Earlier this year I played a small part in helping Chess in Schools and communities raise almost £700,000 from the Educational Endowment foundation for a randomised control trial on the impact of chess on attainment in Maths and English (and a few other measures) in about 50 primary schools. The scheme is being evaluated by the Institute of Education in London and represents a big breakthrough for chess, and potentially for educational research too.
Those who played chess when they were younger tend to have little doubt about its educational value, but as with almost any educational initiative, finding hard evidence for that is difficult. There is a huge range of anecdotal, case study and qualitative evidence, but this study over 4 years will hopefully prove what we have long suspected.
At the current count, Chess in Schools and Communities now covers over 283 schools over 46 boroughs, mostly in deprived areas. They are hosting a conference this weekend at Kensington Olympia’s exhibition centre called Successes and Challenges: Improving School Chess Practice, Research and Strategy. There are still places available for those who want to attend!
I had very much hoped to play a part in the conference, but now urgently have to finish our climate change report and conserve some ‘wild card’ energy to compete with some of the best players in the world later next week.
The challenge with any educational intervention is not to show that it helps, or how much, but to say what makes you think it helps more than other interventions. Chess has potential to make this case, due to its rich history and cultural resonance, affordability and helpful association with intelligence.
The most exacting challenge with any educational intervention is not to show that it helps, or how much, but to say what makes you think it helps more than other interventions. Chess has potential to make this case, due to its rich history and cultural resonance, affordability and helpful association with intelligence. Many who otherwise struggle at school find they are good at chess, and realise that thinking and reasoning has a positive place in their lives.
My own ‘take’ on the value of chess in a nutshell, particularly in areas of educational disadvantage, is that it builds what Ron Ritchart calls ‘Intellectual Character‘ by providing a safe space with rules and feedback where you learn that you will inevitably make mistakes, but can still win. It also creates particularly valuable forms of what sociologists call ‘social capital’, in terms of community pooling of resources and time and inter-generational learning…but alas instead of developing that, I’m afraid I currently only have time to share a lightly edited version of a newspaper column I wrote on the subject two years ago! I hope some of you can make it to the conference.
Herald Chess Column for October 1st 2011:
Primary school feels like a long time ago, but it was instrumental to my chess development, as it is for most players who go on to become Grandmasters. Had it not been for supportive teachers and a team of players I liked most of the time, including my brother, there is no way I would have fallen in love with the game in the way I did.
I went to Skene Square primary school in Aberdeen where chess was always played in the library with the red carpet, on the corner of the second floor. We only tend to remember things that make an emotional imprint on our souls, and that room must have, because I remember little else of the inside of the school.
I went to Skene Square primary school in Aberdeen where chess was always played in the library with the red carpet, on the corner of the second floor. We only tend to remember things that make an emotional imprint on our souls, and that room must have, because I remember little else of the inside of the school.
Chess in primary school meant challenge, delicious tension like no other, structured competition where physical strength didn’t matter, and a constant experience of learning and growing. It was also a time of learning away from home, going to nearby schools to represent my own, and sometimes crying when the result didn’t go my way.
I think of this now because the charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, is campaigning hard to get chess into primary schools, at least in England and Wales, but no doubt North of the border in time. The charity was set up by the chess world’s most revered and respected Scouser, Malcolm Pein, and already teaches chess to primary school children in seventy schools.
The breakthrough was an appearance on BBC breakfast television, which led to Yasmin Qureshi, the MP for Bolton South East, tabling an Early Day Motion supporting the playing of chess in primary schools, which was co-signed by Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP for Leeds West:
“This House recognises the positive social and intellectual benefits for all children across the social spectrum of learning chess at a young age and the relatively low costs of teaching it in schools; notes that while chess currently receives no financial support from the Government, many European countries including Sweden and France financially support chess in schools; further notes that the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth would welcome UK support for the Chess in Schools project being developed by the ECU and the Kasparov Chess Foundation; welcomes the work of the UK-based charity Chess in Schools and Communities which teaches chess to primary school children from less affluent backgrounds; and calls on the Government to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to learn chess at primary school within existing resources.”
The end of November saw RSA Academies hosting the Student Leadership Conference for Year 12 and 13 student leaders from Arrow Vale RSA Academy, Whitley Academy and RSA Academy, Tipton.
Here are some of the TOP 5 TIPS from the students and the RSA Fellows who joined in for a day of inspiration and conversation.
Marie Nixon, Chief Executive at Sunderland University’s Students Union starts us off.
