I work in an organisation that revolves around social research and policy. I went to grad school to study the social sciences. And there is not currently a single novel in my to-read stack, except for the half-metre tower of Game of Thrones novels, courtesy of a colleague here at the RSA.
Which is why what I’m about to say surprises even myself: As a tool for understanding human behaviour, human society, the way we think, emote, love, hate, live – the humanities are much more useful. The largest social science library doesn’t hold a candle to a much smaller handful of classic works of literature.
Of course, it took a recent social science study to help me understand this. It showed that reading literary fiction – and not nonfiction, and not ‘mass-market’ fiction – improves people’s ability to display empathy and to accurately register the emotions of others. The study asked participants to read a randomly-assigned selection of text from sources such as Don DeLillo, Smithsonian Magazine, or popular romance novels, and then to answer questions designed to assess their ability to decode the emotions and expectations of others in a given scenario. They were also shown close-up photographs of a person’s eyes and asked to identify that person’s current emotional state. Those who had read just a few minutes of classic fiction did significantly better than all the others.
This study’s findings alone certainly don’t go quite so far as my claim above. Emotional intelligence on a personal level is not the same thing as the kind of meta-understanding of human behaviour that social science affords; Shakespeare can’t tell us a whole lot about, say, the impact of switching schools mid-year, or how young people view entrepreneurship. This analysis should perhaps be narrowed from comparing humanities and social sciences to comparing humanities and modern psychology, which – like great literature – does try to explain why we do, think and feel what we do.
But the study’s conclusions do bring up important epistemological questions. True as they may be, the findings contained in a research report can be difficult to internalise, and certainly difficult to personalise. Perhaps this is because the lessons we learn best are those we teach ourselves. The artfulness of great literature lies at least partly in the way it forces us to piece together various perspectives, to become the omniscient narrator-analyst the text itself lacks. Your supermarket spy novels give the reader too much, whereas in classic literature “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” as David Comer Kidd, one of the researchers, told the New York Times. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”
I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s classic meditations on truth in The Things They Carried, his memoir of the Vietnam war: “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” The nervous truth for social scientists may be that the product of all the polling, interviewing, data crunching and theory testing we do – all these facts – may contain less truth in the end than an artfully crafted story that never even happened.
That’s not to say I’d give up the ghost just yet. One lesson here may be to think of social science less as a way to explain human behaviour, and more as a way to explain and refine the plastic structures of civilisation built around it. The modern workplace, for example, affects our lives as much as the confounding intricacies of love and attraction; we need innovative ways to engage workers as much as we need Jane Austen. It would be great if literature could play a complementary role in social science research, although I don’t see citing Chaucer or Chekhov in research reports becoming fashionable anytime soon.
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Fellowship
At the RSA Family of Academies we are working with four schools in the West Midlands who are about to embark on an arts audit. By reviewing what activities are already taking place across their schools they will be able to examine the ways that the arts and arts experiences could be woven through the curriculum and the school day.
One of the priorities for RSA Academies is ‘enabling learners to achieve a broad range of qualifications, skills and competences’ which poses some interesting thinking. How do you enable learners to achieve not just qualifications but also a broad range of skills and competences – and further still, confidence. And how do you get the disengaged interested in learning again?
A new report from the Arts Council of Wales explores arts and creativity in schools and the impact that arts experiences which take place in schools have. The headline figures are conclusive and striking. Of the 42 schools and colleges involved in the research, 99% said they felt that an involvement in arts activities had improved learner engagement. Dai Smith, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales follows this: ‘teaching in and through the arts, far from detracting from literacy and numeracy should be seen as an enabler to driving up standards in academic priorities’.
The research also identified that 98% and 99% felt that the arts developed emotional wellbeing and interpersonal skills of the pupils. The report provides evidence of the enrichment and progression of learners as a result of arts organisations coming through the school gate and through outside visits to theatres, galleries and exhibitions.
