When I was a primary school history coordinator (in those heady, deluded days before literacy and numeracy targets swept most other priorities away, and QCA schemes of work did the rest), I had the delightful job of planning a whole-school history scheme of work. One of the many attainment targets for history was for children to be able to ‘distinguish facts from opinions’ by the time they got to secondary school. Given their collective seniority and expertise, I am hopeful that the Education Select Committee has the same ability, even if some of their witnesses struggle with this distinction.
When asked this week by the Select Committee about the Academies Commission’s critique of some aspects of policy, former schools minister Nick Gibb claimed that the RSA had a ‘particular view’ and didn’t come from ‘neutral ground’. This contrasts to others who wondered aloud (via twitter) whether a commission led by an academy provider such as the RSA would ever be anything other than positive about academies.
These claims insult the independence of the commissioners themselves, and the process they led. The RSA’s Action and Research Centre, with the remit to act and think, show and tell, innovate and recommend, will constantly need to navigate healthy tensions between our practice and our research. In combining thought leadership and social innovation, we aim to create a virtuous circle between research and practice. The Commission’s findings will inform how we develop our family of academies model, Working directly with these academies gives us insight to which areas of policy need exploring, and provides us with both inspiration for and reality checks on ideas for practical innovations. And the practical innovations we lead with larger numbers of teachers and schools, for instance through our Opening Minds framework and our area based curriculum, also help determine our priorities for future RSA programmes of work.
At the same time, recent exchanges have caused me to reflect on that slippery word ‘evidence’. When committees or commissions ‘take evidence’, they are really collecting stories, some of which will be facts, others opinions. As Dylan William and others remind us all, evidence is not the plural of anecdotes. Stephen Gorard has distinguished between the legal use of evidence, which aims to push a single viewpoint, and the academic use, which, to quote Chomsky, aims to ‘tell the truth and expose lies’. In thinking about education, only the latter will do, alongside a recognition that most evidence is far less conclusive that we’d like (and the more rigorous the evidence, the less conclusive it will probably be, as Education Endowment Foundation-funded projects are likely to find out in the next few years).
After such a deep, rigorous progress, it’s a shame that admissions ‘gossip’ (as opposed to the carefully considered recommendations about admissions in the report) dominated media headlines. We hope that the RSA’s current project on in-year admissions, which will involve surveys and data collection, may help shed light on wider questions about the impact of academisation on admissions.
Those who still have influence over the future direction of academies have welcomed the commission’s findings and want to engage in serious discussions about next steps, Whatever people’s views on the Commission, lack of balance is not the issue. Whatever Nick Gibb said, the Commission was entirely neutral in its deliberations. Mind you, given Nick Gibb’s dislike of RSA Opening Minds, he would have said that, wouldn’t he?
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.
Today I’m writing from Sheffield, where I’m attending the North of England Education Conference (NEEC 2013). This year’s theme is ‘Mind, Brain, Community: Inspiring Learners, Strengthening Resilience’. Day one was crammed with fascinating talks. It will take me some time to digest it all before writing about it more fully at a later date, but here is a sample of some of the points that stood out from the day:
Interschool collaboration – Rt. Hon. David Blunkett emphasised the need for school-to-school collaboration, stating that schools cannot succeed by turning in on themselves but instead must work together. He recommended the recent Academies Commission report Unleashing Greatness , which was launched last week at the RSA, as an insightful overview of collaboration and other pressing issues.
Rt. Hon. David Blunkett…commended the recent Academies Commission report Unleashing Greatness, which was launched last week at the RSA, as an insightful overview of collaboration and other pressing issues.
Wellbeing and wellness domains – Dr Isaac Prilleltensky led a very energetic keynote session. He argued that to date, there has been a focus on bio-psycho domains of wellbeing, and not enough focus on social aspects of wellbeing such as community and family life. Further, he emphasized that wellbeing must be evaluated by both subjective and object measures.
And, much later in the day, Caroline Sarajoni Hart echoed Prilleltensky when she spoke about teacher wellbeing, saying that no one measure of wellbeing should be used as a meaningful proxy for overall wellbeing. Hart discussed Sen’s Capability Approach to get the audience thinking about how to convert teacher aspirations into capabilities or options for action.
Attunement – The concept of attunement came up in several sessions. My understanding of attunement is that it is a form of reciprocal, self-reinforcing interaction and an effective response to the other’s needs; so a baby will mirror his mother’s smile, and the mother replies to the baby’s cries with food, soothing caress, or a fresh nappy as appropriate. Both Zoe Brownlie and Marlo Winstead explained the importance of caregiver / child attunement for healthy brain development and ultimately student engagement in school years.
