campus and to use the school as a hub for community engagement. For an organisation like the RSA to be so engaged with a community like Tipton (and in it for the long term) is fantastic, and the fact that most of the pupils support my beloved West Brom is the icing on the cake.

The Academy is one part of our ever more ambitious education programme. This week we had some good news on the funding of our progressive education alliance, of which more news soon. And Louise Thomas, a member of our education team, has undertaken a comprehensive review of OFSTED inspections of Opening Minds schools. Her conclusions are incredibly encouraging with over 90% of comments made by OFSTED about Opening Minds being positive. The full draft report can be read here.

One place I will be making sure to send the report is Conservative Central Office. Michael Gove and his team continue to portray Opening Minds as wishy-washy liberal nonsense. This is a blot on an otherwise thoughtful Tory education platform. I have been trying to get a meeting with Michael for several months. I’m still hopeful that we can find a time soon as I’d hate to conclude that what Michael is trying to avoid us – in Thomas Huxley’ phrase: his beautiful hypothesis being challenged by some ugly facts. It would be disastrous if schools were discouraged from a curriculum that is getting great results and which – above all – enthuses the pupils who study it.


I had a very interesting conversation about policy making with Michael Blastland (a former speaker at the RSA) on the Today programme this morning. Here is the link.


Learning some tough lessons

May 13, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Today is all about Education for the RSA. We are hosting our annual, standing room only Opening Minds Conference – poignantly there is also a report from the authoritative DCSF Select Committee MPs criticising SATS test (again).

There are two lessons to be learned. The first concerns the dynamics of policy development. Over time all policies end up generating unintended consequences. Today, when the Ofsted and league tables are part of every day life, and have a massive impact on school intake and by extension property prices it’s difficult to remember how relatively recent these measures are.

Before these were introduced there was a lack of information for parents to make informed decisions. Hundreds of schools were under performing year on year with few levers to tackle failure. SATS, league tables and published Ofsted inspections were not only necessary but inevitable in an age when the public demands, and can easily get hold of, more information. The democratising impact is that middle class parents always knew through the grapevine which schools were good and which not, the SATS system opened up that information to every parent.

The second is a lesson in humility. Systemic reform is difficult, not least when you need to admit that you may have been wrong. While the idea that schools should be held accountable for their pupils’ performance was absolutely correct, but the result is that pupils, teachers and parents now feel constrained rather than liberated.

The report from the DCSF Select Committee calls for a number of reforms to the current system; one of the most relevant to our mission here at the RSA is the renewed commitment to personal learning for pupils.

We have broadly welcomed the introduction of the new National Curriculum which is far more competency based (and in that way more similar to the Opening Minds Curriculum) and we are looking forward to broadening our curriculum for all the key stages with the Academy in Tipton.

The main criticism from MPs appears to be that the barrage of tests is being used, not only to assess pupils against national targets, but also to determine school funding, performance targets and teacher assessment. This creates a system where heads and teachers are understandably obsessed with testing ability, which leads to the aforementioned constraints on creativity in the classroom.

What is needed is a bit of thinking around how you motivate teachers to be creative in the classroom, and provide them with the tools for that creativity. Schools that teach solely to the test create linear thinkers who are good at memorizing facts and regurgitating them on demand – but schools whose teachers, parents, and pupils are actively engaged in a more imaginative learning process create lateral thinkers, able to work out solutions for themselves. And surely that’s what society needs.


Academies – the big debate

March 18, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Public policy 

Tune in to Teacher’s TV tomorrow at 19:00 to see the Jonathan Dimbleby Big Debate on Academies –  featuring Our Matthew in the red corner.  It’s a subject close to our heart


RSA Academy – full steam ahead

January 30, 2008 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

First some good news. We have agreement from DCSF to the funding agreement for the RSA Academy so it’s full steam ahead for the new school to open in September, and be in the new building early in 2010. We have recruited some really good people to the Academy – many drawn from the existing staff at what is a fast improving school. One job we still have vacant is a Director of Business and Strategy so is anyone out there up for being part of this exciting initiative (you don’t need to be a trained teacher, details on the RSA website)?