Which thinking about it, most of us will have our own experiences for which this rings true. I can still vividly remember a trip to the Barbican to see Romeo and Juliet with Tim McInnerny just mesmerising as Tybalt. The act itself of the trip to a big city, visiting the vast concrete megalith that is the Barbican and then to be wowed by the strange language of Shakespeare is the sort of stuff that stays with you at the tender age of 13.
Beyond this, the arts enables young people to explore identity and self-expression, to create and to experiment. Last week one of the RSA’s Royal Designers of Industry, Ben Kelly joined Arrow Vale RSA Academy in Redditch for the day. Designer of the interior of the Hacienda, Ben is a real life example of a rule breaker and innovator, and he inspired years 9 and 12 students with a new sense of what’s possible and attitude to success.
Whitley Academy head boy, Prince Chivaka leads a series of podcasts in a project with RSA Fellow Fran Plowright called Frontline Voices. Across the RSA Family of Academy schools, Prince and his fellow students explored questions of what it means to be a young person today growing up in an uncertain and changing world. Fran explains more about the project in her What about tomorrow? blog.
And take a look at Whitley Academy in Coventry. Their art website, Whitley Arts was created to showcase and sell their unique student artwork. It has also opened students’ eyes to the possibility of their work being in the public realm. The site acts as a focal point, a potential destination of work whilst underpinning learning and personal development.
We are working to create more of these moments of inspiration and practical projects where creativity is fostered as a core skill, and where hopefully more learners become more engaged as a result.
Is there anything wrong with entering ‘bright’ pupils to take certain GCSEs a year early, so that they can concentrate on other, possibly weaker, subjects the following year? Are schools ‘gaming the system’ by entering all pupils in a year group – knowing that they can take the same exam again six months later if they don’t perform well enough (and again after that, if they still haven’t made the grade)?
On the first day of Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced a change to the rules for how pupil exam grades are counted. Under the new ‘one strike and you’re out’ regime, pupils will not be prevented from having another go – but crucially from the school’s point of view, only the first attempt will count towards the school’s position in GCSE league tables. According to the announcement, the new rules will take immediate affect for subjects in the ‘English Baccalaureate’ (English, maths, modern languages, history, geography and the sciences).
On the plus side, making sure that schools only enter students for an exam when they are confident that they are ready is both a useful way to focus minds and an easy way to avoid the added costs of repeated exam entry.
More worryingly, it is possible to detect another, potentially more damaging set of assumptions behind the proposal. RSA Education is collaborating with the RSA Social Brain team on work looking at how behavioural insights can be applied to education. One of the key recommendations from a forthcoming report by Nathalie Spencer is the importance of attending to our deep-rooted beliefs or ‘mindset’ about pupil ability.
As this work shows, despite evidence that ability is not static or innate, there is still a tendency in parts of the education system to take a ‘fixed’ view of what pupils can be expected to achieve. This ‘fixed’ ability mindset is quite alien in Pacific Asian societies such as Singapore and Shanghai that have recently shot up the PISA rankings, where pupils from all social and family backgrounds are expected to try hard and do well. In these countries, achievement is much more likely to be viewed as open to growth and development – and importantly, the gap in performance between children from different social and family backgrounds is much narrower.
By contrast, the continued presence of a ‘fixed’ ability mindset in parts of the English system (including amongst policy-makers, parents and pupils themselves) may partly account for the long-standing socio-economic gap in pupil attainment at all stages of English schooling.
All will surely agree that it is a good thing to encourage students to take their exams seriously and make as much effort as possible whenever they sit an exam. But it is also important to counter the view that what matters most is being ‘bright’ enough to succeed first time. By saying to students that their first attempt is all that counts, there is a hidden message that there is no room to improve and get better.
How would the school system be different if every student and teacher were given the confidence and encouragement to believe that they could continue to grow and develop throughout their time at school and in later life?