These were just a few of the many topics discussed. I’m looking forward to tomorrow…
I think it was Enoch Powell who said that a politician who complains about the media is like a fish complaining about the sea. The same is just as true for think tanks, so this isn’t a complaint just a quick counterpoint to some of the gratifyingly widespread coverage of the Academies Commission report which was published today.
Most of the press has led on the warning in the report that academies are manipulating their admissions processes to improve results. In fact, admissions takes up only one chapter of seven in the report and the Commission was deliberately cautious about what it said on the subject. Here is the quote from the report’s Overview:
Evidence to the Commission illustrated the impressive commitment of many academies to social inclusion but this did not extend to all that we saw. The Commission views social segregation in the school system as a problem for equality of opportunity and to system improvement. It heard, for example, of some academies willing to take a ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership. It is vital, as academies begin to assert their independence more vigorously, that such practices are eradicated. Ensuring excellent teaching and school-to-school collaboration is the route to improve learning and raise achievement for all pupils, no matter what their background.
There is no suggestion of a wholesale shift to manipulation of admissions more a warning that the poor practice of a minority of schools must not be allowed to become common practice.
The actual over-arching message of the report is best found, unsurprisingly, in the report’s Overview. Here are some paragraphs (paraphrased by me) which capture that message:
The introduction of academies has provided much-needed vitality to the school system. At the same time, the evidence considered by the Commission does not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families. There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains, and these have raised expectations of what can be achieved even in the most deprived areas. But it is increasingly clear that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement.
… The evidence considered by the Commission has left it convinced that there now needs to be a new, determined focus on the detailed implementation of the academies programme to ensure that it realises its transformative potential.
In particular, the Commission has recognised three imperatives for the further development of the academies programme …
• to ensure that there is a forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning so that the gap between the vision for academies and practice in classrooms is reduced and the words ‘academisation’ and ‘improvement’ become inextricably and demonstrably linked
• to ensure that an increasingly academised system is fair and equally accessible to children and young people from all backgrounds
• to ensure that academies demonstrate their moral purpose and professionalism by providing greater accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders. The role of governors is more important than ever in an academised system, and their scrutiny and challenge should ensure effective accountability.
Alternatively, listen to the Commission’s Chair, Christine Gilbert, on the Today programme this morning (scroll through to 2.51 hours).
Commissions can be tricky beasts. Often, in the drive to achieve consensus among all parties, they can drift towards the lowest-risk common denominator. Last minute changes and compromises can skew narratives. And, as with all policy reports, subtle sets of recommendations can be misinterpreted by the media and others. Low-lying ideas can suddenly become top-line recommendations.
After nine months of gestation, we are delighted that the Academies Commission has avoided all of these pitfalls. We congratulate Becky Francis, her team at the Pearson Think Tank, and the three Commissioners Christine Gilbert, Chris Husbands and Brett Widgortz for producing a rigorous, fascinating and highly readable report.
We welcome the Commission’s contribution to the academies debate. The recommendations should have significant implications for policy and practice. The RSA, as a partner with a family of academies and with an education programme focussed on social justice, democracy and innovation, will reflect on and respond to the recommendations in due course, and we urge others to do the same. Comment below, or use #acadcomm on Twitter.
Many academies are transforming learning and form a valuable part of the school improvement ecology. However, the Government’s frenetic drive towards a fully academised system is not yet justified by evidence, and could actually damage the potential systemic value of a better targeted, more carefully supported approach to the growth of academies. We also hope that this report helps to initiate a more intelligent discussion about autonomy, centralisation, governance and collaboration in the English school system.
Two months late, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s launch of our Academies Commission report, here are some reflections from a very valuable National College for School Leadership seminar on self-improving school systems. The college is dealing well with both reduced budgets and; the risks that come through conversion to an ‘executive agency’ of the Department of Education. In truth, even as an NDPB the relationship between Department and College was usually less arms length and more Venus De Milo. But school leaders are rightly asking the College to exploit its privileged position within government without going totally native. It’s a space that the interim Chief Executive Maggie Farrar is occupying with astuteness and panache.
