This is a guest blog from Laura Guest, a Year 12 student and a Senior Lead Learner at RSA Academy in Tipton.
On Wednesday 11th June, ten students from the RSA Academy (including myself) attended a conference in the RSA building in London. The conference was with John Ryley, the current head of Sky News, and we learnt about his vision for the future of Sky, TV Broadcasting and journalism as a profession.
For those who would rather spend their weekend dodging thunderstorms than sitting in a sweltering conference hall, what did we learn from speeches by Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt at Policy Exchange’s Education Conference on Saturday about the party’s election manifestos 2015?
Whose backchat is the most fly?
For Michael Gove, the speech was an opportunity to re-state his overarching moral purpose, whilst sedately clobbering those local authorities and other opponents who are still resisting his flagship Academies and Free Schools programme. Applauding the achievements of some of his favourite schools and head teachers, Mr Gove commented that they had managed to replace the competitiveness of street culture – “whose trainers are smartest, whose attitude is hardest, whose backchat is the most fly” – with the competitiveness of academic culture. For those of us still reeling from MC Gove’s rendition of the ‘Wham rap’ (“Hey everybody take a look at me, I’ve got street cred-i-bil-ity/ I may not have a job but I have a good time, with the boys I meet down on the line”), such talk sent chills down the spine. But no fear, there was no repeat performance, ‘vanilla’ or otherwise, to put us off our morning coffee.
Playing to a friendly crowd of mostly compassionate conservatives (plus a few waifs and strays), Michael Gove batted away a pesky question about his relationship with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the ongoing investigation into religious extremism in Birmingham schools. Was he reconsidering his position? Had his behaviour embarrassed his government? A firm and defiant “No” on both counts – with no hint that a letter of apology would be forthcoming, at the Prime Minister’s insistence, later in the day.
Rejecting the label of ideologue, Gove was keen to stress that his education policy is characterised by a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to education policy, based on the simple test: ‘what’s right is what works’. As chair of one of five Conservative Policy Commissions set up in November last year, he is clearly well placed to know what to expect in the Tory election manifesto 2015. Judging by Saturday’s performance, a good place for the uninitiated to start would be to cast one’s eyes over the relevant pages from the 2010 manifesto, ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain’, which pretty neatly summed up the major themes of the speech: (1) Better teachers and tougher discipline; (2) A rigorous curriculum and exam system; (3) Give every parent access to a good school.
Appealing repeatedly to ‘what works’, these were recast as three core principles of high-performing systems: autonomy, accountability and teacher quality, for which there is strong evidence; plus two additional elements that the Education Secretary feels very strongly about: namely, behaviour and curriculum:
Although no explicit mention was made of further plans to expand the number of primary Academies, it is widely assumed that the 2015 manifesto will contain a pledge of this type.
To the credit of his teacher, my six year old son is learning and loving The Odyssey at school (in English, I’m afraid; Apologies, Messrs Gove and Johnson). With all the talk of Trojan horses in Birmingham’s schools, I am wondering whether there’s an education story to go with every Odyssean adventure. I am not sure who the Cyclops could be – there are a few candidates out there. The many tales involving his boat leaking between a rock and a hard place could be any number of education quangos, but Ofsted is currently the front runner. My son’s current favourite story is The Sirens, those alluring sea nymphs whose seductive singing tempt sailors to their deaths. Does this sound like any academy sponsors you know? Odysseus himself is obviously the national curriculum – returning home unrecognisable from when it set out.*
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Education Matters, Enterprise, Innovation, Uncategorized
Today is a big day.
Nine months ago on September 1st 2013, we launched our eight RSA Student Design Award briefs for the year and thousands of students across the UK, Europe and Asia began applying their design skills to a range of social, economic and environmental issues such as improving hygiene in low-income areas, managing water in urban areas, addressing changing work patterns, and many more. Over 600 students sent their work into the RSA and our judges began the arduous task of reviewing and scrutinising the work, looking for key insights and clever design thinking. Those 600+ entries became a short-list of around 80 and today, after interviews with all short-listed entrants, I am pleased to present the 18 winning projects and the designers behind them.