It would start by embedding the idea that every teacher has room to develop their own thinking and learning, taking seriously the idea of investing in teachers’ professional development – and challenging teacher attitudes if and when these slip into a ‘fixed’ ability view of what children from different backgrounds can achieve.
And it would tackle head on the belief that many learners continue to hold, that they are ‘not good at maths’ or ‘hopeless at languages’. With regards to the former, the Government is right to be requiring continued engagement with maths and English up to the end of compulsory education – age 17 for the first time for this year’s cohort, and going up to age 18 from 2015.
But it needs to start tackling those negative mindsets much earlier – and should avoid reinforcing the idea that the ‘brightest’ pupils are those who succeed first time round, discouraging others from believing that with hard work and effort, they too can achieve at the highest levels.
Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of RSA Education, and author of ‘Rebalancing the UK Education and Skills System: transforming capacity for innovation and collaboration’.
This is a Guest blog from Fran Plowright FRSA, media and youth engagement producer, who has worked with students from RSA Academies to create a series of podcasts.
What About Tomorrow? is a series of four short audio podcasts, brainstormed, researched and voiced by students from the RSA Family of Academies around the theme of uncertainty and what it means to be a young person growing up today.
As an RSA Fellow with a background in radio production, youth engagement and mentoring, I was delighted to be asked to combine my skills and experience to give a platform to some of the younger members of the RSA community to express their opinions about the world they are growing up in and to encourage them to talk about what they really think about their education, aspirations and values. What opportunities do they really think await them? How do they think they can better equip themselves to achieve successful, independent and happy futures in these rapidly changing times?
The brief was to allow their authentic voices, opinions, wishes, hopes, fears and dreams to come across, as well as give them the opportunity to be involved in the production process, learn some presenting and editing skills and gain confidence in interviewing people. Interviewees ranged from fellow students and teachers to a series of experts and professionals in the fields of education, technology, youth engagement, gaming and psychotherapy.
Leading on this project was Whitley Academy in Coventry, where I spent a morning back in March with a small group of Year 10 and Year 12 students, brainstorming how we might best create something that would allow each Academy to explore the umbrella theme of uncertainty and form a series of linked programmes.
Whitley students settled on the umbrella title What About Tomorrow? They decided that they would focus their podcast on education, creativity and identity, looking at how you encourage young people to develop high self-esteem and inner confidence, gain a good set of qualifications from school or college and simultaneously develop a wide ranging skill set that equips you to go out into the fast paced, 21st century world with a good chance of ‘success’ and ‘happiness’. Along their journey they met and interviewed Sir Ken Robinson, as well as Ian Livingstone, Life president Eidos and inventor of Lara Croft, plus Sam Conniff and Michelle Clothier, CEO and MD respectively of youth marketing and engagement agency Livity.
Whitley also came up with a brief which they sent round to all the pupils at the other schools who had been chosen to participate in this project, suggesting that under this umbrella theme of uncertainty, they consider a few of the headings that came from their brainstorm as possible themes for their podcast: work, aspirations, opportunities, education, technology, confidence and appearance. It quickly became evident that students at the other schools were equally as enthusiastic as Whitley about their brief and very keen to have their voices heard.
Interesting and sometimes heated conversations followed as I toured the Midlands and travelled the Victoria Line from Finsbury Park to Vauxhall to kick start the process in each Academy so that all schools would be working simultaneously on a shared goal.
RSA Academy Tipton decided to focus on work and aspirations. In an area where unemployment is quite high, and traditionally people left school at 16 and went to work in local industries, coal mines until the pit closures in the 1960′s and then the factories and more recently trade and retail industries or hand to mouth work, the students wanted to explore if and how things have changed over the generations and decided to interview three generations of a family, the youngest of these -a year 10 pupil at RSA Tipton – Alex Beddall being the first in his family to be planning to go to University. They also visited their local steel factory Carparo and interviewed Loic Menzies, Director of LKMco on whether he thinks it is lack of aspiration, or in fact just lack of opportunity that is preventing children from less privileged backgrounds from being encouraged to aim high and do well at school and beyond. They called their Podcast ‘The Big Unknown’.