At the seminar, David Hargreaves discussed his fourth thinkpiece on the development of a self-improving school system in England, and offered views on progress made since 2010. Nearly three years since the white paper on the Importance of Teaching stated that “our aim should be to create a school system which is more effectively self-improving “, my own 3-point progress report reads as follows:
1. The system as a whole is up for the self-improvement challenge.
Education leaders, whether in schools, local authorities or academy providers, largely ‘get’ that this government is serious about a self-improving system, and that self improvement will only happen through collaboration. If there is recalcitrance to collaborate, it is probably down more to the prevailing uncertainties in policy direction than to the decisions that have actually been made.
2. Converter academies, despite government hopes and the fantastic work of some headteachers and chains, are insufficiently committed to and involved in school to school support and system leadership.
Whether this is due to genuine under-commitment, or the within-school capacity issues that come with conversion, it may be too early to say. But it is clear that conversion comes with very weak collaborative strings attached. If individual academies want to go for splendid isolation, there’s not much stopping them, and too many are taking the money and freedoms and running.
3. Teaching schools and especially teaching school alliances are positioning themselves to go beyond leadership of ITT and CPD towards full system leadership.
Teaching Schools appear to have a confused, multiplying set of expectations placed upon them, for very little funding. Despite or possibly because of this predicament, many are poised to grow their remit and influence. This is less mission creep and more mission clarification.
So overall, in response to Ben Levin’s question about whether we are ‘creating an institutional context that promotes or prevents collaboration’ I am generally optimistic about our education system’s collaborative potential. New drivers are coming into play. Austerity, which has barely touched school budgets (although is deeply affecting the budgets of the families they serve) could force the pace, catalysing the creation of harder federations, especially between small, otherwise-unviable primary schools. There is also the succession planning opportunity of a large number of retiring headteachers to exploit, possibly replacing them with a smaller number of executive heads. Emerging new technologies could support progress on all four of Hargreaves’ ‘criteria for deep partnerships’[i].
However, I would also agree with Hargreaves’ prediction that the next few years will see the growth of a “scattered and weakly connected self-improving sub-systems of school….but not yet a self improving school system”. I suggest four additional foundations that need to be considered if we really are going to move towards a self-improving system.
First, sustainable self-improvement will need policies that encourage genuine self-determination, so that schools have authorship and ownership over ends as well as means. To avoid the risk expressed in the DfE White Paper that “the attempt to secure automatic compliance with central government initiatives reduces the capacity of the school system to improve itself”, schools need what one seminar participant described as ‘the authority to determine the values of an education system.’ The new curriculum is a key opportunity and battleground here.
Second (and if Gove favours it for the press, why not for schools?) schools need to move to a culture of collective self-regulation – self and peer evaluation of their own performance against nationally and locally agreed goals. Challenge Partners has led the way here. Government should commit to a declining role for external inspection, in proportion to educational success, so that OFSTED gradually becomes an external moderator of collective self-regulation.
Third, schools should have a broader conception of ‘self’, and look to other people and organisations to support system improvement. Kevan Collins talked recently about a local mosque that had been successfully commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council to help reduce truancy, especially those caused by in-term visits to Bangladesh. Schools, if delegated budgets for collective approaches to school improvement, should sometimes look beyond schools for the best solutions.
Finally, system leaders need to learn the art of self-deprecation. From various off-record conversations, there is a feeling that headteachers as a tribe are developing a reputation for being self-satisfying, self-aggrandising, and self-serving, even when in the act of system improvement. This, of course, is a caricature – headteachers are as heterogeneous as any other group of leaders. One leader of a teaching school alliance talked at the seminar about the subtle differences between leadership language and partnership language, to keep the values and egos of all participating schools on board.
At its deepest level, the transformation towards a self-improving school system is a behaviour change issue, one that requires adaptive rather than technical solutions. As part of a new project on ‘re-minding education’, we are working with the RSA’s social brain centre to understand how research from neuroscience and behavioural economics might contribute to our understanding about how schools and teachers can best collaborate for improvement. Please get in touch with your insights and ideas. The project is not even half-formed yet, so this is a perfect time to shape our thinking.
Thanks to Shipa Nessa for her support with this blog. Shipa in on a short placement at RSA through Ladies Who Learn, a project developed by RSA Fellow Asma Shah with the support of Catalyst funding.
[i] Criteria for a deep partnership (in ascending order of difficulty)
- Joint practice development is well established within and between schools in the partnership.
- Social capital is high within and between schools in the partnership.
- Collective moral purpose is a value shared and enacted by all stakeholders, including students, within the partnership.
- Evaluation and challenge are practiced at every level within and between schools.
Fresh from a family skiing holiday in Colorado, our Secretary of State for Education will hopefully, like the rest of us, have new year resolutions on his mind that have nothing to do with work. Better parallel turns? Less red meat and wine? An escape from Notting Hill?