Today’s impressive list of emerging designers and innovators – some working in collaborative teams and some working individually – represent the best of what happens when good ideas meet good design (and good briefs too, I think!).
This year’s winners include proposals for new packaging made from beeswax, an alarm clock app to improve well-being amongst 18-25 year olds, an affordable sanitary towel for schoolgirls in low-income areas, and a frugally-designed hygiene pack for use in refugee camps. Read more
Yesterday’s predicted and predictable local election disaster for the Liberal Democrats may be meaningless this time next year. If their core vote forgives some of their soul-selling, and no other party gains its own overall majority, the Lib Dems could arrive in May 2015 with a similar number of MPs and a meal ticket to form another coalition.
It will, however, be a different party from the one which formed a government in 2010. International Development Minister Lynn Featherstone confessed on Question Time yesterday that the Liberal Democrats have lost some of their ‘humanity’ since joining the coalition. Her explanation that the party has become too ‘ministerial’, may only partly explain this (it’s not as if the electorate perceives the Labour opposition as having humanity in spades), but there is little doubt that national power has changed the Liberal Democrat DNA.
One of the unintended yet refreshing aspects of this coalition government has been an unearthing of the power of open policymaking. Whilst the Cabinet Office is trying this through sophisticated, design-led processes, politicians have been getting on with it. Cross-party ministerial teams have been prepared to reveal the tensions, debates and doubts that are an inevitable part of policymaking processes. The disagreements have been substantive, in the best possible way – they have revealed the substance of policy debates, rather than the style of clashing egos – the ‘froth’, as Tony Blair used to dismiss various internecine New Labour squabbles.
When we met with David Laws last week (squeezed between various free school/free school meals rows and rapprochements) to discuss our report into teacher education and research, he was as focused as ever on the job in hand, especially the effective implementation of current policies. However, with policy development more-or-less concluded for this Parliament (with the important but cross-party exception of the Modern Slavery Bill), there is now a strong argument for all Liberal Democrat Ministers to resign from their posts, in an orderly and non-grumpy way, before they depart for Summer holidays. There have already been rumblings of plans for a happy divorce, but I’d suggest that it’s up to the Lib Dems to take the initiative on this. If some kind of mutual non-disclosure agreement is necessary to prevent Jerry Springer-like mudslinging between current and former ministers, then so be it (although with Clegg, Gove and advisers involved, any truce is unlikely to hold for long).
Liberal Democrat Ministers deserve some time out of office to create some clear yellow water between themselves and the administration they have been part of. This is not just about the development of catchy pupil premium-like ideas for the next manifesto. Next time, the concept of coalition does not need to take them by surprise. Liberal Democrats need to rethink how their approach to their next possible coalition needs to be underpinned by a clearer set of principles which return the party to their historical roots and traditions, especially relating to localism.
What was most surprising about Nick Clegg’s ‘free school meals for all’ policy, apart from its shaky evidence base and partially regressive nature, is the lack of commitment it revealed to the principles of school autonomy. Schools could not be trusted to make their own budgetary decisions on this issue. Similarly, less excusable than their unavoidable climbdown on tuition fees (they are the minority party, after all) was their blind rubberstamping of the government’s top-down health reforms – I say blind , given that Nick Clegg allegedly did not even read the proposals before giving them his blessing. One Liberal Democrat 2010 Manifesto proposal which has been barely mentioned since is the idea of a local income tax. Given current concerns about regional disparities in wealth and growth, and the Conservatives’ half-hearted attempts to devolve power to local communities (look and laugh at the front cover of their 2010 Manifesto), this idea is worthy of proper reconsideration.