The pupils at Arrow Vale RSA Academy and its sister school Ipsley CE RSA Academy called their podcast ‘Technology, Friend or Foe?’ Pupils ranging from Years 5 up to Year 12 from both schools joined forces to examine the pros and cons of growing up in an age of rapid technological change. Is technology making teenagers lazy and producing a generation of couch potatoes bereft of the capacity for original thought, relying on Google and social media to tell them how the world is rather than experience it first hand? Is it dangerous and uncontrollable and leaving young people much more vulnerable and strangely unsupervised?, is it detracting from a healthy more active life or do the benefits by far outweigh the possible cons, allowing for greater knowledge, access to information, education, more sophisticated ways of communication and does it intact lend itself much better to creative freedom of ideas and expression? After the initial discussions and brain storm, a couple of year 10 students from the Arrow Vale radio group, took on the challenge of creating the podcast, interviewing fellow students and staff. They also sought the expert advice via Skype of Cisco Systems’ technology and educational advisor Dr Michelle Selinger, as well as blogger, educator and teacher Ewan Mcintosh.
Back in south London, a group of Year 9 students from Lilian Baylis Technology School decided to take a closer look at whether teenagers these days have bowed to increasing pressure from the media, magazines, fashion and music industries plus non stop images of each other on social networking sites like Facebook to look a certain way and conform to stereotypes of what is deemed attractive and therefore acceptable. Do young people in particular worry about this more than they worry about their school work or their futures? As well as interviewing their fellow teachers and students they also visited the charity Kids Company in Kennington, to meet up with Director and psychotherapist Camilla Batmanghelidjh. They called their podcast ‘Individually Beautiful’.
These podcasts came together over a five month period, during which time the students really did go on a journey of discovery, watching how an idea can change and morph and take on a life of its own. They also got to understand the highs and lows of the production process. Appointments had to be re-made, timetables shuffled and re-organised, many hours were spent editing and re-recording things that had fallen foul of technical hitches or simply needed to be re-recorded as things progressed. Staff in each school- to whom I am very grateful – worked hard to ensure that interviews took place as planned. For me, an essential and rewarding part of this process is not only the satisfaction of hearing the finished result, but also when working with young people in this way. It is essential that they get a glimpse of what it’s like to have to deliver a high quality product on schedule to a deadline as if in a real work situation.
Overall, the project has been a very exciting one and many of the staff and the students who have been involved are very keen to follow up the podcast series with a debate or panel discussion bringing together the pupils and some of the experts involved to discuss some of the themes and main ideas raised during the enquiry. Watch this space!
I will leave the last words to RSA Whitley Head Boy, 17 year old Prince Chivaka who presents and signs off the series.
“Whilst we are left with more questions than definite answers, we hope that having heard these podcasts, you can form your own opinions. And more than this, we hope we have created a platform for young people to communicate how we feel about some of the issues that matter most to us to a large adult audience. Finally, we hope you enjoy listening to the podcasts as much as we have enjoyed making them.”
For more information about the podcasts and to hear the series in full please visit thersa.org/frontline-voices.
Two thirds of the way through party conference season: what’s the verdict on the Lib-Lab education policies?
From Nick Clegg: a promise to extend free school lunches to every child of infant school age, to ‘help create a level playing field when it counts most’.
From Ed Miliband: a promise that every primary school in the country will have the breakfast and after school clubs that ‘stressed out parents need’.
Is there anything wrong with these pledges? They do at least pass the comprehension test: unlike various tax credit or financial wheezes, it’s easy to understand what the policy actually means – and it’s straightforward to calculate both the cost for the Treasury and the savings for cash-strapped working families (there being less of a saving for workless parents, since they already qualify for Free School Meals, and are less likely to need ‘wraparound’ childcare).