1. You’re a leader all the time. You don’t have to wait for the ‘big’ job or opportunity to start being a leader. You can be a leader in your community, in your area of interest, in anything. Get on with leading and the big leadership opportunities are more likely to come your way.
2. Don’t be scared of ‘don’t know’. One person can never know everything. Surround yourself with brilliant people and together you can know all sorts – and work out the answers to what you don’t.
3. The power of the unthinkable. Don’t be afraid of ‘mad’ ideas that might seem beyond the realms of possibility. It’s a great spark for exciting conversations which help you decide on ambitions and exciting things you want to change and do.
4. The boldest measures are the safest – changing something a tiny bit usually requires exactly the same effort as changing something radically. Be bold, be brave, attempt to do what you really want to do rather than what you might get away with. It’ll take the same effort and you might as well go for what you want.
5. Telling it like it is. Feedback is super powerful and it takes a bold soul to give it. Feedback is essential to make sure you’re getting to where you want to be. When you’re giving feedback make sure you do it with accuracy and kindness and that you’re doing it for the good of the person affected or the project. It’s NEVER a chance to be mean.
Followed by Prince Chivaka and Cynthia Ariana, Head Boy and Head Girl at Whitley Academy in Coventry.
• Communication is key
• Develop confidence in the role
• Be very firm, but friendly and be assertive and considerate in a team
• Plan an agenda for each half term and meet with Student Leadership Group and the Principal
• Encourage others to become leaders, be a role model
And Rick Hall from Ignite’s 5 Rs: the characteristics of creativity… and leadership
1. Resilience – be determined and learn from your mistakes, this is part of the process of getting towards the solution
2. Resourcefulness – working out what to do when you don’t know what to do
3. Referencing – see something is like something else and make the connection, learn from this
4. Reflection – step aside and observe, use mind mapping as a technique to help
5. Risk taking – pushing the boundaries, going outside your comfort zone
And lastly from Andrew Watts, Head Boy at RSA Academy in Tipton
• Plan, plan, plan – set goals, what do you want to achieve?
• It’s crucial to talk to people – what do students want from you? Expect the unexpected.
• Don’t be afraid to ask for help – you don’t have all the answers and learn from the example of others
• You have to make big decisions – consider everything, sometimes what you want isn’t best
• Be willing to get involved – you have to be in it to win it
Duncan Piper at the Young Leaders Consultancy has the parting shot. He encouraged us to think about self-less leadership: how can I help you get to where you need to be?
“Imagine a classroom where everyone started off an academic year with an “A” grade, and in order to keep the grade, a pupil had to show continuous improvement throughout the year. In this classroom, the teacher would have to dock points from a pupil’s assessment when his or her performance or achievement was inadequate, and pupils would work to maintain their high mark rather than to work up to it. How would this affect effort, expectations, performance, and assessment relative to current practice?”
This is one of the questions we pose in our upcoming paper, due to be published next month, which explores the application of behavioural insight to educational policy and practice.
Specifically, we are concerned with the socio-economic attainment gap – the difference in performance between pupils from affluent backgrounds and those from deprived backgrounds. We’ve been working with the Vodafone Foundation Germany to understand the education context in Germany, where the gap is particularly severe.
While no country has yet to achieve a fully equitable system where educational attainment is not correlated with socioeconomic background, the UK, Germany, the USA, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, and New Zealand, among many others, are worse than the OECD average. So while our paper reviews the German context in particular, the message is applicable across many different parts of the globe.
So what is the big idea with everyone starting with an A? Regular readers of this blog might recognise that this approach taps into our tendency to want to avoid a loss – more so than we want to receive an equivalent gain – a tendency known as loss aversion.
Loss aversion just one of many behavioural insights that we explore, where the term behavioural insight is used to describe the application of behavioural science (comprising many different fields, including behavioural economics and social psychology among others).
Our paper includes the distillation of academic theory that would be expected, but we also turned to educators to get their perspectives on the practicality and value of applying behavioural insight in the classroom. To do this, we conducted focus groups with teachers in Berlin (see Josef Lentsch’s blog post from earlier this year for a glimpse into that experience), ran a survey with YouGov to explore views of teachers in England, and drew on a report that Vodafone Foundation Germany published earlier this year about teacher, parent, and pupil perspectives on a range of educational issues.
The paper be published in both English and German, and we’ll provide another update closer to the date with a link from which you will be able to download the report.