This news is timely with the first meeting of our future schools network next week. To hear more about this visit Ian McGimpsey’s RSA Education blog. And while you are cruising our site can I recommend you go to the Carbon Limited site and hear about our fantastic public engagement even in Cardiff at the weekend.

Last Friday was the RSA Xmas Party. We always have it in January as Hospitality staff are working flat out on other people’s events in December. After a knife edge vote it was decided to go to a Medieval Banquet in St Katherine’s Dock. I dressed up as Richard the Lionheart and being the only man in costume felt like a complete plonker. The night was great because RSA colleagues are fun people to be with but I will draw a discreet veil over the quality of food and ‘entertainment’.

Thanks again to Ian Gilmour for taking the pro-social interventions idea on to the RSA networks platform. Ian has loads of ambitious ideas for where we take this next but we will need to keep adding examples and growing the conversation if we are to get to a take off point.

If you heard or saw me doing punditry over the weekend on the Peter Hain resignation and the Alan Johnson allegations, I hope I managed to tread the fine line between being impartial and – as I always do – trying to counter the general view that all politicians are corrupt and dishonest. I went out on a limb by saying on Radio 4 and 5 that I thought the AJ allegations were specious. But the way this shock horror exclusive story has faded quickly from view suggests that – on this occasion – I was right.


What do we want for ourselves?

August 22, 2007 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, The RSA 

As I said in my ever so brief blog last Friday I was on last week’s Any Questions from Kingston University. It was a good night with a conversation that was probably enhanced by none of the panellists being an official Party spokesperson.

It was a nice start to the evening to find out (of course I should have known already) that both Bonnie Greer and Lord Ramsbotham are Fellows (and I am going to try now to recruit the final panellist Tim Montgomery!)

I guess I am on the programme as much because of my past as my present role, so it is a challenge to get the right balance between my personal views and the need to protect the RSA’s vital political independence.

I’m sure I’ll hear soon enough if Fellows think I got it wrong.

There were a couple of moments in the programme which connected with the work here at John Adam Street.

One was the chance for me to vent, again, my concerns about the divide between state and independent schools. As I said in the programme, I don’t condemn those who provide or send their children to private schools (I wouldn’t have many friends if I did). But I do worry about the most privileged pupils being educated in schools where it is hard to fail and the least privileged in schools where it is hard to succeed.

In the past I have suggested that the RSA might try to convene local discussions to explore how well-off parents might be encouraged to keep their children in the state sector. My thoughts haven’t got much further but any views would be welcome.

The discussion also reminded me of the gap between what we say about the kind of society in which we want to live in and how we respond to questions about our own lives.

When I argued that the abolition of inheritance tax could not be a priority if we want a fairer society and a more productive economy, I got a good hand of applause. But when Jonathan Dimbleby then asked the audience if they thought the tax should be abolished they voted overwhelmingly in favour.

It shows how important the framing of an issue is.

If we are asked what we want for ourselves without any reference to our wider idea of a better future, and without being asked to think about the trade-offs involved in any choice, our answers will tend to be narrowly self-interested.

But when a policy is placed in a fuller context – including the wider good – we may reach different conclusions.

Which goes to underline two things:

First, that most opinion polls about policy options are a waste of time and tend by their superficial nature simply to reflect our most unthinking responses.

Second, the need to move from government-centric political discourse (“what I want the politicians to do for me”) to a citizen centric approach (“what kind of future we want and what we need to do to create it”).

Apologies again for the holiday blog break I will make up for it in the weeks to come.

Damon – I really enjoyed your comment. I think individual empowerment is only achieved alongside strategies of collective empowerment – including bringing alive the policy dilemmas and trade offs. Many people who think hard about public service reform have come to the conclusion that this issue of reconciling individual and collective choice and empowerment is one of the big future policy challenges.

Bob, given the importance of our competency based Opening Minds curriculum to the Willingsworth Academy and our recognition that rising expectations is a crucial aim for the new school I hope you can rest assured.

Thanks, Tony, I agree with the sentiment. Getting the practice right is the challenge.


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