A period of reflection, on deckchairs, backbenches, and constituency surgery chairs, could enable the Liberal Democrats to use their experience of holding office to think pragmatically about how their commitment to localism should manifesto itself in both manifesto and in future negotiations about the next coalition. Otherwise, to adapt an old phrase, ‘Whoever is in office, the centralisers are always in power’.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
Imagine having someone follow you around, observing you for just a fraction of a day, to assess your capability on the job. Sounds nerve wracking. This is how many teachers are evaluated, and new research suggests that these observations are not altogether reliable.
Although observations as a means of teacher assessment may be favoured over other methods such as gains in pupil standardised test score, we should be wary of relying too heavily on observations as they currently stand. A new paper out by the Brookings Institute reports that an assessment of teachers via observations is biased based on the existing ability level of the pupils in the class. That is, if the same teacher was dropped into in a better-performing class, he would be rated more favourably than if he had been dropped into a group of lower-performing pupils.
The sun has been shining on the RSA Family of Academies again this week, both literally and metaphorically!
We’ve had a great response to our call for West Midlands based Fellows to get involved in a new mentoring scheme for students at our Academies. If you’re interested but haven’t yet got in touch it’s not too late to sign up and there’s an initial event in Birmingham on Tuesday 22 May.
This Tuesday Hilary Chittenden was at Ipsley CE RSA Academy, giving the school a welcome distraction from this week’s SATs. She was working with a group of 12 and 13 year olds on their pupil design awards – our new school-age version of the student design awards – demonstrating how youngsters can unleash the power to create.
On Wednesday I joined the Principals of the schools in the RSA Family to work out how to create a really top-notch teacher training offer that supports teachers at every stage of their career, from their initial teacher training right through to headship. There was huge enthusiasm for co-ordinating and developing the great existing practice in our schools, and also for developing the link with the RSA to give teachers in our RSA Academies more opportunities to engage in research and enquiry in the way that today’s British Education Research Association report advocates.
On Thursday Arrow Vale RSA Academy’s Ofsted report was published, awarding the school a judgement of “outstanding” in every category. The weaknesses of the inspection process have been well documented, and the dominance of Ofsted’s arguably narrow mechanism for describing and assessing education brings with it significant problems. Nevertheless, in this instance the inspection team have got it spot on, understanding Arrow Vale’s many strengths, and also how the transformation of a school that had never previously been rated as better than “requiring improvement” has been achieved in such a short space of time.
The inspectors have appreciated that whilst the role of the Principal, Guy Shears, has been absolutely key, he has not succeeded by working alone. By the time the school became an RSA Academy in September 2012 Guy had been working closely with the RSA and with Whitley Academy, another outstanding school in the RSA Family, for nearly a year, and this three way partnership has been crucial.
The RSA’s model of school improvement, whereby support is provided by practicing teachers and head teachers from a school improvement partner school in the Family rather than by a central pool of advisers, is relatively unusual in the world of Academy chains. It requires no small commitment on the part of the partner school. Whitley’s Principal, Lorraine Allen, has dedicated enormous time and energy to providing support and practical advice to Guy and his team. Whitley have also seconded a senior member of staff to work as Vice Principal at Arrow Vale for the last two years, which has provided an excellent professional development opportunity for him as well as benefiting the school. But the partnership extends more deeply than this – staff at all levels, including business manager, heads of English, the SEN co-ordinators and so on have worked together, bringing benefits to staff in both schools.
As well as bringing benefits to both the school providing the support and the receiving school, our model of school improvement has the added advantage of being self-sustaining. With Arrow Vale RSA Academy being judged to be outstanding our capacity to grow as an RSA Family is increased. So, when I was asked by the lead inspector, “what next for the school?” part of my answer was that Arrow Vale will be able to take on the role of school improvement partner for another school joining the RSA Family, just as Whitley has supported Arrow Vale. What I wasn’t able to tell her was where that new school would be. So, if you work with a school in the West Midlands that might be interested in joining the RSA Family of Academies and working with the RSA and the fabulous schools in our Family, do get in touch…..
