It’s a rainy May Wednesday in Birmingham and two 16-year-old pupils, Kobir and Tabassum, are giving me a tour of our new RSA Academy, Holyhead School in Handsworth. With a mixture of pride and humour, they show me round buildings that are far from pristine, but ooze learning and purpose. Inventive with their questions and responses, these young people appear to have the C-factor: the power to create the lives they want for themselves and the courtesy to consider others along this journey.
Despite its enduring presence in staffrooms and classrooms, articles and RSA talks, creativity in education is in danger of becoming a toxic brand. In England, fifteen years since the publication of the seminal All Our Futures report, emerging curriculum and accountability regimes give no incentive to focus on the creative development of young people. The rhetoric driving changes in school behaviour reinforces the message that creativity is a ‘nice to have’ to be developed only after the culmination of – and never at the expense of – knowledge acquisition. As Michael Gove claimed recently, “creativity depends on mastering certain skills and acquiring a body of knowledge before being able to give expression to what’s in you…[for instance in music] you need first of all to learn your scales”.
On Saturday I spoke at an After the Coalition conference, organised by Mike Finn FRSA from Liverpool Hope University. It was a terrific first attempt at what will hopefully be an annual event. I’m hoping that our Fellows in the North West can support next year’s conference.
After making my old joke about premature evaluation, and how the educational impact of this government is especially difficult to judge, given the assessment changes at GCSE, I also argued that our understanding of the impact of the coalition on education is dependent on our views of where we stood in 2010. If you think that in 2010 our schools were in the grip of a progressive ideology (caused by a lethal mix of wooly teacher training colleges and excessive central prescription) which had devalued knowledge and teacher authority, leading to decades of falling standards and behaviour, epitomised by our plummet down the PISA league tables, then you’ll probably be thinking that the coalition has worked wonders in four years. If you have a more nuanced, evidence-based view of contemporary education history, then you’ll be more balanced about a coalition government that has actually chosen continuity over disruption on most education issues. Alison Wolf’s presentation was very compelling on the continuity point. Overall, Gove’s bark has been more radical, libertarian and antagonistic than his bite.
The lead singer of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson last week claimed that the Glastonbury Festival was “the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.” My unsubstantiated guess is that this weekend’s Festival of Education, held at Wellington College, might smash Glastonbury in any game of bourgeois Top Trumps. However, the Festival yesterday hosted the launch of a new campaign that RSA Education is delighted to have helped initiate and excited to be playing a continued role in.
The Fair Education Alliance aims to work towards ending the persistent achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers. Our aim is hardly novel; in some ways, it’s been an implicit ambition since 1870’s Education Act, made more explicit through the birth of the comprehensive movement. This is why Gove and others’ flippant dismissals of those with different views about how to close achievement gaps as ‘enemies of promise’ can be so corrosive. In contrast, the Alliance carefully brings together partners who may have very different routemaps to a fairer education system, but are prepared to collaborate to achieve common goals.
Our five Impact Goals, all measurable statements of progress, are as follows:
- Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school
- Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school
- Ensure young people develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations
- Narrow the gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment or training one year after compulsory education
- Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25 per cent most selective universities
The Alliance recognises that the “the underlying causes of educational inequality are complex and interconnected, and they need to be addressed across the education system and society. No single organisation has the knowledge, resources or expertise to bring about the changes we need to make our education system fair for everyone.” Today’s silly Times leader column, which gave an outdated, un-evidenced view of Universities’ role in teacher training, and claimed that the best way to improve the performance of white working class pupils was to “motivate them with more vocational training”, exemplifies the kind of rhetoric we do not need. Michael Wilshaw’s speech yesterday, reclaiming the comprehensive agenda with a more nuanced account of recent progress and current predicaments, was far more balanced and helpful. For once, read the speech, not the headlines.
