This guest blog is from RSA Intern Temitayo Ogunye, who is working the RSA Education Team on developing enrichment opportunities for RSA Academies.
Having access to useful networks matters and it is about time we let state school kids know it.
Over a year ago, I wrote an article in which I recorded my experience of graduating from my undergraduate degree at the height of the recession and slowly coming to recognise the central importance of contacts and networks when it comes to getting jobs and making your way in the world. There, I argued that one of the fundamental differences between young people who went to private school and those who went to state school is not simply that the former tend to have greater access to useful contacts and networks than the latter, but also the fact that they tend to be more aware of the fact that networks and contacts matter in the first place. I went on to explain that I am working to build an alumni community at my old state school as a way of helping to address this problem. Where else better is there to start than with a community that does so much to shape young people and is, in a sense, ready formed?
The idea runs as follows. The nature of this particular inequality between state and privately educated people is not wholly or even essentially material, but instead about culture and connections. State school kids tend not to have as many useful contacts as their privately educated counterparts and, even if they do, they often don’t realise how important they are. And even if they do happen recognise the importance of contacts, they are often not very savvy or practiced when it comes to using or making them. Recent RSA research on the importance of social capital helps to substantiate many of these points.
An alumni community for state school students would inspire young people by showing them the great things that people from their school have done, and provide opportunities for them by creating the conditions within which useful connections can be made and enriching experiences can be had. It would provide role models that the young people at state schools can more easily relate to and give them a sense that there are valuable resources within their own community. At the same time, an alumni community that produces benefits for its members would introduce state school kids to the simple truth that networks and contacts matter a lot; learning – as I did – few months into frustrating unemployment after graduating with a good degree from a good university simply isn’t good enough.
(To be honest, if I was writing the article now I would also make the point that the definition of what counts as an enriching experience should change. Why, for example, is a gap year helping poor people in Uganda or Bolivia seen to be more valuable or enriching than a lifetime caring for a sick grandparent or a helping your single mother look after your younger siblings? It is also important to say that not all state schools are the same and building an alumni community might be easier in some than it is in others. Indeed, significant differences in access to useful networks can often occur within state schools – it certainly did in mine.)
Now, there is clearly not much that is new in this idea; private schools and universities have been doing it for centuries, and an organisation that I used to work with called Future First is currently building networks of former students around state schools across the country, with the ambition there being “an alumni community in every school”. I would very much like this kind of thinking on the importance of networks and connections between people to inform the design of the enrichment activities that the RSA builds around its academies.
There is both a challenge and an opportunity here. The challenge is to look to other sources of networks to build around the RSA Academies, possibly as well as former students (Future First actually already work with Lilian Baylis – a member if the RSA Family of Academies). The opportunity relates to the fact that in our 27,000 Fellows we have an extraordinarily successful, enthusiastic, and inspirational network. The perfect place to start, I think.
What would you do if, as a teacher, your school was closing next July? If all the students were to be sent to other schools and all of the staff to take early retirement or go off to teach elsewhere. What kinds of challenges, and what kinds of freedom would this bring?
In June, RSA began project a with Service Children’s Education, the agency responsible for the children of Ministry of Defence personnel, service and civilian, who are based overseas. SCE currently provides education for over 10,000 pupils in 38 schools in nine countries.
This week, two of the RSA education team went to Rheindahlen near Dusseldorf to develop plans with two schools whose buildings, staff, student body, community and locality will all be a thing of the past this time next year. For Windsor Secondary School and Ark Primary School there are no impending OFSTED inspections, no results targets for next year, no new curriculum to be embedded, no incoming Reception children or year 6s. The only thing that matters is the experience of the current students while they are with the school, and how well they can be equipped for their next move – wherever that may be.
The first thing that is striking about visiting Windsor Secondary school was the apparent absence of students. The school – the size of an ordinary English secondary school in its heyday, anticipates that it will contain approximately 125 students by the time the school closes next July. Class sizes, especially further up the age range, are already tiny. On a tour of the arts facilities we encountered a drama class of six year 7 pupils and a GCSE music lesson with just one student in it. “What a gift!” was the typically positive response from Joy Harris, the arts advisor for Service Children’s Education. “I wish I was in your class with these fabulously creative teachers, and so much space to move around”.
