Somebody give this organisation a kitemark!

January 24, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

There are many things that might help to explain the proliferation of internships over recent years. Perhaps too many young people lack the ‘soft skills’ demanded by employers in the increasingly important service sector; perhaps there are too many young people looking for graduate level jobs in our low-wage economy; or perhaps many employers are unscrupulously exploiting the abundance of eager young graduates and blaming it on the recession. As always, it is probably some complex mixture of all three. Whatever the specific reasons, I think this proliferation is a symptom of a general failure on the part of one generation to effectively discharge its duty to pass on a society and economy within which the next generation can thrive. This seems to me like a pretty big failure.

That being said, we are where we are, and even if national minimum wage law is enforced in cases of unpaid internships that can be shown to qualify as ‘work’, other forms of internship – paid and unpaid – are still likely to remain. I’ve argued before on this blog that internships should now be conceived of as a kind of near-essential training for the professions and, therefore, should be made accessible to all via grants and loans in the same way as higher education is. I must concede that this is very unlikely to happen any time soon, but one thing that could be introduced fairly easily is a kitemark for organisations offering top-quality internships. (An organisation called Internocracy was at one stage doing this, but it’s unclear whether or not they are still active.) This would recognise and encourage best practice, helping prospective interns (and potential future employers looking at their CVs) to distinguish useful and enriching internships from those that are not. If such a kitemark was introduced, the RSA would come top in class.

There are a number of reasons (apart from the fact that it is paid, which is obviously great) why my internship in the RSA Education Team has been so good. The first, and maybe the most important, is that is has given me some valuable skills and experiences that I did not have before. Perhaps the most rewarding was the opportunity (I call it an ‘opportunity’ now but at times it felt more like an impossible challenge) to design, organise, manage, and deliver an all-day event at the RSA in which 40 students from schools in the RSA’s Family of Academies came to discuss student leadership and design enrichment activities to be introduced in their school(s). Now I think about it, it is fitting that by planning an event in which students would learn about the importance of enrichment activities and design ones for themselves, I was actually enriching myself enormously. Another more recent example is the work that I have done supporting the RSA’s current research looking into in-year admissions in England, which has involved, amongst other things, helping to build, design, format and test a survey sent out to all local authorities in England.

Another reason why this internship has been so good is the fact that the RSA is such an interesting and enjoyable place to be. Coming in every day to work in a beautiful 18th century building which plays host to events and lectures from some of the most stimulating and groundbreaking speakers – including some of my favourite philosophers – has been a privilege. I don’t know what it was like to be around the RSA when Benjamin Franklin or Karl Marx were Fellows, but right now it feels like a place where imaginative, innovative and independent-minded people can come to discuss ideas (through debate and dissent, not brainstorming) and, most importantly, devise solutions to today’s most pressing social problems. I suppose that is what they mean by 21st Century Enlightenment.

The final thing which has made my internship at the RSA so great has been the staff, starting of course with the Education Team. Interesting and interested (I love that distinction), conscientious and collaborative, principled yet practical, light-hearted while hard-headed: the RSA is literally made by the people who work here, and they have made my internship the best it could have possibly been.

I’m now moving on to start a permanent job at the Citizenship Foundation, and no doubt my brief stint at the RSA helped me to secure that position. But I will most definitely keep close tabs on the goings on at the RSA, if only to see if it gets that internship kitemark.

If you care about admissions, we are not done yet

January 18, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

There has been an almost 13-fold increase in the number of academies in England since the Coalition government was formed – from 203 in May 2010 to 2619 in January 2013. It is in the context of this drastic change that the RSA, in partnership with Pearson Think Tank, published our Academies Commission report last week. Unleashing Greatness examines the implications of ‘mass academisation’ on educational outcomes, and explores the risks and opportunities associated with this process.

The report is substantial: it consists of seven chapters tackling issues ranging from school improvement to governance to public accountability. But, perhaps because it is a pre-existing controversy surrounding academies or perhaps because it is an issue many parents have had a direct personal relationship with, the media chose to focus largely on one topic: admissions.