The Education Endowment Foundation amongst others has recognised that most interventions which successfully improve outcomes also widen gaps in outcomes. This serves as a useful precis for the last few decades of schooling in England. Leaving doubts about grade inflation aside, the performance of white working class pupils at GCSE has risen significantly, and now outperforms the average… of twenty years ago. The problem is that overall average performance has risen faster.
The Education and Employers task force’s latest publication, exemplifies this dilemma. Taken in totality, employer engagement in education reproduces social inequalities. Put simply, if all employer engagement, from informal internships to formal programmes in schools to work experience, stopped tomorrow, this would probably narrow gaps in education and labour market outcomes. This, of course, is undesirable, and does disservice to the many initiatives that are designed to work with those who most need them. Yet it chrystallises the issue: If you don’t target resources with precision, a terrible thing happens. The Pupil premium has become a powerful, helpful nudge on school spending and wider strategic planning, supported by the new accountability rules which will make sure, that, to borrow a much maligned phrase, every child matters.
Teach First has achieved a terrific job in initiating the Fair Education Alliance without hubris, pulling in favours and resources, and carefully constructing some early theories of change around each change goal. yesterday’s Telegraph article by CEO Brett Wigodrtz cogently explains the organisation’s rationale for creating this alliance. It’s now up to us, as twenty-five organisations with our own priorities, deadlines and baggage, to work collaboratively, involving thousands of others to maximise our collective impact.
Too often, alliances such as these become a half-hearted bolt-on to each individual organisation’s ethos creating inertia rather than momentum, smugness rather than anger. Agreed actions can feel a million miles away from the task at hand – (“What do we want? Mapping our activities across localities! When do we want it? Soon!”). To quote Whitley RSA Academy’s mission statement (a school which puts huge efforts into closing achievement gaps, with increasing success), we need ‘deeds, not words’.
Words may matter too, however. Effective alliances dare to speak truth to power in a way that individual alliance members (many of whom will be reliant on ‘Power’ for funding) cannot. We should be brave enough collectively to think radically about school admissions and segregation, funding, teacher choice and allocation, and practices such as setting and streaming. We may want to challenge the current, confused orthodoxy around school autonomy, and the extent to which is a route to or a reward for successfully achieving our impact goals. Nick Clegg’s social mobility strategy seems heavy on indicators and light on everything else. I still haven’t met any of these oft-quoted academics who argue that ‘deprivation is destiny’, but as an alliance we should be prepared to question broader government approaches to poverty and regeneration, whilst remaining passionately optimistic about what schools can achieve, regardless of wider contexts.
Key to our success, as one alliance member suggested, may be to “reposition education as a public good”. In other words, am I prepared care a little less about my own children’s performance, and a lot more about the outcomes of their poorer peers? This is challenging terrain. Education has always been couched largely as a private, positional good, and the forces of consumerism and an increasingly unstable economy has reinforced and positively encouraged this attitude. As a society, we generally agree that closing class gaps in health outcomes is desirable (unless you are particularly callous, health is not seen as a positional good). In terms of education outcomes, if we’re honest with ourselves we aren’t so sure how much equality we really want, so continue to hoard advantage whenever possible (and it’s usually possible).
RSA Education has always engaged in issues relating to social justice in education – my predecessor Becky Francis’ review of social justice in education, and report on progression in further education, provide fantastic foundations. Last year’s report on in-year admissions highlighted one cause of injustice, and our Academies work daily to address educational inequality. As a founder member of the alliance, will now make a simple commitment. We won’t engage in education programmes, whether policy research or practical innovations, unless ‘closing the gap’ is built into the design and ambition of these programmes. Our own focus will move increasingly on what we are calling ‘closing the creativity gap’ across all stages of life, always connecting this agenda with attainment and other broad outcomes. That’s for another blog. For the moment, we hope that thousands of RSA Fellows and others participate in the alliance and sign up to our goals. We don’t care how bourgeois you are, and even if you’re an Iron Maiden fan, you’re welcome.
Today’s launch of the ippr’s Condition of Britain report coincided (I’ll assume by accident) with the Centre for Policy Studies launch of The Policy. The fixture clash reminded me of my ex-colleague Temi’s Ogunye’s brilliant article for The Independent, arguing that ‘The left can be too clever for its own good. We need to translate think tank speak into plain English’. Contrast these two reports:
Condition of Britain: “This landmark report argues for a new approach to politics and public action driven by the goals of spreading power, fostering contribution and strengthening shared institutions.”
The Policy: Abolish corporation tax for small companies; abolish capital gains tax for investors in small companies.
Condition of Britain: 28 recommendations
The Policy: 2 recommendations (see above)
This is probably an unfair comparison; the ippr’s report was deliberately wide-ranging and systematic, capturing the concerns of thousands. The CPS idea came from Maurice Saatchi, one of their trustees, underpinned by a small amount of empirical data. So I won’t take this comparison further (especially as I haven’t read either report properly).
Matthew Taylor’s blog gives a deeper analysis of the strengths and flaws in the Condition of Britain approach and Ed Miliband’s response. With a football match to get home to, all I’ll say now is that every party’s commitment to localism (and attitude to local authorities within that commitment) needs severe and forensic stress-testing before anyone should believe any of it. Which precise powers are you prepared to give away, to who, and for how long? What rights of redress or re-centralisation will you retain? Otherwise, as I wrote in my last blog recommending that all Lib Dem ministers resign this summer, ‘whoever is in office, the centralisers are in power’.
Image courtesy of Cherry Red Records
Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education at the RSA. @joehallg
To the credit of his teacher, my six year old son is learning and loving The Odyssey at school (in English, I’m afraid; Apologies, Messrs Gove and Johnson). With all the talk of Trojan horses in Birmingham’s schools, I am wondering whether there’s an education story to go with every Odyssean adventure. I am not sure who the Cyclops could be – there are a few candidates out there. The many tales involving his boat leaking between a rock and a hard place could be any number of education quangos, but Ofsted is currently the front runner. My son’s current favourite story is The Sirens, those alluring sea nymphs whose seductive singing tempt sailors to their deaths. Does this sound like any academy sponsors you know? Odysseus himself is obviously the national curriculum – returning home unrecognisable from when it set out.*
Yesterday’s predicted and predictable local election disaster for the Liberal Democrats may be meaningless this time next year. If their core vote forgives some of their soul-selling, and no other party gains its own overall majority, the Lib Dems could arrive in May 2015 with a similar number of MPs and a meal ticket to form another coalition.
It will, however, be a different party from the one which formed a government in 2010. International Development Minister Lynn Featherstone confessed on Question Time yesterday that the Liberal Democrats have lost some of their ‘humanity’ since joining the coalition. Her explanation that the party has become too ‘ministerial’, may only partly explain this (it’s not as if the electorate perceives the Labour opposition as having humanity in spades), but there is little doubt that national power has changed the Liberal Democrat DNA.
One of the unintended yet refreshing aspects of this coalition government has been an unearthing of the power of open policymaking. Whilst the Cabinet Office is trying this through sophisticated, design-led processes, politicians have been getting on with it. Cross-party ministerial teams have been prepared to reveal the tensions, debates and doubts that are an inevitable part of policymaking processes. The disagreements have been substantive, in the best possible way – they have revealed the substance of policy debates, rather than the style of clashing egos – the ‘froth’, as Tony Blair used to dismiss various internecine New Labour squabbles.
When we met with David Laws last week (squeezed between various free school/free school meals rows and rapprochements) to discuss our report into teacher education and research, he was as focused as ever on the job in hand, especially the effective implementation of current policies. However, with policy development more-or-less concluded for this Parliament (with the important but cross-party exception of the Modern Slavery Bill), there is now a strong argument for all Liberal Democrat Ministers to resign from their posts, in an orderly and non-grumpy way, before they depart for Summer holidays. There have already been rumblings of plans for a happy divorce, but I’d suggest that it’s up to the Lib Dems to take the initiative on this. If some kind of mutual non-disclosure agreement is necessary to prevent Jerry Springer-like mudslinging between current and former ministers, then so be it (although with Clegg, Gove and advisers involved, any truce is unlikely to hold for long).
Liberal Democrat Ministers deserve some time out of office to create some clear yellow water between themselves and the administration they have been part of. This is not just about the development of catchy pupil premium-like ideas for the next manifesto. Next time, the concept of coalition does not need to take them by surprise. Liberal Democrats need to rethink how their approach to their next possible coalition needs to be underpinned by a clearer set of principles which return the party to their historical roots and traditions, especially relating to localism.
What was most surprising about Nick Clegg’s ‘free school meals for all’ policy, apart from its shaky evidence base and partially regressive nature, is the lack of commitment it revealed to the principles of school autonomy. Schools could not be trusted to make their own budgetary decisions on this issue. Similarly, less excusable than their unavoidable climbdown on tuition fees (they are the minority party, after all) was their blind rubberstamping of the government’s top-down health reforms – I say blind , given that Nick Clegg allegedly did not even read the proposals before giving them his blessing. One Liberal Democrat 2010 Manifesto proposal which has been barely mentioned since is the idea of a local income tax. Given current concerns about regional disparities in wealth and growth, and the Conservatives’ half-hearted attempts to devolve power to local communities (look and laugh at the front cover of their 2010 Manifesto), this idea is worthy of proper reconsideration.
A period of reflection, on deckchairs, backbenches, and constituency surgery chairs, could enable the Liberal Democrats to use their experience of holding office to think pragmatically about how their commitment to localism should manifesto itself in both manifesto and in future negotiations about the next coalition. Otherwise, to adapt an old phrase, ‘Whoever is in office, the centralisers are always in power’.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
Given the RSA’s long tradition for running successful, influential commissions and Inquiries, it’s not surprising that we are often asked to lead commissions on various aspects of public policy. Too often, however, the instigators are frankly not that inquiring – they see a commission approach as a subtle marketing ploy to pitch solutions they already have in mind. Whenever these suggestions pass my inbox, I ask one simple question: “is this just a campaign masked as an Inquiry?”
I asked this of the British Education Research Association’s (BERA) approach to us this time last year to work on an Inquiry into the role of research in UK teacher education. Refreshingly, from the beginning, it was clear that BERA’s focus was on improving outcomes for learners, and wanted an Inquiry that was guided by the evidence rather than the interests of their members.
Our final report, launched today, demonstrates how the Inquiry has stuck to these principles. Ultimately, we are convinced that the four UK nations’ attempts to create world class, self-improving school systems will fail unless greater prominence is given to teachers’ engagement with research, and attempts are made to ensure that all teachers become ‘research literate’. However we make no special pleading for the role of universities or academics in this process. Success will be predicated on partnerships (especially with the growing Research-Edcommunity I blogged about here).
The evidence we gathered is clear about the positive impact that a research literate and research engaged profession is likely to have on learner outcomes. Despite this, we found that teachers’ experience of professional development in most parts of the UK is “fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research” in contrast to that of internationally well-regarded education systems such as Finland, Canada and Singapore. Too often, schools’ ability to make a long-term commitment to creating a research-engaged workforce is being undermined by a target culture and short-term focus on exam results.
The Inquiry makes the case for the development across the UK of self-improving education systems in which all teachers become research literate and many have frequent opportunities for engagement in research and enquiry. This requires that schools and colleges become research-rich environments in which to work. It also requires that teacher researchers and the wider research community work in partnership, rather than in separate and sometimes competing universes. Finally, it demands an end to the false dichotomy between HE and school-based approaches to initial teacher education.
We concluded that everybody in a leadership position – in the policy community, in university departments of education, at school or college level or in academy chains and other intermediaries – has a responsibility to support the creation of the sort of research-rich cultures which can both improve outcomes and close attainment gaps.
To achieve our vision, we identified ten principles that characterise the design of research-rich, self-improving education systems, organised across five themes:
These principles can be used as criteria against which to assess any education system’s approach. They also informed our recommendations for each of the four jurisdictions in the UK. This included establishing a National Network of Research Leaders in Education in each country and changes to the regulations governing teacher training and school inspections.
When I tell the story of the RSA’s education history, I give three examples from the 19th Century: The creation in our House of a new kind of chimney sweep; the campaign for girls’ education which led to the creation of the Girls Day School Trust; and the 1870 Inquiry into the state of education which recommended that government should create a Department for Education. Speaking to a conference for headteachers recently, one heckled back “well, two good ideas out of three isn’t bad!” Although a research-literate profession is no magic bullet to raise standards, it might provide the glue that helps all education interventions and programmes to be more effective and productive. As I wrote in an earlier blog if you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom? “research literacy matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.” Get this right (and the UK’s data-drenched education systems provide strong foundations to build on), and perhaps the RSA’s next Inquiry can call for the virtual abolition of the DfE. Although of course, we would never be foolish enough to start with such a solution in mind.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education Follow me @joehallg
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation today published a useful report on tackling poverty through public procurement. The ideas, building on the methodology created back in 2002 for including social and community benefits in public procurement. are practical and sensible. With public procurement as a percentage of GDP barely declining at all during or since the recession, the impact of taking up these recommendations could be significant. Public procurement has already been affected in London and elsewhere by the Living Wage campaign. Building commitments to local training and employment into contracts and enabling smaller tender ‘lots’ to give smaller local enterprises a chance of successful bidding could create maximum value for the taxpayer by reducing welfare dependency and keeping the financial fruits of procurement within communities. Read more
In Dan Willingham’s superb book ‘why students don’t like school’, one of his provocative conclusions is that ‘the mind is not designed for thinking’. The problematic combination of effort, uncertainty and mental availability leads us to be, in John Hattie’s words, ‘highly selective about what we pay attention to’. Although Willingham is pragmatic and optimistic about solutions to this issue, his Realpolitik starting point is salutary and useful. If, to use Robert Coe’s definition, pupils are learning when they are ‘thinking hard’, their capacity to dislike and avoid learning things should hardly surprise us. Read more
I’ve just spent two days at the Global Education and Skills Forum, billed as a ‘Davos for Education’, and organised with rigour and panache by the Varkey Gems Foundation. I participated on a hunch that the RSA might have something to contribute to this agenda. If William Shipley and other founders came back to the RSA now, they’d be surprised by many things: the still-fantastic condition of our House; the global penetration of our RSA Animates; the price of our coffee. I think they would also be surprised by our lack of engagement around international development generally, and education in particular. The issues being faced by education systems (and the term ‘system’ is a euphemism in many states) around the world can put some of the UK issues we grapple with in their petty, parochial shade.
The recent Education for All Global Monitoring Report showed how, despite progress on access over the last decade, 100 million children of primary age are still not in school, and a further 150 million children leave primary school unable to read, write or count. The annual cost of this failure is estimated at £129bn. All six 2015 ‘Education for All’ goals will be missed. If trends continue, it will take until 2086 before universal primary education for girls becomes a reality. Our own Department for International Development last year published an excellent position paper, reaffirming the UK’s commitment to ‘providing global leadership on delivering value for money, developing new partnerships across the public–private spectrum, using new technology and building evidence on new approaches and aid modalities with partner governments.
Because of significant progress on goals around famine relief, malnourishment and broader health crises, the focus on global education goals is growing. The ‘poster children’ for the development world are now less likely to be starving children than pupils in very cramped classrooms, or being taught outside with minimal resources. However, according to figures released by Gems, businesses and foundations donate approximately sixteen times more to health than to education. The new ‘business backs education’ campaign is calling for all businesses to increase the share of their CSR spend on education to 20%.
In a context which is both changing rapidly and hitting frustrating buffers, a total antipathy to the private sector is almost impossible to sustain. The demand for learning is such that private, ‘pay at the point of use’ options are an inevitable and, when of good quality, welcome part of the ecology. Without such input, the so-called ‘demographic dividend’ is more likely to be a demographic disaster of young people entering the labour market with very limited skills and motivations. At the moment, it’s a blurred and occasionally messy mix between pure private provision (high and low cost), NGO provision and support, and publicly funded and delivered schools. Different actors will inevitably be bumping into each other in the field, although any inefficiencies caused by duplicating effort may be offset by a curiously competitive climate. In many ways, global education in developing countries looks similar to England’s mixed economy of early year provision. As Bill Clinton’s speech highlighted.
“It is projected that by 2050 that 86 percent of the world’s children will be living in what are now developing countries. There is no way that governments alone or international aid flows alone will be able to provide those children with the quality of education they need to be full participants in global society. This is especially relevant for women and girls.”
To maximise the impact of this mixed economy, it might be wise for governments to move further and faster to a commissioning function, minimising any delivery responsibilities. This would include the commissioning of high quality training and professional development, using the potential of blended learning (including MOOCs for teacher training), as well as being highly informed, evidence-based commissioners of ICT solutions that could improve outcomes whilst reducing costs. Government should also see themselves as ‘champions of parents’, developing simple and strong accountability systems to empower parents about the quality of choices available, and speaking up for the interests of the most vulnerable families, those ‘high hanging fruit’ that the private sector may never reach out and up to. NGOs, especially the larger global actors, may need to change their attitudes and approaches to working with for-profits, who are sometimes portrayed by NGOs as maybe-necessary and hopefully-temporary evils.
Amidst the justified rush to get as many children in school and learning for as long as possible, it’s worth reflecting on the challenges that education systems such as England’s, with over 150 years’ experience of free universal education, have struggled to solve, and if anything are more entrenched than ever. Here is my cut of five perpetual problems for virtually every developed education system, regardless of PISA league table ranking.
1. Low equity, high inequality Despite occasional progress, universal education has largely reinforced rather than broken down existing social inequalities
2. An artificial divide between academic and vocational learning, and between school and work All systems (yes Germany, you too) have struggled to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational education pathways. A rising ‘school leaving age’ may have inadvertently created new firewalls between the worlds of school and work.
3. Low teacher agency and self-efficacy The overwhelming policy dynamic, whether led by national governments, local authorities or other intermediaries, has cast teachers as victims rather than agents of change.
4. Increasing teenage disengagement OECD data shows that teenagers, including the growing number of students who are ‘successful’ in terms of exam results, are increasingly disengaged from and motivated by the process of schooling.
5. Minimal arts provision In every system across the world, arts and cultural learning appears to be at best permanently vulnerable to reductions in provision, and at worst marginalised from schools’ curricula and childrens’ lives.
If, as a country or state, you are struggling to build enough schools, ensure children learn anything when they are at school, prevent early drop-outs, especially amongst girls, or get teachers better trained or simply turning up to teach more regularly, these five issues may feel like peripheral luxuries. Yet it’s in building the foundations for a universal education system that cultures and norms are established. Developing countries have opportunities to shape new blended delivery structures for education: between private, public and voluntary provision; between teachers, parents pupils and other citizens; between online and face to face teaching and learning; and perhaps above all, between the worlds of school and work. This is less ‘creative destruction’, and more creative commissioning, mixing the most appropriate solutions which might lead to far more effective protection against the holes that we developed nations keep on digging, and far more scope for enabling teachers to lead education change processes. It’s hard to predict the model which might replace what Ken Robinson famously termed our ‘industrial model’ of schooling, but it may well emerge from the developing world who are less burdened by the baggage of a hundred years of universal education.
Whether anything will ever change any education system’s approach to arts learning is another matter, but that’s for another blog, and a possible RSA project. For the moment, I’ll give the last word to my favourite speaker from the event, Mary Joy Pigozzi from Educate a Child:
‘Ultimately, it is a country’s citizens that own its education system’.
Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education at the RSA. Follow him @joehallg