In fact everyone we met – from the headteachers to the colonel in charge of closing the base – seemed determined that the closure of the schools – and the garrison – was to be celebrated. In fact, such was the evident desire to continue giving the students a great experience of school, that one senior leader felt it necessary to mention that of course ‘being realistic’ the base was closing, and so certain aspects of school life would need to be drawn to a close. Only seven rooms around the school have been closed so far, in a conscious effort not to leave whole swathes of the buildings derelict while the students are still attending.
The Shakespeare through Opening Minds project we are planning with Windsor School, with a focus on the competences that might assist students in their transitions between schools and countries, is exciting. But Windsor School, its inspiring head, and arts advisor Joy, have been determined for some time that students will receive a creative education in which they are inculcated into what headteacher Brian Davies calls ‘the art of the possible’. So despite the endless rain which accompanied our visit, the semi-abandoned atmosphere of the garrison, the empty corridors and enormous trees that permeate the site as a reminder of the forest to which it will return when the British have gone, the great efforts to inject a sense of celebration and hope into the remaining months at this very unique school are proving very effective – it’s a garrison that’s half full, not half empty.
The situation of their pupils is unique and challenging in that they are facing much uncertainty and disruption, but the Windsor staff are focused on turning this into a positive experience for their pupils, one where they will gain valuable real-life skills, such as resilience, adaptability and reflection. Most of these children are used to changing schools and homes frequently, or at least seeing their friends move, and will therefore perhaps have acquired these skills to a greater extent than their peers in England. We hope that our projects will help staff to make the acquisition of these skills explicit to the pupils and so make a potentially difficult experience something that they can regard as a rare and positive opportunity.
The Ark Primary School with whom we are also working is by contrast still very lively, crammed to the rafters with displays of artwork, sculpture, lively children, not to mention the resident guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens inhabiting the school farm. Sadly the longest-standing resident ‘Lady Yolk’ had passed away shortly before our arrival, but this seemed not to damage the spirits or enthusiasm of the students or the staff. The school is adamant that children should have ‘roots – however temporary’ in the garrison, and have created a school museum dedicated to the history of the garrison, its origins, including log books of students attending schools on the site from the 1970s. The aim will be to engage the students in creating an installation or sculpture that represents their feelings towards the school closure and so allows them to take some ownership of the process whilst knowing that they will be leaving a legacy for themselves and the community to visit in the future. We will update on this project shortly.
So what would you do if, as a teacher, your school was closing next July? Perhaps you would try to ensure your students were equipped with the confidence and self-awareness to make their next steps. Perhaps you would bring in whatever expertise in the arts or other areas you could lay your hands on to ensure that students had the richest possible experience of school while you were still able to influence it. Perhaps you would try to give students a sense of the history and identity of the location of their school and their home, before they are asked to move on. Are these schools really freer to do more than they would be if they weren’t closing?
This Guest Blog is from Parveen Nawab, a Teach First participant who teaches in a secondary school in West London. Parveen is on a Summer placement with the RSA education team.
As a full-time teacher, I am absorbed in the day-to-day “groundwork” of education, but being at the RSA has really exposed me to the exciting innovations changing the face of education behind the scenes. If teachers are to achieve the high status in society that they enjoy in other countries, they need to engage fully with their communities, take advantage of new curriculum freedoms, and be recognised for doing so.
It’s the last day of my summer project at RSA Education and time to reflect on some of the projects I have been helping the team with. I have been particularly inspired by RSA’s Opening Minds initiative and their plans to pilot a CPD programme for a “golden generation of curriculum designers.” I am sure that this will appeal to my fellow Teach First participants. Conversations with my peers have revealed that the vast majority of us have had to create from scratch whole schemes of work and devise appropriate forms of assessment. This is because in many challenging schools resources are not readily available, are out-dated or not engaging for learners. So if there’s already so much content creation going on, a natural step is to give teachers the recognition for it that they duly deserve, and the skills and theoretical frameworks to make professional judgments.
One thing that makes the programme so appealing is its community-based approach. Unfortunately, many teachers do little to engage with the communities in which they work And this could be because engagement is perceived as risky. In my year of teaching so far, I’ve learnt that good teaching is about taking risks – moving from orthodox methods of interaction and delivery often perceived to be “safe bets” to entering untested domains. Being at the RSA has only affirmed my view that teachers participating in the localities they serve is critical to having an impact. In Opening Minds we shouldn’t just focus on pupils – teachers, equally, need think “outside the box”.