Today the RSA and Arts Council England will launch Towards Plan A: A New Political Economy for Arts and Culture. This series of four papers which examine how the arts sector might play a full role in the UK’s economic and social renewal. In the papers:
- Martin Smith asks for a new industrial strategy for the arts, to make the most of ‘ the prickly, sometimes antagonistic but always necessary relationship between art and commerce’;
- Alex Jones asks for cities to be more honest about their capacity to be so-called creative hubs – not all cities can be – and more intelligent about the way they understand the impact of cultural spending on regeneration;
- Mandy Barnett and Daniel Fujiwara argue that ‘the cultural sector needs to agree a single framework within which to talk about value, whilst disentangling the social from the cultural in the process’; and
- Sue Horner (chair of RSA Academies), in calling for a ‘grand partnership’ between education and cultural sectors, suggests how both sectors need to step up to harder-edged collaborations.
John Knell’s excellent introduction also offers recommendations to inform future policy and practice. This includes the idea that: “ACE should commission, in partnership with DCMS, DfE, AHRC, key trusts and foundations, and the sector learning network, at least one ‘high burden of proof’ study – involving if appropriate randomised controlled trials – which would explore the impact of particular arts interventions in a key impact area (for instance health and well-being, education or community cohesion).”
Having spent several years leading probably the largest ever ‘high burden of proof’ study ever undertaken in the arts, the Creative Partnerships learning programme in thousands of schools across England, it would be tempting to show John my wounds and medals. As, over the years,the quality of our research, evaluation and outcomes improved, it actually became more difficult to make the case for continued investment. However, I think John is onto something, and his proposal could be even more ambitious.
Could the cultural sector create something similar to the Education Endowment Foundation – a body dedicated not just to commissioning rigorously evaluated projects, but also to improving the way that evidence is built and used across the education system? Importantly, the EEF exists and is funded through an endowment – from the DfE – which secures both its independence and its long term stability. Although it is too early to judge the impact of individual projects (and my prediction is that only a few will show statistically significant impacts on closing the attainment gap), the Foundation’s processes and toolkits are already informing school decisions. Many schools are finally moving from a culture of data use to a culture of evidence use.
A Cultural Endowment Foundation, perhaps funded through a small percentage from the recent 4G auction, should be entirely independent from Government and Arts Council England. ACE is too invested in demonstrating rather than understanding the impact of its spending. It should support programmes to be externally evaluated against cultural as well as social or economic outcomes, possibly using Mandy and Daniel’s single framework, so that the arts are not just the servants of other public policy masters. Finally, it should be prepared to go public when the cultural sector engages in poor quality, advocacy-heavy evaluation processes – I’ve got a few favourite worst evaluations, which I won’t name and shame here. Understanding value should not be a compulsory activity for all in the arts sector – some will just want to get on with making great art for everyone, to use ACE’s mission statement. A Cultural Endowment Foundation could help cultural organisations make the choice between either doing evaluation properly or not doing evaluation at all.
Joe Hallgarten Director of Education @joehallg
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters, Innovation
In recent months I have had the privilege of developing new opportunities with the RSA Academies and the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI). The aim is to assign at least one RDI to each school every year. As reported by my colleague Georgina Chatfield in her blog post ‘What’s the secret to learner engagement’, interior and exhibitions designer Ben Kelly RDI, recently visited Arrow Vale RSA Academy to set a radical ‘live’ brief.
The initial project for Year 12 product design students was to design a shelving system for the school entrance hall in which to display student’s work. However, as communications developed between Ben and design tutor Paul Taylor, the brief, much to the students’ excitement, became a more daring proposition to completely re-design the reception space.
During the visit Ben shared his design path with the students, from school days, to a career-defining commission to design the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester, and beyond. When discussing the project he challenged the students to “dare to be different”, and to “challenge convention by breaking the rules”.
I joined Ben for the presentations and tutorials and it was evident that the students were engaged throughout, asking searching questions and listening attentively. But could this experience really make a difference to them? Our intention from the outset was that it should.
Following the visit we were encouraged by a report of the day written by two students from the group; Bren Heald and Chantelle Pollit. It was a heart-felt and incredibly rewarding account of the experience from the group’s point of view which they described as “thought-provoking and inspiring”. The group continues to develop its’ design proposal as I type, and Ben Kelly will be returning to the school at the end of term to assess the outcome.
This project is a unique opportunity for the students to take ownership of a space that could redefine the character of their school, and that will enable them to be confident about taking risks when testing their ideas. It is also a valuable example of how designers can contribute inspiration and quality to design education, and also of the enrichment that partnership with the RSA can offer.
The independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has today published a weighty tome, running to 348 pages, which in size at least indicates the zeal of its members to ‘hold the Government’s feet to the fire’. Led by former Labour frontbencher Alan Milburn, and deputy chaired by former Conservative Minister Baroness Gillian Shephard, the Commission is decidedly even-handed in its appraisal, alternating between assessment of the current and previous governments to spread the blame and some of the credit across all the main political parties.
In keeping with its deliberately balanced analysis, I’d like to offer one positive and one more critical comment about the new State of the Nation report.
The media coverage so far has focused on two main stories: the growing problem of ‘in-work poverty’ – affecting families where at least one adult works, but living standards are falling due to stagnating wages and rising prices; and the political dilemmas wrought by intergenerational inequality, particularly the vexed question of whether or not well-off pensioners really need their free bus passes, TV licenses and winter fuel allowance.
While these headline messages encompass an important set of issues, there is a lot more to be gathered from the report within its plentiful pages. The apparent spat between Milburn and the Deputy Prime Minister about what to do to tackle intergenerational inequality should not distract from the repositioning that the report represents.
Rightly, the Commission members are unimpressed by the ‘myriad of different initiatives, indicators and strategies’ that have been forthcoming since 2010. The plethora of strategy documents (relating to ‘Social Justice’, ‘Child Poverty’ and ‘Social Mobility’) reflects the keenness of each Coalition Partner to demonstrate (rhetorically, at least) its fairness credentials in a time of austerity. It also indicates some of the jostling for control of the political agenda that has been going on behind the scenes.
The focus of this latest report is primarily on the UK Government’s Social Mobility strategy (which shares almost all of the same policy priorities as its Child Poverty strategy) – reflecting the priorities of the Deputy Prime Minister, who called on Alan Milburn to act as ‘social mobility’ Tsar many months before his appointment as head of this Commission was finally agreed by other, more reluctant members of the Cabinet. Tellingly, the Commission’s report is pitched at a much broader swathe of the population than the ‘Social Justice’ agenda driven by DWP Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, who in office has pursued the same moral crusade against Broken Families that began after his ‘Damascene’ conversion during a visit to Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate in 2002.
For anti-poverty campaigners, there tends to be a decided antipathy towards the policy goal of ‘social mobility’ – it seeming to offer a rosy prospect for the brightest and most fortunate children from poorer families, while confining the rest to a continued existence in relative poverty and deprivation.
But rather than confining the poverty debate to welfare reform targeted towards (or perhaps against) the bottom 1-10%, it is arguably more productive to build a coalition around more equitable life chances for the bottom 90 or 99%.
One of the main practical recommendations here is the call for a broader definition of disadvantage than eligibility for free school meals, which doesn’t ‘properly capture the breadth of the cohort which is in poverty or at risk of falling into it’. The report notes that one-third of school-aged children living in poverty in England – around 700,000 children are not entitled to this extra support. It is right to call for a new definition which includes all children at risk of poverty and disadvantage.
More broadly, by focusing on the life chances of a broader group of children and young people – not just those purportedly afflicted by severe, persistent and inter-generational poverty – the Commission has positioned itself against a reductionist view of poverty, which should be welcomed. What is more, this is a report that talks repeatedly about child poverty, warmly welcoming the Government’s decision not to jettison the 2020 child poverty targets (brushing over its ongoing attempts to redefine how child poverty is measured), and refusing to let child poverty slip quietly off the agenda. This is a positive – even if the hope of further progress towards the 2020 vision feels like a distant dream.
This brings us to the negative: despite the telling critique of certain aspects of past and current approaches, the report is too generous in suggesting that either government has made anything like sufficient progress towards raising the tail of underachievement and in tackling the UK’s abysmal record on youth and adult skills. Yes, there is more to do to open up a rather closed meritocratic system, in which young people from more privileged backgrounds find it far easier to do well at school and gain entry to higher status universities, qualifications and jobs than their less affluent counterparts. But the report does not give enough direction about what more must be done to tackle underachievement and poor development, beginning in the early years of life.
Progress towards promoting early childhood development is being severely constrained by under-investment in proper training for the early years workforce. The Commission rightly recognises that one of the keys to unlock social progress is ‘high-quality, affordable and universal childcare that enables more parents to work and helps improve children’s early development’. ‘High quality’ needs to be more than a catchphrase. It should mean employing a professional workforce of qualified teachers to ensure every child has the foundations for learning by the time they start school.