Given the RSA’s long tradition for running successful, influential commissions and Inquiries, it’s not surprising that we are often asked to lead commissions on various aspects of public policy. Too often, however, the instigators are frankly not that inquiring – they see a commission approach as a subtle marketing ploy to pitch solutions they already have in mind. Whenever these suggestions pass my inbox, I ask one simple question: “is this just a campaign masked as an Inquiry?”
I asked this of the British Education Research Association’s (BERA) approach to us this time last year to work on an Inquiry into the role of research in UK teacher education. Refreshingly, from the beginning, it was clear that BERA’s focus was on improving outcomes for learners, and wanted an Inquiry that was guided by the evidence rather than the interests of their members.
Our final report, launched today, demonstrates how the Inquiry has stuck to these principles. Ultimately, we are convinced that the four UK nations’ attempts to create world class, self-improving school systems will fail unless greater prominence is given to teachers’ engagement with research, and attempts are made to ensure that all teachers become ‘research literate’. However we make no special pleading for the role of universities or academics in this process. Success will be predicated on partnerships (especially with the growing Research-Edcommunity I blogged about here).
The evidence we gathered is clear about the positive impact that a research literate and research engaged profession is likely to have on learner outcomes. Despite this, we found that teachers’ experience of professional development in most parts of the UK is “fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research” in contrast to that of internationally well-regarded education systems such as Finland, Canada and Singapore. Too often, schools’ ability to make a long-term commitment to creating a research-engaged workforce is being undermined by a target culture and short-term focus on exam results.
The Inquiry makes the case for the development across the UK of self-improving education systems in which all teachers become research literate and many have frequent opportunities for engagement in research and enquiry. This requires that schools and colleges become research-rich environments in which to work. It also requires that teacher researchers and the wider research community work in partnership, rather than in separate and sometimes competing universes. Finally, it demands an end to the false dichotomy between HE and school-based approaches to initial teacher education.
We concluded that everybody in a leadership position – in the policy community, in university departments of education, at school or college level or in academy chains and other intermediaries – has a responsibility to support the creation of the sort of research-rich cultures which can both improve outcomes and close attainment gaps.
To achieve our vision, we identified ten principles that characterise the design of research-rich, self-improving education systems, organised across five themes:
These principles can be used as criteria against which to assess any education system’s approach. They also informed our recommendations for each of the four jurisdictions in the UK. This included establishing a National Network of Research Leaders in Education in each country and changes to the regulations governing teacher training and school inspections.
When I tell the story of the RSA’s education history, I give three examples from the 19th Century: The creation in our House of a new kind of chimney sweep; the campaign for girls’ education which led to the creation of the Girls Day School Trust; and the 1870 Inquiry into the state of education which recommended that government should create a Department for Education. Speaking to a conference for headteachers recently, one heckled back “well, two good ideas out of three isn’t bad!” Although a research-literate profession is no magic bullet to raise standards, it might provide the glue that helps all education interventions and programmes to be more effective and productive. As I wrote in an earlier blog if you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom? “research literacy matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.” Get this right (and the UK’s data-drenched education systems provide strong foundations to build on), and perhaps the RSA’s next Inquiry can call for the virtual abolition of the DfE. Although of course, we would never be foolish enough to start with such a solution in mind.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education Follow me @joehallg
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Social Brain
The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice – Mark Twain
It’s often said that history is told by the victors. But what effect does this have on how we understand the present? In Britain, it means all too often that we’re quick to judge the actions and beliefs of people abroad without reflecting on what’s going on at home.
Tensions between the West’s understanding of itself and of other countries surfaced recently at the RSA, when historian Orlando Figes came to give a talk on revolutionary Russia. Figes presented a thought-provoking argument for understanding the Russian Revolution in the longue durée (which you can watch here). But amidst this analysis he made a particular assertion that left me with an uncomfortable but unfortunately all too familiar sense of doubt.