Another problem with the so-called “foolproof” approaches to teaching is that many of us are stubbornly nostalgic about “what worked in our day” – I’m only 24 but must also confess to exhibiting such symptoms at times. But if teachers are going to meet increasing demands for accountability for driving progress and producing results, we need to seriously consider the needs and demands of young people. As Sir Ken Robinson suggests in Changing Paradigms, the bombardment of technology means today’s youth unsurprisingly are experiential learners stimulated by the senses. Rather than suppressing it, we must effectively channel this energy by getting them involved in active, tangible experiences, in or out of the classroom.
One school, Little Ilford, in Manor Park, East London had the right idea for project-based learning that reflects “real” experiences one might encounter in a job as an adult. During my visit on a School Orientation Experience in Summer 2011, I joined Key Stage Three students in their “project” classes. The objective in these lessons was to work on one of nine projects in the year that required a range of knowledge and skills to be drawn from a multitude of disciplines. For instance, creating a holiday brochure involved not only the use of persuasive language, it also required appropriate knowledge of art and design, mathematics, history, geography and I.C.T. So although much of the content remains the same, the way it is presented to young people is profoundly different.
But how many teachers feel it is their responsibility to specify what is taught? Although school staff rooms are alive with incessant debate over this issue (with teachers’ un-PC subject-prejudices being openly expressed), how many are actively willing to take advantage of the freedoms granted to them by the new National Curriculum? At least in my experience, there are many educators out there who would be apprehensive about a shift from delivering prescribed curricula to having the autonomy to frame themselves. This is probably more common in secondary schools where content is subject-specific and lacks the interdisciplinary approach that primary schools practice. For policy changes to influence teacher creativity, and in order for pupil attainment to benefit from the trickle-down effect of this, teachers need to feel confident in their ability to assess children beyond their specialised subject and thus be able to shape an all-encompassing curriculum. Thus, as Louise Thomas articulates, it’s time to consider the content and rigour of teacher training.
Creating space for teacher input into what is taught could also have a positive impact on the value of teaching as a profession and how it is perceived by those outside education. In the eyes of many, teaching carries little prestige; teachers are all-too-familiar with the judgemental cynics who reduce their job to one that is characterised by regular holidays and unnecessary bureaucracy. In fact, many teachers are already practising some form of curriculum design – by deciding what to include and omit in pupils’ knowledge. But this needs to be more formalised in Initial Teacher Training – with the option to choose electives in a range of other disciplines – so that teachers are seen less as mere transmitters of knowledge or the social workers of their communities and more as agents in constructing knowledge.
This Guest Blog is from Laura Redhead, a Teach First participant who teaches in a secondary school in Liverpool. Laura is on a Summer placement with the RSA education team.
By job description I am a maths teacher. To many people: the casual onlooker, fellow recent graduates, the officer who stamped the ‘occupation status’ on my departure form at the airport, and even the pupils I teach, talking about numbers is all I do.
They may be correct in the sense that the quality of my output is measured in numerical terms (i.e. rankings in league tables and percentages of A*-C grades). But a parent wouldn’t like to think of their child as being analysed in terms of three sub-levels of progress, and teachers don’t see individual pupils as a target level or grade. While a parent’s evening conversation may involve such data, the child’s interests and individual needs are much more important to both parties. So why aren’t teachers evaluated in terms of their qualitative values?
In a recent frontline voices podcast from the RSA, Carey Oppenheim outlines the qualities needed to be a teacher. Ideally a teacher is: “inventive and organised, a good talker and listener, energetic and calm, spontaneous and consistent”, and above all have the ability to relate to young people. Now as a new recruit, my initial naïve thought is that a number given as a result of an Ofsted inspection ( 1=Outstanding, 2=Good, 3=Satisfactory, 4=Inadequate – at least until the recent changes kick in) probably overlooks the qualitative worth of an individual teacher. Nevertheless, Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw does recognise the individual strengths of teachers and the “need to celebrate diversity, ingenuity and imagination” in the different styles in which we teach. And yes teacher training and senior leadership are right to focus on individual strengths (and weaknesses) of individual teachers in individual lessons. But stopping there implies that teachers are operating as technicians delivering pre-determined outcomes, albeit in a variety of ways. If teachers are to be considered as professionals then other aspects of their role need to be valued: for example, how their individual practice can be used within a whole school approach; how well they collaborate and contribute to innovation across the school and in partnership with colleagues. After all, the potential of innovative collaboration is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
One of the recommendations of the schools White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ was to recruit motivated graduates, and reform teacher training. Through my graduate scheme/teacher training course I have been monitored heavily, not just by the equivalent of The Prisoner’s Number Two (the village administrator). I have been rigorously observed by a number of stakeholders; my subject tutor, subject mentor, senior leadership, a consultant from the LEA (Local Education Authority), school governors, the SIP (School Improvement Processor), colleagues, fellow TeachFirst participants and Ofsted (the chief administrator if you like). The question arises as to how effective this system of quality control inspections is. I, like many other teachers, take a pragmatic stance towards the excess paperwork involved. However, what I do value is the chance to evaluate and reflect with the professional opinion of an expert. Sometimes I am honoured by the fact they want to extract my ideas.