Despite recent projections, Ministers have continued to assert that the Coalition’s flagship policies are on track, and will improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children and young people. As reviewed here, the evidence to support these claims is unconvincing. The weakness of the ‘new approach’ is not that it has focused on the wrong areas of policy; like the ‘old’ approach, the key programmes are, in the main, based on sound evidence that worklessness, low educational achievement and poor maternal and infant health are the key drivers of poverty and limited life chances. Where the government’s approach seriously falls short, however, is in expecting a few flagship programmes to do all the heavy lifting.
In the face of wider spending cuts to key public services and changes to the tax and benefit system that will have an overall adverse effect on children and families, the Coalition will be lucky to achieve even the same slow level of progress in narrowing achievement gaps as that achieved under the previous government. As Labour’s limited record shows, making progress on tackling poverty and entrenched social disadvantage is not easy even in good economic times, let alone in the new age of austerity. But the biggest poverty gap that now exists is that between the government’s rhetoric and reality. It would help if the Coalition started by giving up the rhetoric of a ‘new approach’, and responded to the Commission’s report with an honest appraisal of the likely impact of its policies.
Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of RSA Education.
Within the RSA Family of Academies many families of pupils do not have strong networks with employers or universities. Recently schools have had to take on new responsibilities for careers information, advice and guidance. It follows then that one of our priorities is to ‘connect learners to people, places and issues beyond the school gate’ – something we are working towards with a new Warwick University and RSA partnership.
Last Thursday night students from the RSA Academies joined with their teachers, academics from Warwick and the RSA to celebrate the launch of this partnership. It is aimed at increasing the student’s knowledge about what a university education involves and helping them to develop skills, knowledge and experience to gain a university place.
For the partnership to have real impact, we need to consider the perceived barriers of going to university. Practical concerns about how students would manage, including anxiety about the financial implications; a sense that it is ‘not for people like me’; a lack of knowledge and confidence in going through the application and interview process, have all informed the planning so far. The partnership will generate:
- opportunities for the students to attend the ‘Experience Warwick’ summer schools
- support with the university application process
- advice and guidance sessions for the students and their parents about going to university
- visits to the schools by the academic staff
- taster days at the university
And more than this, there will be a programme of activities for the schools that is focussed on raising aspirations and increasing awareness of different university options. There is plenty of potential for projects between different academic staff within Warwick and the schools that will bring to life some of the more esoteric sounding disciplines – theatre productions about the financial crisis that allow you to explore economics and the relationship between human behaviours – it’s about finding ways to engage and excite students with new subjects and ideas, and teaching staff and academics in return.
Student focus groups carried out by RSA Education Intern Lisa Hevey showed the importance of talking about university as an option at an early age. At Year 8 students were talking about adults who had influenced their future plans and career aspirations, so getting in early with a range of potential career possibilities is essential. Importantly role models also have a clear impact on students. Some students do not have older siblings at university and putting these individuals in touch with university students or adults who may inspire them could have enormous effect.
So this partnership offers potential. And when you feel you have potential, the sky’s the limit.
In last week’s inaugural lecture as chair of the RSA, Vikki Heywood called on the arts to take on a deeper, broader, more ambitious engagement with society. Building on Matthew Taylor’s ideas around place-based commissioning, Vikki proposed a fundamental shift to the arts’ relationship to society.
Interestingly, Vikki took cultural organisations’ recent shifts in their relationship with education as an inspiration for how things could change. To help move our thinking forward, I’d encourage people to read the section below from Vikki’s speech, and answer these questions:
1) Do you agree with this analysis of how cultural organisations’ overall attitudes to education have changed over the last thirty years?
2) If so, what do you think caused this shift?
3) If not, where and why has this not happened?
If you have too much to say for a meager comment box below, email me and we might be able to sort you out with a guest blog.
“So how do we make it happen – well we have done it before. Art practice has changed – it can change again.
‘We know that such a change of orientation and ambition can be achieved. Over the last thirty years our larger cultural organisations have moved from basic audience development (bums on seats) – to far more sophisticated forms of audience engagement and participation – especially through their education programmes. Many smaller organisations led the way built, as many of them were, on principles around socially engaged practice.
’If the ghost of first NT director Laurence Olivier visited the National Theatre today, his biggest surprise might not be the levels of technology involved in current productions, or even the incredible NT Live.