Whether or not they make a difference naturally depends on the aim: when the Deputy Prime Minister talks about ‘making social mobility the number one social policy objective’ of this Government, and then in the same breathe announces the free school meal giveaway, it certainly gives the impression that the policy announcement and policy objective are supposed to be connected. For the One Nation Labour leader, the ambition is to show how Britain can ‘win the race to the top’, by unleashing the talents of Britain’s 12 million parents, and by preventing the ‘tragedy’ of wasted young lives for those school leavers who fail to make the transition to secure employment.
The problem with diverting scarce resources to provide free meals and care for the under tens is that it fails to address the major weakness in early years policy: namely, the failure to invest in professional-level training and qualifications for the early years workforce, which continues to prevent the hoped-for gains in children’s learning being realised by the time they start school (the modest proposal by Cathy Nutbrown to introduce a minimum requirement of upper secondary qualifications by 2022 being a long way away from a graduate profession). All the free school breakfasts and lunches in the world will not be enough to make up for five years of missed opportunity before children even start school.
If free breakfasts and lunches are supposed to be the solution for younger children, there is a common answer to the problem of youth unemployment. For all the main parties – and the Conservatives are no exception – there is almost no ‘skills’ problem which cannot be solved by promising to increase the number of apprenticeships. But there is no guarantee that apprenticeships will act as an engine for social mobility either. Analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows that apprentices are more likely to come from middle-income families than low-income – and advanced Apprenticeships are even more likely to be out of reach for the most disadvantaged groups.
There is, then, a growing gap between the shared political ambition – to create a fairer, more upwardly mobile society – and policy reality. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with investing in apprenticeships (providing that employers in all sectors can be persuaded to take part); it is just that relying on apprenticeships to end the mismatch between young people’s skill levels and the demands of an ever-changing labour market is only setting a generation up for failure.
As I argue in an RSA think piece published today, neither Labour nor the Coalition have pledged to tackle the two systemic failures in pre-vocational education that urgently need to be addressed: the lack of progress in ‘raising the floor’ in basic and functional skills; and the continued pre-occupation with a narrow academic curriculum, which has squeezed out space for vital skills and capacities – thinking critically and creatively, emotional intelligence and working in collaboration. There is no single solution to a problem as deeply entrenched as educational disadvantage, which obviously requires action outside the education system as well as inside; but investing in higher level skills and qualifications for all educators, whilst removing the barriers to a genuinely innovative and collaborative system, would be a good place to start.
Louise Bamfield is RSA Associate Director of Education and author of ‘Rebalancing the UK’s Education and Skills System: Transforming capacity for innovation and collaboration’.
The Daily Telegraph is a surprising source of any campaign to make schools less segregated. Using research from the Fair Admissions Campaign, the paper produced a list of the ‘fifty most socially exclusive schools’, defined as the schools with the greatest discrepancy between the socio-economic make up of their intake and the demography of their local area. 17 of the top 20 and 68 of the top 100 are faith schools. Jonathan Romain’s comment piece gave a compelling argument to end any faith-based selection.
Leaving the wider arguments to one side, there is something that faith schools could do now: step up to the responsibility for taking a greater share of pupils who need to be admitted in-year.
Our recent report on this issue, Between The Cracks, used research from the National Pupil Database to show the scale and impact of in-year admissions. Although we did not recommend changes to the brand new admissions code, our report did include the recommendation that “schools and local authorities should try to share and adopt best practices in voluntary co-ordination and Fair Access Protocols to ensure that the most vulnerable undersubscribed schools are not forced to admit an excessive number of in-year movers.”
With the volume of in-year admissions possibly about to increase as a result of evictions from changes to housing benefit and an increase in the number of young people in care, our least vulnerable, oversubscribed schools need to respond appropriately. Given that church leaders have expressed concerns about the impact of benefit changes, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and others could apply some moral pressure to encourage their most popular schools to accept as many so-called ‘hard to place’ pupils in-year as they can possibly cater for. Whilst this may not have a significant impact on the overall nature of their intake, it will relieve pressure on other schools in their patch and, more importantly, help our young people who are most at risk of underachievement achieve far better outcomes.