During my time at the RSA, I have observed how innovative and creative ideas can be put into practice. However my limited insight into teaching practice, research and theory tells me that whilst there is a lot of innovation coming from the outside organisations, there seems to be reluctance towards risk taking, research and questioning policy from within schools. Although many schools are doing innovative things, it is crucial that teachers within those schools are fully on board. Surely a social change igniting curriculum innovation should be supported by all realms of the sphere of influence:from the inside outwards as well as from the outside in. True autonomy and effective collaboration is only possible if every agent: teachers, teaching assistants, department heads, senior leadership, outside agencies, training bodies – as well as OFSTED – recognises the impact they can have.
Like Number Six I refuse to give into the pretence and accept the boundaries of my assigned number or job title. As for the theme of individualism versus collectivism, I agree with giving individual schools the freedom to do their own thing, but feel that teachers should fight their reluctance to take risks or open up their practice to reflection and scrutiny of other professionals?. However such autonomy can only be successful if all are striving for the same goal – should this be to equip school leavers with the skills and competencies (in addition to academic knowledge) to thrive in the 21st century? Or is the school’s ranking and percentage of 5+ A*-C’s enough?
This Guest Blog is from Parveen Nawab, a Teach First participant who teaches in a secondary school in West London. Parveen is on a Summer placement with the RSA education team.
No news yet. In about twelve hours my Year 11 mixed-ability class’ English GCSE results will be published online, and in twenty-four I’ll be amidst a (probably small) pool of girls jumping joyously, delicately balancing my reaction to cater for the weeping majority in a corner of the school café.
I last met my students at the Year 11 Prom, wishing them well for their future endeavours. I remember several girls asking me, “Madame,” (yes, that’s how they address female teachers in my school) “will you be around on results’ day?”
Secretly wondering how they suddenly cared about my presence, I responded “Errr… I might be on holiday but you’ll be fine.” Two weeks lingered before the summer break began and, if I’m brutally honest, my motivation to teach all-singing, all-dancing lessons to my remaining classes had almost completely been sapped. Also, as much as I’d grown to adore my class and was genuinely committed to raising their attainment, 23rd August 2012 was the least important date in my heavily -scheduled diary.
That’s because, after a year of teaching an 18-hour weekly timetable, only four hours less than what a fully qualified teacher is required to deliver, I hadn’t yet qualified to teach English in a secondary school. Perhaps more embarrassingly, I do not hold a degree in English either. I’m a historian.
There are two glaring questions that emerge for me: first, should an unqualified “teacher” with little or no prior training be teaching such an intensive timetable and, more specifically, a Year 11 exam class? And must a teacher hold a degree in the subject they teach?
In answer to the first of these I would adamantly say “no”. My concern comes amid Michael Gove’s recent announcement that all academies now have the right to hire unqualified teachers. Gove believes that any expert in their field does not need Qualified Teacher Status to independently teach a class of thirty (or more) children. There is an argument for this. After all, I do believe that everyone is intrinsically creative and we all have the raw capacity to practise the “artistic” element of teaching – that is, the day-to-day delivery of lessons. Great teacher training unleashes and moulds these core characteristics.
But how many of the “expert” doctors, engineers and lawyers Gove refers to actually quit their professions to teach in state schools? And how many of those experts have expertise across their whole domain? I may be a historian, but most of my knowledge is focussed on the 19th and 20th centuries. Also, in implying that specialist knowledge alone is sufficient in helping students progress, Gove neglects the equally fundamental pastoral and psychological aspects of teaching.