Judging by his topping of a recent Conservative Party members’ poll as the most popular Cabinet minister, and the contrasting views of teachers in a recent poll on morale, his education resolution might just be to ‘stay resolute’. Gove is seen as a success; by party members; by some repetitive columnists who fawn on and feed off half-truths about our education system; and also by those who rightly praise his conviction and passion for the job.
In comparison to others around the cabinet table, Gove has certainly brought the Prime Minister very few problems. However, the Coalition’s education policies have thus far been judged only by a series of inputs – number of new academies, amount of pupil premium funding, number of times teaching union leaders have been irritated. The big rise in primary test scores for 2012, and good set of recent international test results are more legacies of the previous government’s reforms than the results of any new policies.
Like all policies and politicians, public attitudes to Gove have been shaped by premature evaluation. However, three years in and as the Coalition publishes its Mid-Term Review, 2013 should be the year we can finally begin to judge the effectiveness of a radical series of reforms. Never mind school structures, what has all this change meant for young people? Never mind the ebacc, is the achievement gap between our poorest children and the rest closing? Never mind morale, is the quality of teachers and teaching improving? And never mind tuition fees, how will the system work for those underachieving 16 year olds who will now be legally obliged to ‘stay on’ from September?
Rather than make early predictions, or add to the ever-increasing volume of money or time-heavy recommendations that pass through the Department’s in tray, here are eight New Year’s resolutions for Gove, and all who sail in him, that might help him to steer our education system to greater long term successes.
- Do some systems thinking.
- Slow down on academisation.
- Create an accountability system to ensure that every child matters, to every school, and that lower attaining pupils matter even more.
- Release and justify your inner control freak.
- Show your hand on the future educational role of local authorities.
- Double-check your evidence.
- Interrogate and treasure our youth services.
- Stick around to finish what you’ve started.
My own work-related new year resolution is to blog more often. So, rather than explain these now, I’ll aim to expand on most of them during January.
Why do all governments find curriculum reform so difficult? Perhaps they are powerless in the face of endless lobbying. During the attempts to ‘slim down’ the national curriculum in 2000, one government official showed me letters from the Campaign for Real Ale and the Anarchist Federation, demanding that, yes, real ale and anarchy should have a place in the national curriculum. Maybe they fall prey to a ‘tyranny of experts’, who find it impossible to make real choices that could meaningfully reduce content. Overall, the demands of civil society and its myriad of interest groups who believe that what happens to children between 9 and 3.30 weekdays might solve each of society’s problems may be as much to blame as any power-fuelled or change-obsessed politician.
After making useful initial noises about curriculum change and school freedom, guided by Tim Oates’ robust and readable paper about international approaches to curriculum reform, the coalition’s approach to rewriting the national curriculum may eventually be seen as a case study in bad policymaking: Poor use of evidence and expertise, meaningless consultation processes, slippery timetables and unnecessary creation of uncertainties that destabilise schools’ strategic planning. Above all, reform has been shaped by what the ASCL’s Brian Lightman has called ‘cart before horse’ thinking in two ways. First, announcements are being made about changes to accountability and assessment regimes in advance of curriculum decisions. The assessment tail is wagging the curriculum dog. And second, as the Institute of Education’s John White has explained, curriculum reform needs to start by agreeing about overall aims, then consider content, before finally making decisions about how to structure this content, through subjects or other models. Subjects, and subject knowledge, will undoubtedly figure in any final curriculum framework (and contrary to the views of some – see my recent twitter spat – the RSA does not wish to ‘abolish subjects’), but this should not be our starting point.
At a key moment in the current debate, with more announcements due in January, RSA is stepping into the fray in the best way it knows how: blending practice, theory, policy ideas and a hint of idealism.
The suite of reports we released last week, written by Louise Thomas, summarises findings from the RSA’s three year Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. It includes guides for practitioners, case studies and evaluation reports. It aims to provide an honest, practical and reflective analysis of the project’s findings, and its potential implications for policy and practice.
The curriculum has always been a political animal. As a nation, and as institutions and individuals, it defines our values and reflects our hopes for future generations. Any attempt to try and ‘depoliticise’ the curriculum is neither desirable nor realistic. Indeed, most debates about the curriculum start from the wrong place. Instead of asking ‘what should the curriculum include’, our starting question should always be ‘who should determine what the curriculum includes’? As Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has argued, curriculum design should be seen as a ‘grand social project’. This links to RSA’s own values and expertise around social productivity as the best means to improve public services, and expanding human capability as the ultimate goal of society.
If the promise of a genuinely slimmed down national curriculum is ultimately upheld, this could be a key moment for schools to reclaim a significant part of the ‘whole curriculum’ – that element (maybe 50%?) of children’s schooling which is not nationally prescribed. Curriculum innovation, as I argued at a recent Guardian conference, should not just mean creative tinkering with the national curriculum. It requires a school community to determine a set of additional aims, knowledge and skills, and innovating to make sure young people learn these in addition to the national curriculum.
Designing your own curriculum is never an easy option, especially when so many off the shelf packages exist, and ‘national curriculum overload’ can always provide a ready excuse for inaction. Our learning from Peterborough and elsewhere is that the effort is worth it. The process through which a school decides and designs its own curriculum, whilst time-consuming, forces and enables schools to think about their aims, ethos, and partnerships with the wider community – all key factors in building great schools.
However, schools that take this path need to ensure that any innovation is rigorous; the more you are breaking with conventions, the more you need to understand the conventions. They also need to ensure that the quality of the pedagogical thinking matches the quality of the curriculum thinking. Finally, design should be done through a genuine partnership with individuals and institutions in a school’s community – to create a curriculum designed by, with and for a locality. (For an example of bad practice-making in curriculum reform, read about my attempts as a naïve primary school teacher).
Will schools take the curriculum ‘road less taken’? The key factor probably won’t be the actual content of the national curriculum. It won’t be structural changes; whether you are an academy, free school or otherwise is largely irrelevant to this issue. The key factors in unleashing curriculum innovation will be other levers, especially assessment and accountability mechanisms, that all schools are subjected to. Will Ofsted ensure that both national and locally generated curricula carry equal weight? Will narrow assessment systems nudge schools to narrow their offer? Will the revised teacher and headteacher standards encourage curriculum innovation? What will government do when the media find schools that are teaching things that they don’t like?
Throughout its history the RSA has built and sustained interest in school curriculum issues. Building on this reputation, as well as our learning from the Area Based Curriculum and our Opening Minds framework, we will continue to contribute in four ways:
First, we will continue to work in Peterborough through the Peterborough Learning Partnership, and find ways to transfer our learning to other areas interested in developing local curricula.
Second, in partnership with the Institute of Education and the Curriculum Foundation, and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, NAHT and OCR we have launched a pioneering professional development programme for teachers and other educators. Grand Curriculum Designs will foster a new generation of skilled and sensitive curriculum designers.
Third, we will continue to foster curriculum innovation in our growing family of academies.
Finally, we will continue to offer the RSA’s House and online platforms as spaces for purposeful, evidence-based debates about the curriculum to take place. This includes an event in January on the English curriculum.
Local knowledge needs local power. If this government is serious about freeing all schools from some central control, they will need to make sure that every school has the freedom, training and incentives to design their own curricula. This will need changes to accountability so that Ofsted inspect a school’s whole curriculum rather than the just the national curriculum; and so that schools have outward accountability to their communities rather than just upward accountability to Ofsted and government.
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of supporting 40 student leaders from the RSA Family of Academies who came together to discuss ‘Enrichment Though Student Leadership’. Students delved into question webs and explored what it meant to be a student leader in their schools before settling down to plan and devise their own enrichment activities. My colleague Temi Ogunye has written a post about the event and can tell you that the Family of Academies are in the process of deciding if they should support RSA-lympics or the myriad of other creative and exciting project ideas that students created.
The Student Leadership Conference was supported by RSA Fellow Matt Kepple of makeworldwide.com fame. Matt gave students a whirlwind tour of his experiences at school, university and beyond and highlighted the importance of being a leader and making the most of your opportunities. The best parts of school for Matt were the extras that enriched his experiences and expanded his horizons. These experiences highlighted the benefits of extra-curricular activities and showed him that you benefit most when you dip your toe and give something a go. Through university he held onto this philosophy and came out the other end with a bank of friends, experiences and knowledge which reminds us that we should always think holistically about education. Matt also took the time to speak with students over lunch about his experiences and may even have been persuaded to head to one of our academies to support their enterprise group. They were a convincing bunch.
My role with the Family of Academies is to support as may interactions between Fellows and students, teachers and the Academies as possible. I am always looking for Fellows to support the RSA and the schools to enrich, enliven and enhance time at school. If you would like to know more please contact me by email at Richard.email@example.com or on twitter where I’m @pickfordrich
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.