Opposing Nick Clegg’s announcement of free school meals for all children in Infant classes in England would be about as popular as opposing Christmas. So I won’t bother. However, especially given that the announcement was made during a hooraying party conference, rather than through the proper, more testing channel of a parliamentary autumn statement, I’ll ask seven questions that might help others make their mind up.
1) How strong is the evidence that the pilot programmes have caused a rise in attainment, closing of the attainment gap, and reduction in obesity (all of which were claimed by Clegg and Leon founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent yesterday)? The evaluation report is less positive than advocates are claiming.
2) What percentage of benefiting parents will be be in the higher income brackets?
3) How sure are we that giving children free school meals until the age of seven leads to increased take up of paid school meals in the junior years and beyond?
4) How does this ringfenced funding align with government principles around school autonomy? If you had given this money to schools, with a soft suggestion to ‘buy’ free school meals for all, what they would have done with it?
5) How will the largely private sector companies which provide school meals benefit from this significant increase in school meals provision? Has any effort been made to negotiate with these companies to secure a better deal for schools?
6) What might be the best way to spend £600M to help close the attainment gap at age 7?
7) Alternatively, what might be the best way to spend £600M to help the families of approximately 700,00 children who face a cost of living crisis?
Patrick Butler’s blog convincingly explains the philosophical justification behind the universal extension of this benefit (ironically hypothecated with the introduction of means-tested child benefit). There may be a strong rationale for occasional gesture-based rather than evidence-based policymaking – it’s curiously similar to New Labour’s class size pledge in 1997. However welcome this new policy feels, it would still best be seen as a temporary policy on trial, rather than a permanent and irreversible new universal entitlement.
I left teaching in 1998 and, after a short and strange posting with a trade union, I joined the then-tiny ranks at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Here my first job was to help my new boss Nick Pearce edit a collection of papers on citizenship education. Thanks to the Crick Report, Citizenship had just been introduced to the national curriculum. On the publication of Tomorrow’s Citizens in 2000, our TES article asked “will the class of 2007 be true citizens?”. The Class of 2014 has, in theory, now experienced citizenship education as a statutory entitlement throughout their compulsory schooling. Although there are some ongoing longitudinal studies, it is difficult to tell whether the statutory place of citizenship in the national curriculum has made any difference to young people’s outcomes, attitudes and actions.
Since 2000 the IPPR has, to its credit, retained an ongoing interest in citizenship education, in and out of school. Their most recent project on Citizen Schools, led by Clore Social Leadership Fellow and RSA Fellow Jamie Audsley, features the RSA Academy in Tipton as an example of excellent practice. With all of our Academy teachers focused on turning their shiny new Year 7′s into shiny new citizens, I was asked to represent the school at the House of Commons launch, featuring presentations from all case studies schools, and a student-led question time panel.
Does the RSA Academy deserve recognition as a ‘citizen school’? I am probably not the best person to judge this, but if their practice is in any way exemplary, I’d offer four reasons why:
1) Our curriculum includes the Opening Minds competencies, allowing citizenship to be embedded throughout the curriculum, through both subject-based and cross curricular approaches, especially at Key Stage Three.
2) Our assessment for post-16 students (and most students stay on to our sixth form) uses the International Baccalaureate and the new career-related IBCC (for which we are a proud pilot school). These enable a strong service and citizenship element to sustain and be assessed throughout young people’s schooling.
3) Our student leadership approaches are holistic, innovative, and challenging, engaging all students, and now influence practice in all our family of academies through a student-led peer review process.
4) Our behaviour policies also enable active citizenship, through restorative practices and student tribunals.