It is my view that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Michael Gove’s sweeping statement The idea that “teachers are born, not made” is a poor justification for experts considered by academies to be qualified to enter the profession, and could become a passport for academies to relinquish support for trainee teachers amid tightening financial budgets. In the context of increasing performance targets, trainee teachers’ wellbeing in these highly pressurised environments is also at risk of being neglected. In other words, teaching is a highly complex profession and if teachers are not looked after and trained properly, students, the most important stakeholders, lose out. Successful classroom teachers are by no means a homogeneous group; every teacher has a different way of doing things, a different style, which must be appreciated. But, in saying essentially that “a person either has it or they don’t”, one-size-fits-all approach is implied.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had a rollercoaster of a year – riding hills of happiness and valleys of death. Contrary to my students, I have also developed enormously professionally and personally. But should my success as a “Good” or “Outstanding” teacher be defined by self-improvement – that is, highly reflective practice and achieving personal targets – or through the performance, or rather value added to the attainment, of students? In other words, yes, I’ve made rapid progress in the last year as a trainee practitioner but only at the expense of my students (I mean, guinea-pigs) who have had to endure poorly-planned lessons, a lack of sufficient subject-specific knowledge and an inconsistent style of teaching.
Whilst I’m all in favour of the thrown-in-the-deep-end routes offered by organisations such as Teach First, and am what we call in pedagogy (a word I ironically had never encountered up until last year) an “experiential learner”, I feel that it’s the risk to students in a crucial year that is most disconcerting. Either way, (without belittling the importance of other year groups’ attainment) let’s keep Year 11s out of this – it’s their GCSEs, after all,and they only get one shot.
I might, of course, change my mind in a few hours’ time.
Some thoughts from Amelia Peterson*
Michael Gove has this week defended his proposals for removal of GCSEs. Both sides of this debate have been argued extensively in recent days, but there has been little progression because the options presented remain hopelessly narrow. As they stand, Gove’s plans are a dangerous cocktail of sensible and contentious moves. There is a solid argument that GCSEs do not necessarily have a place in England’s future education system, yet this does not mean the only option is a return to something like O levels and CSEs.
Those who have come out in favour of reintroducing a two-tiered system have called on the deeply entrenched view that can be summed up as: ‘we must face the fact that some children are academically-minded, others vocationally-minded.’
This view is what we can call a lay theory: a notion of how something works that does not fit the most accurate picture we have.
In this case, the concepts ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ are outdated for two reasons. The first emerges from developments in cognitive science and neurobiology. For a long time it was popular to think of our brains as like a computer: everyone has a set of hardware, but some have a few more GHz than others, thus the spectrum of results on IQ tests and in ‘academic’ ability. Yet we know this is a false picture of both the brain and intelligence. In many respects a more accurate theory is reflected by the old Beano cartoon, “The Numskulls’, where the brain is populated by little people. The important point is not the compartmentalisation, but that skills grow and develop, and can do so at different rates. Moreover, the numbskulls are human, which reflects the fact that learning is an emotional process: getting motivation right is crucial, and when it comes to learning our brain responds much more to a carrot than a stick.
Descriptions of people as ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ therefore have no robust correlate in our biology. They also have increasingly little correlate in our society. Vocational, when set against academic, can refer to those who work with their hands, but as trades have diminished, is often just used rather roughly in place of ‘low skilled’.
For both these reasons, the O level/CSE system would draw a completely artificial line where none need be drawn.
This is not wanting all to have prizes, or fretting abut self-esteem. It would be “economic idiocy”, to use a phrase of Michael Gove’s, to allow a system where one group are classed yet more firmly than already occurs as ‘not really education material’.
There are solid projections that over the next twenty years the need for low-skilled work will continue to fall, while high-skilled jobs will rise. Analysis of the impact of technology in the second half of the twentieth century demonstrates that already only ‘nonroutine cognitive’ tasks in jobs are growing. Many of the young people just entering work now will need to retrain at some point in their career. Moreover, in an increasingly interrelated world, every agent needs to be able to take responsibility for their actions, which means being prepared to continue learning about how their actions impact surrounding systems. Overall, we cannot afford for even a minority percentage of our population to turn away from learning.
There are other options for 16+ examinations that are more fit for purpose. Firstly, as leaving age moves to 17 or 18, there is no need for comprehensive qualifications at this age, only perhaps a single universal assessment of core skills. The problem of challenging students across the spectrum of profiles could be met by adaptive testing: states in the US have already developed computer-based numeracy and literacy tests where the challenge adjusts for the student. The desire for ‘rigour’ would better be met by tests which push for complex thinking, rather than solely for more content absorption. Assessments appropriate for the future are currently being developed by a consortium of countries – including Gove’s oft-cited Singapore – under the name of 21st century skills.