This is not complaint about the media attention. As RSA Director of Programmes Adam Lent said last week, a think tank complaining about media attention is like a fish complaining about the sea. Indeed, instituting and maintaining a practice of fair admissions is crucial if we want to have social justice in our education system, and the Commission had many interesting – and challenging – things to say about this matter. The general message being that the complexity in the current system – particularly the fact that admissions for community schools are administered by the local authority while academies are their ‘own admission’ authorities – could have an adverse impact on equality of opportunity, and negatively affect the most vulnerable disproportionately. The Commission recommends that the system should be simplified and clarified, with parity of practice established between maintained schools and academies and all schools and academies being required to publish data on applications and acceptances for school places in relation to free school meals or other socio-economic data.

The point is that if you care about the implications of admissions policy and practice, and in particular how it affects the most vulnerable young people, then you might be missing a trick by focussing exclusively on students applying to join schools in September. This is because many young people leave and join schools outside of the ordinary July/September round – a phenomenon known as ‘in-year’ admissions. And these young people are likely to be disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged groups, including looked after children being placed with new carers, children of refugees and asylum seekers, and children who have been excluded from their previous school(s). (With respect to the latter group, our research dovetails neatly with the excellent work the Children’s Commissioner has been doing on exclusions.)  Moreover, given the forthcoming changes to housing benefit, it is possible that in-year admissions could become a more widespread phenomenon as children and families move to new areas with lower rents.  Despite its potentially regressive impact and wide-ranging implications, however, the practice of in-year admissions has been largely underexplored.

It is for this reason that the RSA, in partnership with the Local Government Association, is currently conducting research to map the geographical spread, identify the key drivers, and explore the potential implications of in-year admissions in England. We want to know where in-year admissions are most likely to take place, the approaches that local authorities and own admission authority schools take to the administration of this issue, and the groups of children that are most likely to move ‘in-year’.

This is important research that we hope will have implications for policy, practice and priorities. So, if you care about admissions and, in particular, how the most vulnerable are affected, watch this space because we are not done yet.

RSA Academies Student Leadership Conference: Enrichment Through Student Leadership

December 5, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Just over a week ago we invited 40 student leaders from the schools in the RSA Family of Academies to come to the RSA to discuss student leadership and enrichment. We asked the students to prepare for the event by reflecting on what they thought student leadership was for, why it is important, and how it could be improved in their schools; and we asked them to do the same with regard to enrichment. Then at the event we mixed the students up so that they were all working with students from the four different schools – schools in Tipton, Coventry, Lambeth and Redditch – and asked them to draw on their thinking in order to discuss student leadership and enrichment. And, most importantly, to start to design innovative solutions to various student leadership and enrichment challenges. In fact, the main task for the students on the day was to design an innovative new enrichment activity that could be introduced in or across their school(s).

The event links to RSA Education’s three core themes: social justice, democracy, and innovation. We are determined to make sure that, regardless of the fact that schools in the RSA Family of Academies serve communities with above average levels of disadvantage, all of the students have access to worthwhile enrichment activities. We also want these activities to be as innovative as possible and one way to achieve this aim is to give the students themselves a say in how they are designed.

The event was a real success and the students engaged in some genuinely interesting discussions around what it means to be a student leader and what the point of doing enrichment activities is. They also came up with some great ideas for enrichment activities which could be introduced in the Family of Academies, and each school is currently in the process of selecting those which they would most like to lead on. I can’t divulge exactly what those ideas are because I wouldn’t want to pre-empt the result of the schools’ decision process, and, to be honest, the students made me take an oath of secrecy. But I can offer some reflections on what I think both the students and the RSA took away from the event.

Enrichment activities are those activities and experiences that students enjoy outside of the classroom which broaden horizons, develop new skills, and contribute to personal and social development. Part of the point of the event was to emphasise to the students that these activities can make a great deal of difference to their prospects and opportunities after school. The teamwork, creative, and project planning skills that you get from helping to direct your school play; the confidence, communication and public speaking skills you get from participating in a debating competition; or the spark of inspiration that you get from doing work experience at a law firm or going to visit an exhibition. All of these enrichment activities have the potential to be life-changing for young people. We wanted to make sure that the students understood this. Furthermore, we want the students at the schools in our Family to have access to innovative, exciting and challenging enrichment activities and the opportunity to contribute to their design.