‘It would probably be the shock of an education department that employs twenty people and many more freelancers, is nationally broad and locally deep, with its own programme to nurture young talent. A commitment of this scale would thirty years ago have been unthinkable, unrealistic, and frankly undesired.
It’s now time for a shift that is just as fundamental to the arts and its relationship to society.”
Vikki also mentioned our emerging project to develop “a GCSE in the Arts in order to develop young people’s cultural knowledge and practice across at least two art forms. It takes Michael Gove’s passion for ‘cultural literacy’ as necessary but not sufficient to develop young people’s cultural identities and capacities to the full.” Thoughts how we approach this idea, possibly connected to my latest TES article on how schools need to occupy their curriculum. would also be really welcomed.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
Yesterday I spoke at the SOLACE conference for Local Authority Chief Executives in York. I was asked to speak on what role remains for councils in education? with DfE’s Director General for infrastructure and funding Andrew McCully and Stephen Adamson from the National Governors Association. It was a chance for me to consolidate my thinking from a number of recent related projects we’ve been involved with. The conversation with Chief Executives was far more lively, challenging and optimistic than I had feared it might be, partly thanks to a refreshingly open approach from Andrew and enthusiastic chairing from Mark Rogers, Chief Executive of Solihull MBC. They were especially taken with my ‘cantonisation of education’ idea. So, although I am guessing that ‘just blogging a speech’ is one of the seven deadly blogging sins, that’s what I am going to do.
‘First, a quick observation from this week. You’ll have seen the OECD league tables on skills for 16-24 year olds. England did very poorly in literacy and maths, prompting varying analyses of who was to blame. The skills minister Matthew Hancock called these young people ‘New Labour’s babies’, putting the blame firmly at door of the last government’s dumbing down processes. Finnish expert Pasi Sahlberg put England and the US’ poor performance down to the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. Some blamed the top down approach of the old National Strategies, others trendy teachers and their compliant, reactionary unions. However, so far I haven’t heard anybody blame local authorities. There is almost an acceptance that, over the last 20 years, local authorities have been irrelevant to the performance of young people. I’d question this in two ways. First, I firmly believe that our schools are better than ever, and outcomes for young people have genuinely improved in the last two decades, although it is clear that other nations have improved far faster. And second, although heroic improvements from single heroic schools are part of this success, in any part of England, from London to Gloucestershire to Greater Manchester, where areas- wide performance has improved, Local Authorities have been part of the story.
‘ So, who am I to tell you what your role should be? I guess I bring a number of perspectives to this, partly from my professional history, as a teacher who started my career in a Local Authority pool, and ended it in a Grant Maintained school. Then, when I worked at the IPPR, I remember Andrew Adonis being repeatedly shocked to visit schools in small Local Authorities which the (normally long-standing) directors of education had never visited. I worked for a national creativity project where I saw how many authorities, despite being told to ‘commission, not deliver’, were clinging on to delivery roles and often petty power relationships with schools. But I was also inspired during this time by the historic work of Alec Clegg and the way he had wielded his local power to provide incredible arts opportunities for young people, and other more modern examples, such as in Gateshead.
‘At the RSA, We’ve recently published three relevant reports: on the middle tier, our academies commission, and our report on education in Suffolk, which is leading to further work with local authorities. This week, I’ve been helping our new Chairman Vikki Heywood to write a speech, and have been delving into RSA’s history. As well as finding out that the RSA was the place where a new chimney sweep was invented so that kids didn’t have to go up them, and that we were one of the first advocates for education for girls, we also, a couple of hundred years ago, recommended that England needed a Department of Education.
Two good ideas out of three isn’t bad! And I am not going to now recommend the abolition of the DfE. But, in asking questions about the role of local government, I think we need to return to fundamental questions about the role of national government in education and what role the DfE itself should play going forward.
‘I am not trying to criticise the performance of the DfE. I think that Andrew and others do fantastic work, often in the face of meandering ministerial whims. We deal with academy brokers, and over the last few years the quality of their thinking and depth of local knowledge has improved significantly. But even when they do their job well, we can still ask whether this is an appropriate role to hold nationally. In some conversations, the old cliché about ‘hearing a bedpan falling in Whitehall’ springs to mind.
‘If we generally go with the principle of subsidiarity, or what the Learning Trust in Hackney calls ‘maximum delegation’, the burden of proof lies nationally, for the DfE to justify the power they retain, whether for intrinsic reasons of democracy, or instrumental reasons of performance. For instance, there is an intrinsic rationale for a small national curriculum which determines some of what our children learn at a national level. Similarly, I think it is crucial that there is a national admissions code, created and monitored and partly enforced centrally, but made effective through local relationship-building. Our report on in year admissions highlighted some excellent local authority-led responses to the new code.