It is a sign of the extent to which education policy is overrun by politics that England’s only proposals under consideration are variations on familiar things we have had before. The nature of examinations should not be based on what strikes some intuitive appeal with the public – or worse, on what can be rushed in in two years – but on the most advanced thinking in this area. While education remains so determined by the assessments intended to measure it, the least we can do is try to get those assessments right.
*Amelia Peterson is an intern at the Innovation Unit and spent last year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
This was the refrain from the floor as well as the panel at the Bishop Creighton Academy – Peterborough Cathedral ‘Question Time’ event held in Peterborough last week last week. Around 30 students from Bishop Creighton Academy filed into the Bishop’s Palace in Peterborough Cathedral to quiz faith leaders from the city about the role of their institutions in a diverse 21st century city. The event was the culmination of a year of work that school teachers, the school council, and the Cathedral have developed in partnership under the banner of the Peterborough Curriculum.
Students, senior clergy including the Bishop of Peterborough, and members of the Peterborough Inter-faith Council, sat on the panel, while pupils asked questions from the floor.
The project had multiple aims for the school:
- to allow students to learn about the role of the Cathedral through the ages, incorporating history, geography and other subjects into the project;
- to encourage students to reflect on the role of other faith institutions;
- to project the Cathedral as a place for students and their families of all faith backgrounds to visit, to learn and to feel at home in;
- and to develop critical, questioning and debating skills in the students.
Sometimes, however, it is the simplest and most unexpected things that come out of projects like these, that are the most powerful.
When the Bishop of Peterborough explained to the children that their school was named after a former Bishop who had lived in this very building – heads whizzed around to stare at the painting of the eminent Bishop Creighton on the wall. The children were palpably surprised and excited that their own school shared a name with this eminent individual on the wall.
And it was this connection between the Cathedral and its geographically closest primary school that has been reignited by the Peterborough Curriculum work. Last year, when the school was flooded during a heavy downpour, the partnership that had been developed around curriculum design meant that teachers could pick up the phone to the Cathedral Education Officer: and the entire school decamped to the Cathedral for the rest of the day.
The curriculum work and learning that students are doing through the school’s partnership with the Cathedral is yet to be evaluated. But the relationship between students and their locality; between their own identity and that of the city in which they are growing up; and between the school and the Cathedral are already profoundly different.
The Cathedral, our other partners, the schools with whom we work and others in the city are now debating how to spread and embed the idea of educational partnership throughout Peterborough. Watch this space!
Yesterday’s consultation event on a London Curriculum (which is one of the strands being undertaken by the Mayor’s Inquiry into London Education) has thrown a number of conundrums in my path – despite having been living and breathing area based curriculum ideas for a number of years now!
The excellent discussion, expertly hosted by A New Direction, reminded me a great deal of our own early thinking about the Manchester Curriculum and the Peterborough Curriculum work. The overwhelming sense was that despite the exceptional progress made by London schools in recent years – particularly for disadvantaged pupils – we are “missing a trick” in ensuring that London’s children were given access to the richness the city has to offer. There was general agreement that “schools should do more to use the local area”, that it is a crime that “so many young people do not make better use of the opportunities on their doorstep”, and that “something must be done to ensure teachers are supported to get out more”. There was in the room – and this has been borne out in conversations I have had with people from all over the country – an almost visceral excitement about schools engaging more fully with the locality. People just seem to really like the idea. But why?