We also wanted to make sure that the students understood how important it is to be a student leader and that there are ways to be a student leader outside of your student council. This is why we invited social entrepreneur and RSA Fellow Matt Kepple to speak to the students (read more about this here). Most importantly, we wanted to emphasise that student leadership is itself an enrichment activity and so the students should see the event as an experience designed to broaden horizons, develop new skills, and contribute to personal and social development. This is why the theme of the event was ‘Enrichment Though Student Leadership’: student leaders coming to the RSA to discuss enrichment and help to design new enrichment activities, gaining and developing new skills along the way.

One of the key things that we learnt from the students on the day is just how eager they are to engage with each other, not simply as students from different schools, but as fellow members of the RSA Family of Academies. Part of the aim of this event was to create this atmosphere of community and collaboration across the schools, but we did not anticipate that this would strike such a chord with the students. Almost all of the new enrichment activities that they designed involved the schools in the Family engaging with each other in some or other interesting way. It is clear that the students are keen to learn from and about each other. And it is clear that they can sense the great potential in bringing different schools with different strengths and weaknesses to work together – so can we.

Philosophy at the RSA

November 29, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Two of my favourite living philosophers have given talks at the RSA over the last few weeks. The fact that these lectures took place at all reminds me what a great place the RSA is to be around, especially for someone like me who is slightly obsessed by philosophy. But I also think that each talk provides a really good illustration of two central purposes of philosophical thinking, and how each links to the work of the RSA.

The first talk – which you can listen to here – was given by Robert E. Goodin, a political theorist whose work on international law and civil disobedience greatly influenced my masters dissertation. Goodin’s paper Enfranchising All-Affected Interests, and Its Alternatives is also a must read for anyone seriously interested in global democracy, or the foundations of democratic theory more generally. In his talk, Goodin discussed his new book titled On Settling in which he argues against the commonly held view that we human beings are constantly striving for more and greater achievement on all fronts. Instead, Goodin argues, the concept of settling, though largely unexplored and underrated, has an incredibly important role to play in human life. In fact, it is precisely what enables us to strive. Settling, Goodin says, “is not in opposition striving. It is rather an aid to striving. We settle on some things so as better to strive for others”.

The most interesting thing about Goodin’s talk is, I think, that his central aim is not really to persuade us to do anything. This might appear strange for a political philosopher because ‘ought’ statements are assumed to be their lingua franca: we remember Plato because he said (among many others things) that philosopher kings should rule; we remember Mill because he said that that society should not interfere with the liberty of the individual if he or she causes no harm to others; and we remember Marx because he declared that the “workers of the world [should] unite!”.

But Goodin’s primary task isn’t to do any of these things. Although his argument has some clear normative implications – implications about how people ought to behave – his main task is try to get clearer about how we do in fact behave. To cut through the bluster and propaganda about the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power” that is often claimed to be our essential nature, and seek, through careful, considered and sensitive analysis, to understand what we are really like. This is philosophy undertaking the crucial task of trying to help explain us to ourselves. It is an essential task because without an accurate account of who we are, how we behave, and how we value, we cannot hope to provide any plausible or realistic principles for action. This links very nicely to the work of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre which seeks to look past the myth of ‘homo economicus’ and to enrich our understanding of how human beings actually behave, in order to help provide solutions to a whole range of social problems.

The second lecture was given by Thomas Pogge and in it he argued that the structure of the global economic order bears some degree of responsibility for the incidence and persistence of severe global poverty. Pogge’s argument is both intricate and important so I’ll save a discussion of it for a blog post all of its own. But for now it is enough to note that Pogge engages in what you might call activist philosophy. By which I mean that he marshals rigorous moral reasoning and an impressive command of the empirical evidence to make us think differently about global poverty, and suggest some ways that we could do better. This intellectual activism also runs through the work of the RSA: applying rigorous enlightenment thinking to today’s social problems and, most importantly, coming up with innovative solutions to them.