Figes described Russian society as dominated by a pathology, in which Russian citizens accepted ‘state violence for national defence and for revolutionary goals’. The evidence he provided for this came in the form of a poll taken in 2007 in three Russian cities, St Petersburg, Kazan and Ulyanovsk. The results of this survey revealed that 71% of the population believe that Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet state’s security force, the Cheka, had protected ‘public order and civic life’and that two thirds of respondents thought Stalin was positive for the country, despite acknowledging that between 10-30 million people had suffered under his regime.
Taken in isolation this seems counter-intuitive. Surely if there’s hard evidence that a regime was responsible for such huge carnage, there would be unanimous agreement that it should be remembered as a historical evil.
It is this seeming incoherency that led Figes to propose his pathology hypothesis. But, his explanation doesn’t provide the answer to this puzzle. Instead, although he is no spokesperson for Britain, Figes’ explanation implicitly creates an alarming and unrealistic dichotomy between the West and the rest (or, in this case, Russia). Russia, imagined as a nation brimming with people who have a disturbing view of the past and the present, is seen as the antithesis of civilised Britain.
Now, this isn’t to say that I in any way embrace Stalin’s actions, nor support Putin, whose power Figes explains is, in part, predicated upon historical myth. But lurking in Figes’ hypothesis is the assumption that there is something unique about Russia’s glorification of past atrocities.
This simply isn’t the case. It’s time we, in Britain, talked about our own understanding of national history. Let’s look at the facts. In 1998 a Gallup poll found that when asked about the British Empire ‘roughly 70% of people’ expressed pride that Britain had an empire, while 60% said they regretted its passing. These levels of nostalgia for Empire are strikingly similar to the proportion of those polled in Russia who saw the Cheka as integral to maintaining order in Soviet society.
Yet, as with the Soviet Union, there’s no shortage of evidence to show the negative effects of Empire, which saw colonialists murdering, dispossessing and enslaving indigenous peoples who they saw as inferior to themselves. In the 10 years following the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, for example, it’s estimated that almost 10 million Indian people were killed at the hands of the British.
And although unlike Stalin’s regime in Russia, the majority of the colonialists’ actions affected peoples far away from Britain, the specifics of such atrocities continue to surface in contemporary society. Newspapers reported two years ago on the publication of documents that revealed with stark clarity the systematic torture and starvation of Kenyan people imprisoned in British-run Mau Mau detention camps. This means that despite not being affected directly, people in Britain are aware of the unquestionable suffering caused by British colonialists. In this context, a positive understanding of Empire is as galling as Russian support for the Cheka or Stalin.
The similarities between British and Russian peoples’ understanding of their respective national histories are not the result of underlying pathologies but rather romanticised narratives perpetuated in popular discourse. For example, alongside facts that begin to reveal the extent of its injustices, Empire is remembered by the likes of David Cameron, Boris Johnson,Michael Gove and Gordon Brown as halcyon days of British history, seen as necessary for the Britain’s and the world’s development. In this sense, the dominant historical narrative shapes public understanding and facts lose their importance.
A skewed understanding of history is therefore by no means limited to Russia. With this in mind, in the UK we must stop using such interpretations of the past to reinforce the division between East and West or between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Instead, domestically and internationally, it’s time to start challenging accepted historical narratives, where the voices of the victors are louder than all others.
Ten years ago we’d never heard of names like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. And yet today, for many, they are modern pillars of daily communication. Social media has become an omnipresent host to our daily interactions with 72% of all internet users now active on some form of social media. We have an array of social media outlets to suit every kind of action, personality type and human expression- both newsworthy and banal – and our engagement online is increasingly unwavering; we send around 500 million tweets per day and spend on average around 15 hours and 33 minutes a month on Facebook, for example.
Social media has revolutionised the way we disseminate and receive information. While there are benefits to this, how does it affect the way we communicate with each other, who we choose to interact with and most of all how we feel? The video, The Innovation of Loneliness (above) is an effective and terrifying short film that in its essence presents us with the hard contradictory truth we’ve been avoiding; while we’ve never been so well ‘connected’ we have never felt so lonely.