‘ However, at the same time, there are good intrinsic reasons why some power should be held locally, mediated by local politicians. And in terms of instrumentalism, I think that the international evidence on systemic school improvement, whether from Finland, Singapore or Alberta, tells us 3 things – first that successful systems tend to be small. England is too big a unit. Second, the successful systems tend to stick with long term strategies. Our national level is too politicised and media-hungry to stick to long term plans. And third, that devolution to schools is not the answer to everything. For instance, I think that delegation of Information Advice and Guidance to schools from Local Authorities is potentially disastrous, especially for our most confused and vulnerable young people.
‘ So I wonder whether in the longer term we should look to a full Swiss-style cantonisation of education, where DfE transfers significant current powers to regions, sub regions, city-regions or individual local authorities.
‘Going back to the shorter term, what might be the first step to this? I have one specific proposal, relating to academies, which now takes up so much DfE time and resource.
Our Academies Commission was very clear on the role of Local Authorities.
Local authorities should also embrace a stronger role in education– not as providers of school improvement services but as guardians and champions of the needs and interests of all children in the area. The Commission believes that over a period of three years, local authorities should phase out all their own provision of school improvement services and devolve them to school-led partnerships.
‘The commission was also clear that they meant traded services too, as this compromises their capacity for neutral intervention. I agree with the commission, but would add the following recommendation, partly building on Robert Hill’s RSA paper on the ‘Middle Tier’.
‘Once any LA genuinely does no school improvement work itself, whether for maintained schools or academies, and also sees all schools in its patch, whether academies or not, as self-governing, then it can play a central role in the academisation process itself.
‘So the second part of my proposal is for the DfE to give up most of the powers the secretary of state has around academisation to any local authority, or group of Local Authorities, who has fully withdrawn from school improvement. At that point, they can become an effective neutral broker and should be rewarded with the power to determine which schools require the sponsored academy route, and which schools have the quality and collaborative capacity to take on a convertor status. It should be Local Authorities, or possibly sub regions, who should hold the funding agreements with Academy Trusts, and who should hold the power to replace them where justified. Such refranchising processes would come under national rules, but be determined locally.
‘ I don’t think this is going to happen soon. Generally the rule of politics is that all politicians are localists until they get into power.
‘ So finally, and in the much shorter term, I’ll turn to what might Local Authorities do around school improvement now. In our work with Suffolk we developed a framework to support discussions. We looked at the three local authority functions as described by ISOS, and combined them with the key features of school improvement identified in the London Challenge Evaluation. We then tried to plot the possible future roles of the Local Authority, and of our recommended new external trust, the ’Suffolk Partnership for Excellence in Learning’ , against this grid. See page 30 of our Suffolk Report.
‘Lots of ideas here, but if I had to summarise this all in one sentence, I’d say that the most important future role for local councils in education is to build the capacity for challenging collaborations.
‘Finally, and returning partly to the philosophical rather than the pragmatic. People talk a lot about ‘false dichotomies’ in education, for instance between knowledge and skills, collaboration and competition. I agree, but I also think real dichotomies will remain in the eternally contested space of education, and that these should be embraced rather than disguised. Looking at education in England, despite the coherence of much of what this government is doing, I feel that there are three outstanding tensions which need recognition if not resolution:
‘First, is autonomy for schools a route to or a reward for success?
‘Second, should isolation, however ‘splendid’, ever be an acceptable attitude for any school or other publicly funded institution?
‘Finally, who, if anyone, should care about broader non-attainment outcomes for young people?’
Which is the odd one out?
If the question seems too easy, it is worth reflecting on that ways in which number 4 might be considered Pythonesque.
This is not a polemic. Humour can be a serious business. Before challenging any educational idea or policy one needs to accept that educational disagreements are all about value judgments, conceptual caveats and political compromises. It’s also difficult to know how valid a policy is without wider awareness -preferably international and historical- of what has been tried before. And if you manage all that, many would say you really have to have ‘been there’ with your own classroom experience.
On Friday I took part in an expert seminar/workshop on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education, abbreviated to SMSC; part of a fresh RSA Investigate-Ed approach to making sense of complex educational issues, organised by Joe Hallgarten. It was a relief to be asked to be speak about SMSC on the understanding that I didn’t have to pretend to be an expert, in the hope that my naivety would be constructive.