Now, the only way that ideas like this can begin to make a difference is for people to hear them, so you should listen to Pogge’s lecture on ending poverty here. But if only there was a more accessible and entertaining – perhaps even visual – way for complex and important ideas to be shared with large numbers of people… RSA Animate anyone?

Internships for everyone!

November 2, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

It is quite a challenging time to be a young person in the UK trying to make your way into job market. Last week the Higher Education Commission published a report in which they argued that, with very high fees precluding many young people from obtaining postgraduate qualifications, the provision of postgraduate education in the UK was “the next social mobility timebomb”. And only yesterday we learnt that Tony Blair’s profit-making companies will agree to pay their previously unpaid interns after it was exposed that they might be in violation of National Minimum Wage (NMW) legislation.

As someone who has recently completed a masters degree and who is currently doing a (paid!) internship for the RSA, I feel close to both of these issues. But I also think that together they reveal a way in which the unpaid internship debate has been misconceived.

Tony Blair’s companies are certainly not the only organisations that are in violation of the NMW regulations, which outline what ‘work’ looks like and stipulate that anything that falls into that category must be paid. And I’m sure that more organisations will be shamed or coerced into paying the previously unpaid interns who they had been far too happy to exploit for far too long. This is undeniably a good thing. But I think that it is probably also true that some organisations simply wouldn’t be able to offer the internships that they currently do if they were forced to pay the NMW, particularly in these straitened economic times. Many young people benefit greatly from doing short periods of unpaid work to escape from the ‘need experience to get experience’ vicious cycle, and it seems a shame to deny them this option. If we were put to one side the obviously cynical and exploitative internships (big ‘if’, I know), how should we think about this latter kind of case?

An advocate of the all unpaid internships must be paid NMW argument might say that that we don’t typically allow the market to set people’s wages below an acceptable minimum – let alone to zero. And, as unfortunate as it is that some poor people will no longer benefit from selling their labour for below the minimum wage but more than they would receive otherwise, the NMW is needed to protect the living standards and preserve the dignity of the whole class of low-paid workers. I generally agree with this argument – particularly if you replaced NMW with a living wage that actually would protect living standards and dignity. But I think that it is flawed when applied to many internships because it conceives of them too rigidly as ‘work’.

Think of the young person trying to break the ‘need experience to get experience’ cycle. They are often not looking for an internship in order to provide for themselves and their family, but instead they are looking for an internship to in order to furnish themselves with the skills and experiences needed to get their first job. In fact, I think that we already sense that internships aren’t really jobs and shouldn’t be conceived as if they were. Imagine the bemused response you’d receive if someone asked you what you did for a living and you replied: “I’m a professional Intern!” Such a reply would suggest that you have misunderstood what an internship was for.

This way of conceiving internships – as a kind of training for the professions – is fundamentally different from the simple ‘they should all be paid NMW view’ because it challenges the assumption that internships should be distributed according to (regulated) market principles in the first place. If internships are more like education or training than work, and if that training is near-essential – which I think the need for an internship is fast becoming – then they must be accessible to everyone regardless of their socio-economic or regional background. The simple ‘they must be paid NMW’ view actually says nothing to those people who need to get essential experience but would find it very difficult if there are fewer internships around.

This way of viewing internships is, however, no endorsement of the status –quo. In fact, two striking implications follow: 1) internships must be subject to some kind of quality control; and 2) there must be some mechanism to enable all people to have access to them regardless of their background. This view casts internships as much more like vocational or postgraduate education. The recent Higher Education Commission’s report referred to above recommended that there be a postgraduate loan scheme to fund postgraduate education and make it accessible to people from all backgrounds. This seems like a good proposal and I think that it should apply to internships too.

I have obviously not referred to the elephant in the room: why is there this need for a bridge between education and work in the first place? Do young people really lack the skills allegedly acquired via internships and, if they do, why? If they don’t, why are employers not tacking them on? These questions point to another blog post (or book), and are probably above a lowly interns pay grade.