Academies – a long journey to who knows where

May 27, 2010 by
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.

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  • http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ oldandrew

    “Whole Education, an RSA sponsored alliance of organisations, interests and schools supporting a more holistic and collaborative approach to learning.”

    God help us all.

    “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.”

    This is an almost perfect example of being blinded to reality by the details of policy.

    Technically, local authority schools have plenty of freedom. In practice the pressure applied is continual and intense to do what they are told even when it is obviously stupid.

    Have a look at some of the comments here about the bats-arsed policy of APP (a mad box-ticking exercise). There’s no escaping the feeling that they had to comply:

    http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/412168.aspx?PageIndex=1

  • http://21stcenturytriviumman.blogspot.com/ 21st Century Trivium Man

    What gives the RSA the right to set up schools with public dosh? Is it ok for a competency based curriculum, an experiment rather than an education, to be inflicted on the kids of Tipton. Go back to the Trivium, with its proven methods and ideas, adapt it for the modern age, and educate the kids in a way that will lead to their being able to compete in the world that you are a member of.

  • http://uk-edtech.blogspot.com/ Alex Jones

    Competency based approaches to learning are much less of an experiment that Academies or Free Schools. There is strong evidence from research that developing self knowledge about themselves as learners strongly improves outcomes. A good place to start is Visible Learning” by John Hattie, the section on meta-cognition that draws on a number of meta-studies, shows this approach has a big impact.

    I think you have also misunderstood the approach somewhat – it doesn’t replace the national curriculum but overlays the study of subjects with learning to learn reflection.

  • Pingback: The cost of “free schools” « The Wandering Hedgehog()

  • http://www.ase.org.uk Anthony Hardwicke

    I think that there is a lot of potential in the idea of learned societies starting up their own academies.

    Imagine if we built a specialist Chemistry Academy where most of the pupils went on to study the chemical sciences at university. The students would follow a normal school curriculum, but there would be more time and smaller class sizes for science. At the heart of the Chemistry Academy would be a purpose-built science department with a chemistry research laboratory. The research laboratory would be linked to a local university and there would be a ‘researcher in residence’, who would spend some of their time supervising research projects with students. The researcher in residence would also work with universities across the UK, looking to improve the quality of teaching and lecturing and encouraging more sixth formers to apply to read chemistry at university. Just as the Purcell School of Music near Watford is named after Henry Purcell, the overall academy could be named after a famous chemist – or perhaps a chemist/educationalist – and so could each classroom.

    The Chemistry Academy would play a leading role in training new chemistry teachers. There would be strong links with science education departments in UK universities and an opportunity for all PGCE science teachers to visit the school for a day. One classroom could be dedicated entirely to running the RSC’s highly successful KS3 and KS4 Chemistry for Non-Specialists courses permanently throughout the year along with the new Chemistry SASP course, aimed at equipping biology and physics specialists with the skills to teach A Level Chemistry. Key staff would include a careers officer and an outreach officer – someone like the late John Salthouse – who could go round the country doing demonstration lectures for schools. The school would also provide early years activities to encourage primary school children to develop their innate curiosity about the natural world.

    Should a chemistry classroom look any different to a physics or a biology classroom? A great deal of time and money was put into Project Faraday, part of the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme. Six schools had new science facilities built and six schools had their science facilities refurbished. The ideas generated in this process were very much orientated towards ‘general science labs’. Building a Chemistry Academy would give us the opportunity to extend some of the Project Faraday ideas and tailor them more towards chemistry teaching. The design for “the ideal chemistry classroom” needs time to develop and evolve. In a Chemistry Academy, enthusiastic, specialist chemistry teachers would be able adapt and modify their classrooms over time. Ongoing changes, continually improving facilities, would result in design ideas that would inspire other schools throughout the world.

    Starting up and sponsoring an academy would be a direct, effective and high-profile way of spreading a learned institution’s educational message.

  • http://21stcenturytriviumman.blogspot.com/ 21st Century Trivium Man

    John Hattie’s book is indeed a good place to start, however it does not make distinctions between types of meta-cognitive approaches. My argument is that there is a perfectly good and proven competency based curriculum that has been used for centuries: the Trivium. It is an approach to learning that can bring together radicals, progressives and conservatives, it encourages independence in students, freedom to think, it forms people ‘of character’ and enables people to progress in their learning.

    Other competency based approaches are less elegant, unproven, do not create people of good character, but are, generally, used to shape people for the world of work. The Trivium, on the other hand, is unashamedly an approach to education for its own sake, it respects knowledge and allows people to develop their own understanding of the world, in other words, it truly ‘opens minds’.

    By infusing the curriculum with the Trivium (Grammar, Logos/Dialectic, Rhetoric) one enables deep learning, creates ‘good citizens’, helps people relate to their fellow citizens, not just in the present, but also in the past and future. Students of the Trivium manage situations, information, and themselves in a way that glorifies the pursuit of knowledge, and respects the age old argument about what actually is the best that has been thought and said. Students of the Trivium appreciate the importance of beauty and learn the importance, yes, of reflection but also of a disciplined approach to learning.

    In other words: why keep re-inventing the wheel? Go with the tried and tested and refashion it for these enlightened times.

  • http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ oldandrew

    “A good place to start is Visible Learning” by John Hattie, the section on meta-cognition that draws on a number of meta-studies, shows this approach has a big impact.”

    What section on metacognition?

    I can’t find a section on metacognition.

  • http://uk-edtech.blogspot.com/ Alex Jones

    The meta-cognitive strategies section is on pages 188 and following (in my paperback copy).

    And Trivium Man – “John Hattie’s book is indeed a good place to start, however it does not make distinctions between types of meta-cognitive approaches”.If you look at table 9.5 on page 190 you’ll see a very comprehensive list of differing meta-cognitive strategies and the effect size for each. So I think Mr Hattie not guilty don’t you?
    On your more broader point of the Trivium being a better meta-cognitive approach than ideas from within the last 500 years – lack of knowledge makes me unable to comment. But I think anything that makes learners understand and develop their own efficacy as learners tends to be empowering and so a good thing in my opinion (whatever that’s worth).

  • http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ oldandrew

    Found it, or at least some of it, thanks.

    What I did find is that Hattie (following Lavery) classes things such as “making an outline before starting a paper”, “putting off pleasurable events until after a paper is completed”, “checking work before handing in to teacher” and “taking class notes” as “meta-cognitive strategies”.

    While I have no doubt such things are effective, I’m not sure this shows what you claimed: “There is strong evidence from research that developing self knowledge about themselves as learners strongly improves outcomes.”

    Would I find this elsewhere in the section?

  • matthewtaylor

    Thanks folks. As always educational debates generate lots of heat including Andrew’s predictable but eloquent denunciation of anything that smells ‘progressive’.