The report has a different, but equally positive take on the RSA Academy, and I am hoping that teachers from the Academy will add their thoughts through comments on this blog. From my still-evolving knowledge about the Academy, I’d also mention three areas where, if we are to sustain and improve our citizenship focus, we could make even more progress:
1) An alignment of our citizenship goals with our ambitions around enterprise, and also around the improvement of our arts provision. The arts, in all their forms, are terrific and often under-utilised vehicles for citizenship education.
2) A refreshed approach to the way we engage our parental community, especially those ‘not yet reached’ parents, as citizens.
3) A democratic approach to curriculum design, making the most of the opportunity that a slimmed down national curriculum (which, as an Academy, we are not obliged to teach anyway) offers at Key Stage Three to involve parents, pupils and the wider community in determining the content of our curriculum.
The IPPR report and the Guardian article deserve to be read by anyone who is trying to build new, strategic approaches to citizenship education in schools. From reading the report and hearing the inspiring contributions from other schools, I’m left with a question about the next thirteen years. Will changes to education policy, the economy and broader society make it more or less likely for our Academy and all schools to become citizen schools? Will the class of 2026 be true citizens?
Joe Hallgarten Director of Education @joehallg
Contact the report’s main author at @JamieAudsley
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters, Enterprise, Fellowship, Innovation, Social Brain, Social Economy, Uncategorized
Building a neural net of wishes and sharing experience at the #RSARDIsummerschool filmed by Dr James Furse-Roberts
This week I returned from the 2013 RDI Summer School; an immersive, collaborative design experience created by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry. Held over four days at Dartington Hall, Devon, the Summer School brought together designers and others from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who could learn from each other and be inspired and empowered to think differently and creatively. During the event, the eminent designer and creative leader Michael Wolff RDI shared his favourite quote by the author and poet, Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Having worked on six summer schools with the Royal Designers, I have observed that each event has had a dramatic or life-changing impact on those who have attended. Some of the designers leave with renewed confidence and are emboldened to take more risks, or start their own businesses. Others decide to change the way they work, become more open to collaborating, or begin a new altruistic pathway.
As we developed the 2013 Summer School, jointly directed by exhibitions and interior designer Dinah Casson RDI, and engineering designer Chris Wise RDI, we proposed the inclusion of more ‘wildcards’ in the cohort; participants who were not designers but were somehow touched by design. They might be commissioners, teachers, or civil servants. Could the summer school be as educative and transformative for them as it had been for designers?
The wildcards that were selected this year all shared a connection with the public realm; a healthcare researcher specialising in quality improvement initiatives, and a regeneration manager of a local council to name but two. Here follows a personal account of the Summer School from wildcard Owen Jarvis, a social entrepreneur and Clore Fellow, who is exploring how social leadership can learn from design:
“During my Clore year I’ve been considering how can social leaders make better use of design-thinking in shaping social and public services.
The Summer School involved a series of curated activities to allow us to meet, network, and collaborate away from work. Challenges were introduced for small groups around themes such as “us and them” and explored meanings and expressions of emotions and how these can be used as inspiration for work. These culminated in the sharing of findings, performances and art works on the final morning, with many groups working through the night to finish on time. Pleasure, creativity, play, discussion, reflection and work were delightfully intertwined for a very rich weekend.
The Royal Designers were incredibly open and generous in offering support and mentoring. Often provocative, they demanded honesty, sharper thinking and attention to detail and standards in exercises. Challenges and insights were received and respected in turn. As we moved from discussions to making objects and performances the magic started to happen. The final pieces were surprising and engaging and remarkable given the short time we had together.
So what can be taken away with reference for the social sector? Many of the challenges designers face are familiar and not specific to their profession. How big do you get before you lose the essence of what you are, how do you attract and keep talent? How do you avoid selling out to the agenda of investors in the process of growth? Over the weekend we were called upon to move away from these important but day-to-day issues to ask other broader questions.