I was impressed by the depth and range of expertise in the room. There was a mixture of School Heads, frontline SMSC teachers e.g. RE, Citizenship, Ofsted inspectors and various kinds of researchers and education consultants. For most of these professionals SMSC is a given, a reality of their working lives, and the first thing I noticed was the language forms reflected this. Many spoke in terms of “How do we do SMSC?”
For an outsider this sounds really odd. As I said in my response, there is something Pythonesque about a situation where leading education experts assemble in an opulent room at the Royal Society for the Arts and discuss how to ‘do’ what sounds like a single discrete task (e.g. shall we do lunch?) but actually comprises four pillars of human civilisation – spiritual, moral, social and cultural – that presumably are what education is all about, rather than a single issue to be ‘done’.
Moreover, the idea that each of them can – in theory or practice – be disembedded from wider processes and taught explicitly also sounds slightly absurd. Surely there are SMSC dimensions in every walk of life, in every family, every city, every classroom? Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?
Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?
But such questions are the luxury of the outsider. I don’t have to go to work and be obliged to ‘do’ SMSC, nor think of how to measure it, or link it to other educational outcomes.
Nonetheless I did find myself asking my table: How did it come to this? What’s the history, the genealogy of SMSC?
That’s a research question in itself, but the quick answer appears to be tied to education acts in 1944 and 1988 – I will leave experts to flesh out the details, but from what I heard (and this should be checked) it sounds like S,M,S & C were originally alongside ‘physical and mental’ as six overarching domains/themes/goals of education, and then somewhere along the way there was a philosophical oversight, or ontological slippage whereby each of these dimensions ceased to be holistic goals of education as a whole, and instead became individual items, which could be separated out and taught.
The creation of ‘SMSC’ appears to have been a way of dealing with that evolution, but of course this is not merely a technocratic oversight that can be patched up, but rather a deep loss of perspective about what education is for, and for what teaching and learning should be about.
In case I sound like I think we should ‘call the whole thing off’, I really don’t. Each of these dimensions is hugely important, and we always have to play the hand we are given. I believe that doing/conceiving/reconceiving SMSC better might be a way to transform education ‘from the inside’ more broadly. In this respect, here are a few shorter points that might be relevant to this goal:
Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C?
- Throughout the discussion I kept thinking of Iain Mcgilchrist’s work on the difference ‘ways of being’ of the two hemispheres. The drive to measure outcomes of explicit instruction rather than judge the significance of implicit learning; and the focus on parts of the learning experience rather than the integrated whole- I felt all of that was there as a kind of background music to the discussion; and, for those who sense that too, Iain’s work helps make sense of why that might be so.
- I also felt there is an philosophical difference between ‘social’ and the other three dimensions. For me, with Social Brain hat on, I now see the social as constitutive of the other perspectives. We are so fundamentally, physiologically and psychologically ‘social’ that this grounds and shapes how we construct morality, culture and spirituality. If this subtle point sounds interesting to you, check out pages 10-15 of Transforming Behaviour change: What does it mean to say the Brain is ‘Social‘?
- There is much to say about the spiritual. My impression is that current framings and measures could be improved in various ways. There is a real danger that in a drive to be non-denominational all the rich content of the spiritual is thrown out. The main thing I would want to impart to children about the spiritual is a deeper appreciation for experience as such, and their own role in shaping their experience. You can’t do that with a textbook, but from a relatively early stage you can learn practices related to meditation that will teach them more about, for instance, their own minds and their own breathing. Personally, I believe that’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for ‘doing’ spirituality well.
More generally, I was struck by the impression, perhaps mistaken, that teachers and schools sounded like they were in danger of doing SMSC to students rather than making it possible for them to acquire such understanding/appreciation/experience themselves.
Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C? It would be helpful to have more examples of the kinds of activities that would allow students to grasp such things for themselves through their own thoughts or action. In this respect, I was reminded of the following quote by Matthew Lipman (Philosophy in the Classroom, 1980, p13) which seems a good place to end this personal reflection:
“Meanings cannot be dispensed. They cannot be given or handed out (to children). Meanings must be acquired; they are capta, not data. We have to learn how to establish the conditions and opportunities that will enable (children), with their natural curiosity and appetite for meaning, to seize upon the appropriate clues and make sense of things for themselves… Something must be done to enable (children) to acquire meaning for themselves. They will not acquire such meaning merely by learning the contents of (adult) knowledge. They must be taught to think and, in particular, to think for themselves.”