Well I think it’s a range of different things – and I expect that there are as many ideas about what a London Curriculum might entail as there were people in the room. Here are just a few conceptions of the value of ‘London’ in education that I picked up on, and I’m sure there are many more:
- London as an infinite resource of high status opportunities in creativity and the arts that is woefully underutilised by London’s schools – this assumption was somewhat called into question by many of the cultural and heritage organisations admitting that they are already at capacity, although this may not be representative
- London as an entitlement for London’s young people – the above problem of capacity throws into question whether it is feasible to have an entitlement of engagement with such institutions for all children in London
- London as a source of pedagogical opportunity for new ways of curriculum delivery – this is something that came out of our own work on the Manchester Curriculum as well, and out of the practice of Opening Minds schools
- London as a rich source of cultural and linguistic diversity to be drawn upon – Dr Charmian Kenner has done fascinating work linking complementary schools with mainstream education in order to make better use of the resource available in families and communities and made this point powerfully yesterday
- London as a source of identity for young people to become aware of and be able to use confidently – this is something that Tony Little, the lead panel member for this strand of work, was very keen on. If it is to work, however, then serious attention will need to be paid to the existing sources of identity and attachment to place among young people, as simply showing them some museums and telling them how wonderful ‘London’ is is unlikely to have much effect, in part because…
- London as a place where young people face ‘post-code’ barriers to physical mobility around the city or even within boroughs – this is something brought up by the young people from the GLA peer consultation group who gave a powerful presentation on what a London Curriculum might be able to do for young people in the city. Again, simply bussing children into central London is unlikely to challenge the serious and real barriers to young people taking ownership of London and its future, and careful thought will be required if this is something that the London Curriculum aspires to achieve
- London as a repository of some of the best science and culture in the world, and so valued as that rather than as a a place in itself – deputy mayor Munira Mirza posited the idea that a standard ‘area based curriculum’ approach was perhaps not relevant in London because in London you get access to the whole world, rather than just to one place like in Peterborough or Manchester. This begs the question of whether students in the capital should necessary get preferential access to opportunities above children from other places in the country, but also reveals the challenges people have in recognising the undervaluing of other localities in terms of learning which our own Area Based Curriculum work has tried to challenge. Leaving to one side the inevitable disagreements on this point, however, this comment begs the main question for me, which is:
In this piece of work, is London simply to be a resource for schools to use to pursue existing educational aims, or itself an object of enquiry? Or both?
And if London is to be treated as an object of enquiry, are those leading this open to allowing this to mean more than teaching children about what is already known and valued, and allowing them to research, enquire, reflect, explore and critique and reinvent ‘London’ for themselves?
The reasons why one might link schools with localities are complex and multiple – and not all of them are mutually reinforcing. For this reason it’s really important that we’re clear about the underpinning ideas and assumptions in any such endeavour – otherwise we might end up undermining our own goals.
The size and scope of any GLA-backed idea of a ‘London Curriculum’ is beyond what I can think about at this time of the week. But I do think that the London Curriculum will have missed a trick if it doesn’t go beyond questions of London as a box of resources, and pre-determined knowledge. It’s an idea with enormous potential, and wide backing. Let’s be ambitious!
Peterborough is on the cusp of doing something really exciting in education, with a whole host of people getting involved in the learning of young people. I ran an event there a couple of weeks ago which sought to surface, celebrate and build upon a range of partnerships in the education sector in Peterborough, including our own Peterborough Curriculum. There was enormous enthusiasm for more partnership working, more collaboration, and multiple organisations working together. What’s needed now is a vision for young people that makes all the fantastic work and collaboration going on really more than the sum of its parts.
Collaboration in education can mean a variety of things and these tend to be fudged a little when we talk up the general Good Thing that is working together with others. There are collaborations between schools and other schools; between different phases of education; between education institutions and other formal sectors (e.g. businesses, public services); between schools and parents or communities; between teachers within schools…
But an important challenge was put to a seminar on leadership for collaboration last week: do we have any evidence to show that ‘collaboration’ has any impact on young people’s outcomes? I confess I was stumped as to the answer. Yet much of current government policy relies on notions of collaboration for the improvement of the system.
In Peterborough there are a number of collaboration types from the above list in existence: the Peterborough Learning Partnership, which is primarily a network of primary and secondary schools, but is now branching out to include other phases and sectors; the Peterborough Skills Service which brokers links between employers and schools; and the Peterborough Curriculum (run with the RSA) which supports a small number of schools to form curriculum development partnerships with non-educational partners from the local area. There are others too, both individual partnerships between schools and local organisations, and high level strategic links between sector leaders city wide.
The question now is, can these be made more than the sum of their parts to provide a powerful ‘coalition of the willing’ that will ensure the best for Peterborough’s young people, rather than a dissipation of effort despite the undoubted benefits being won by each? In this Peterborough is not atypical of the rest of the country: where Local Authorities are drawing back on the educational front, other collaborations and networks are beginning to take up the slack – and often driving new approaches to drawing in other stakeholders as well. All this collaboration and effort, however, needs to have vision and purpose if young people are to remain front and centre.
That is not to say that children always remain front and centre when the business of education is left only to the education sector. We know too well the sometimes distorting effect of accountability, the resources devoted to children on the C/D boundary, the teaching to the test that goes on in Year 6. The school’s best interests are not always the same as the best interests of every child within that school. If the school’s agenda alone is not always the best proxy for a child’s best interests, then perhaps collaboration is the answer. It’s tired and overused, but does the proverbial ‘village’ have a role in formal education not only because of the additional resources it can bring in austere times, but because it prevents institutional agendas, targets and numbers, including those of the education system itself, sidelining the young people?
While upward institutional and funding issues will necessarily make the willingness and enthusiasm for working together complex, I have real faith that we can link Peterborough’s existing successful collaborations together to the benefit of Peterborough’s young people. We should welcome the willingness of the wider city to get involved, and of schools to work together.
But I think that to be really transformative we need to add these things up into an inclusive vision that allows the different collaborations which have their own upwards targets to work with one another towards a common end, but also for the participation of more than just the formal partnerships and institutions. For perhaps it is by continually looking outwards, juggling and reconciling different and sometimes conflicting agendas, rather than simple upwards hierarchies, that we are forced to think about what we are doing, for whom, and why. Perhaps this is how what we do becomes truly accountable to the young people and their families, rather than the schools, businesses or politicians, in whose interests we collaborate.
Jenni Russell wrote a refreshing column in the Evening Standard yesterday, questioning the direct link between achievement at school and social mobility. She uses the example of an acquaintance who came from a disadvantaged and chaotic home, but was succeeding at school, taking A Levels, having entered a grammar school. Nevertheless, at age 17 she came to realise that “even if she did brilliantly at university, she was never going to earn enough to own a flat in outer London or leap free of student debt…The risks she was being asked to take on terrified her.”
Both Michael Wilshaw and Michael Gove made speeches at the independent school Brighton College last week, outlining the unacceptability of the dominance of independently educated students in all elite professions and walks of life, including the arts and sport. The conclusions drawn were that our schools and teachers must have higher expectations of disadvantaged students, and work towards helping them to achieve better GCSEs and A Levels.
One can’t argue with the fact that we can predict how well a child will do at school more or less accurately by asking how much their parents earn (and this applies across the salary range of parents – not just to those at the very top or bottom) is wrong.
However, it does not necessarily follow that the life chances and future incomes of young people would be equalised were this difference in achievement at school to be eradicated, as is so often assumed. This is why Jenni Russell’s argument was so refreshing, for it interrogated the relationship between the unacceptable inequality in school achievement and the unacceptable inequality in society. For to argue that a better distribution of formal qualifications does not an equal society make, does not mean that it is any less unacceptable that the distribution of educational attainment is so skewed. Educational equality and social equality are just not the same thing.
I’ve argued for a thought experiment in which achievement at school is evenly distributed between social classes in a previous blog. I won’t rehearse it in detail here, but it asks the reader to pretend that the income of parents had no bearing on the qualifications achieved at school. What would this do to the relationship between formal qualifications and the labour market? Would you find the children of higher professionals who got only average GCSEs working in a local shop, driving a bus, delivering the mail or cleaning a hospital ward? Would you find those whose parents struggled to make ends meet while they were growing up represented among the higher professions in any kind of proportionate numbers? The evidence from Tower Hamlets suggests not: Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, highlights how young people from the borough with the highest rate of child poverty in the country are failing to translate their university degrees into meaningful employment: “it quickly became clear that many were making basic mistakes in their job applications and, crucially, they lacked social networks and confidence…What is particularly shocking is that despite the rapid expansion in higher education, so little progress has been made. While some working-class children have broken through, those in the middle and upper-middle classes have maintained their dominance of the professions.”
As Jenni points out, the myth of social mobility is necessary because “without it our society stops looking legitimate”. But while society is unequal enough that for their children to live in the bottom 10% is sufficiently unthinkable for the top 10% of parents then we will never have anything approaching a properly mobile society. Both because of the belief among those struggling at the bottom that the qualifications they have been promised are a passport to a comfortable life is in fact a myth and that things will always be more difficult for them than for others (as in the case of Jenni’s acquaintance); and because of the sharp elbows of those at the top who by hook or by crook will ensure that their offspring have the advantage in the race (as in the case of most people I know and can hardly blame).
So are schools really being challenged to shift the relationship between how much a child’s parents earn and the eventual place that child takes in society? Or are they being asked to reduce the long tail of underachievement in our system to make our society as a whole better qualified and more competitive? If the latter, then this is not social mobility, at least not in the sense of ones background being irrelevant to ones prospects. If the former, then it will take far more than good GCSEs to crack that nut. Which in turn means we need to think again about what it is we’d like schools to be doing for young people, how their performance should be measured, and what the actual barriers to achieving equality through the education system (rather than merely within it) are.