In the same way the social sector comes back to a question of social impact, designers are also constantly returning to a question of quality and attention to detail in the pursuit of beauty. This raised some important questions for me. What is in the beauty, design and elegance of a social service and in achieving social change? Is there an aesthetic? How can organisations be designed in their own right to be things to admire? In addressing these questions, do we make a greater impact?
‘Life can be evaded, death cannot’, our final session considered. Everyone faces some apprehension and anxiety in presenting views, ideas, creations. We feel surrounded by judgement yet our real adversary is our own self. Talent that doesn’t fulfil its potential is a tragedy.
The Summer School has been one of the most extraordinary learning opportunities of my career. It has reminded me of the courage needed to step-forward and step-out and embrace the risk of failure. This has lessons for us all to reach our potential and live life fully. That is also a mark of leadership.”
Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA
You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews
Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool
On Monday I spoke at the launch of the RSA Open Public Services Network’s new report on Empowering Parents, Improving Accountability. The OPSN has also created a related dataset, free for anyone to use. The Guardian has already published the dataset in a way that enables the public to discover more information about any secondary school in England, on a subject by subject basis. Have a play, and tell us what you think.
Here’s my speech, partly stolen from an earlier blog, and embellished with a couple of additional post-launch reflections.
If information is power, and power corrupts, does that mean that information corrupts?
Of course not, but at the same time, information will, if it’s useful at all, change behaviours – on the producer and consumer sides. And its those behaviours which determine which children gets which outcomes. If, for instance, as Alison Wolf and others believe, young people have spent 20 years learning useless vocational qualifications, we can’t blame them, or their teachers, or even the exam boards – it’s the creation and publication of particular performance measures that caused this problem
So whenever we publish data, we do need to ask the precautionary principle – ‘will this do any harm?’ For instance the RSA/Pearson Academies Commission recently proposed that schools published data on the racial and socioeconomic nature of their intake. This might drive schools to change behaviours around admissions, but it might also support parents’ existing prejudices, and increase segregation.
I believe the dataset that OPSN has created will only do good – it broadens our perceptions of what is a good school. It enables parents and others to take a more personalised, detailed look at the subject-based strengths and weaknesses of each school. It takes its place in plethora of new initiatives that are making similar attempts to make data useful and intelligible, for instance, the FFT’s data dashboard, and and Loic Menzies’ fantastic efforts, which includes useful financial comparisons between schools.
However, the OPSN grew out of RSA’s Public Services 2020 Commission, whose final report centred on the notion of social productivity – that brilliant public services can only be created with rather than for users. This education data project, and possibly all of the other worthwhile attempts to make data more open transparent, is seeing data as a way to make parents better informed consumers of schools. Better information will lead to better choice (or at least, better ‘preferences’), and these choices might drive improved school performance.
Is this too narrow a conception of the potential power of data? Are there ways to use data that will encourage and help consumers of public services to become participants, citizens, co-creators of better outcomes, not just for themselves, but for the wider public good? Imagine a science phd student who wishes to volunteer in a local school, using data to find a school with poor science performance, where she might add most value. Or imagine an arts organisation, tired of working with willing usual suspects, who use data to find cold spots where too few young people are choosing arts GCSEs. If this dataset begins to include post-16 destination data, how might businesses use this to target their engagement with schools? We know from John Hattie’s work that the key way to improve pupil outcomes is to improve the quality of feedback, at all levels. What kinds of data might produce rigorous, productive feedback loops between schools and external stakeholders? In particular, can we use data to enable secondary schools and their feeder primaries to have far more rigorous conversations about the performance of individual children, that might change each others practices? This connects to our recommendations for education in Suffolk and my colleague Louise Bamfield’s recent blog about collaboration.
So whilst this is publication step in the right direction I think that the challenge ahead for all those number crunchers and data hackers out there is to publish data in a way that inspires voice as well as choice, engagement as well as exit, and citizenship as well as consumption.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg