Owning the barriers and building the levers: upskilling the UK

March 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

UK businesses want the government to invest more in skills. But the “skills system” should be conceived as the whole outcome from education and learning. Too many people read it as training delivered by the public sector for young people who don’t go to university. 80% of investment in post-compulsory training is by employers.

For any government to raise the skills of the UK population (we’re mediocre by international standards) means many organisations have to adapt their role in the system. Furthermore, perhaps some fundamentals of the system must change as well. That was the message we heard yesterday, when the City Growth Commission brought together 30 experts in skills and labour market productivity at the RSA, to discuss how these factors affect the ability of UK cities to grow.

To do this, we need to move beyond a shared diagnosis, and a consensus that “we need to do better”. Inspired by a recent RSA workshop in Cambridge where a leader of a local homeless charity urged participants to not just identify barriers, this write-up focuses on ‘who are the owners of the barriers?’. Several participants yesterday remarked that despite years of shared understanding and consensus – and effort and intent – we’ve never really even tinkered with the skills system; we’ve merely played with it. We therefore conclude by considering how we could build new levers for change.

As Professor Mike Campbell explained (view presentation), growth means change in employment multiplied by productivity – how much is produced for each hour of work. Skills are a key part – but not all – of addressing the UK’s stagnant productivity. Skills make people more productive and productivity aligns to pay: one of the main concerns of voters at upcoming elections.

The consensus

  • “Skills are more valuable now than they used to be…a key driver of growth”

  • Skills upgrading is important but only if the skills match those required in the labour market. There is “no point skilling people up only to let them down”. If you don’t match well, you won’t get the prosperity and growth outcomes.

  • You can get locked in to a cycle if you are just seeking to meet existing need: “its the economy, stupid”. Business strategy and economic structure matter. Final demand matters, as does business ambition to push up value chain and sell internationally. This is true of firms in many cities; not generally London (though likely in some parts). Businesses need to pull up the demand for skills.

  • We do not have a serious skills shortage problem – I’ve been measuring it since 2001. Shortages are very severe in a specific number of sub-sectors and occupations. Where they do exist they are very serious.”

  • Welfare-to-work is part of the growth agenda, not just high skills, which is where many LEPs focus their economic strategy.

  • Migration is “the saviour of the British skills system”: employers vote by recruiting and hiring, the contentious issue is this diminishes their incentives to invest in developing the domestic and native workers.

  • Social care, retail, hospitality, logistics are growing sectors with low skills. But the prevalence of these sectors locally is “not the whole story” – their concentration in certain parts of the country “do not predict skills variations very well” between cities. The labour market is changing and it is “skill biased”, but jobs growth in the UK is not predominantly in low skilled jobs and occupations. Over the last 20 years, demand for higher skills has grown – it’s not a simple “hourglass” tendency and work by Centre for Cities us underway to understand how changes vary by city.

  • “Skills poverty” is greatest in Wales, East Anglia; regional and local variations are very large. Liverpool and Birmingham are “disaster areas” on skills. Our top urban areas – Core Cities (measured by their Primary Urban Areas) – generally underperform national average.

“The key question is ‘Who are the beneficiaries of growth?’ We want local people to drive growth and benefit from growth. I like the idea of growth being sticky to places. London is held as a model, but is utterly divided. Is London really the picture of sustainable growth? Does it’s economic footprint stop at the M25? No, it exudes itself to East Anglia, East Midlands, and beyond. People generally aren’t generating wealth and leaving it for local residents in Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The difference within places is usually greater than the differences between places; and every city has its problems.”

- Hugh Stickland, Chief Economist at Citizens Advice.

Who owns the barriers?

  • Its not just about policies and practices, but the policy architecture. Its about governance in cities – getting the interdependencies right. This barrier is effectively owned by central government who legislates for the powers and funding available to local public bodies.

  • Employers are integral. If you are going to train people, you are best to do it with the employer. They will be the ultimate judge of whether skills are economically valuable. Employers will get more on board with locally based solution and infrastructure. Why aren’t businesses investing in skills when the evidence is they can realise a return? In part, we know there is a long-tail of underperforming and poorly-managed “zombie businesses” – many of which are particularly pressured but have survived the recession; if you’re future is uncertain, you’re unlikely to invest in training. Reaching SMEs is particularly difficult; the UK has a particularly high number of family-owned and small private businesses, and public agencies often don’t appreciate

  • BIS wants FE colleges to control skills; “BIS see localised budgets as a power play, I don’t think it is.” Although we have a labour market (with some inefficiencies and blockages), we don’t have a skills market – we have skills institutions looked after by a central government department. Political choice theory says that monopolies lead to poor outcomes. At the moment BIS sets budget and supply of skills training. FE Colleges have a captive market of 16-18 year olds, but are often not the best place to go for adult learners. Their provision is driven by funding and quantified delivery of qualifications as outputs.

“We need competition in system. We’ve got to get a model in which if a local coalition establishes priorities, they need to be allowed to prioritise, incentivise, decommission. We’ve got a coalition for change locally – but we still can’t get any traction, because Whitehall didn’t want us to have any traction.”

  • While the Skills Minister would currently argue that we should try different things in different places (as with the City Deals), and there is merit in experimenting and evaluating, the group felt this should be on a bigger long-term scale; but that lessons learnt already were waiting to be faithfully applied. In this light, “cities need to take leadership, as there will always be national political change.” Indeed, the barrier here is in the DNA of government: Ministers have changed frequently, and will continue to do so.

“Skills Funding Agency has a role in incentivising new practice which combines approaches evident as being successful from different pilots, rather continue isolated pilots with specific areas.”

  • There are relevant relationships with transport and connectivity, which afford access to training opportunities, and a wider set of issues in areas such as housing and childcare. Getting policy-makers in these areas to see the connections with the skills agenda is a barrier.

Changes in UK occupation structure 1987 - 2017

Changes in UK occupation structure 1987 – 2017

How do we build the levers for change?

This comes down to incentives for institutions: a powerful force in changing the skills system.

One answer is creating a catalytic effect of business skills investment through supply chains. Beyond signing up as Investors in People, or developing structured and funded development plans for staff skills, organisations could insist on this throughout the other businesses who sell to them. Merseytravel did this, others could follow.

Universities have few incentives to engage with their local economy; many identify with (and see themselves as) global competitors in research and graduate employment. The barrier is patrolled by both universities and other local partners, who often market the university as an education tourism destination, rather than as the key anchor of the local labour market. Graduate recruitment is closer to being a national market, but the fabled ‘milk round’ could become a bridge to more sustained local involvement of firms requiring skilled workers.

Political imperatives in many cities call for colleges to increase participation among the hardest to reach groups, but this drives down measurable outcomes in aggregate. Colleges are scared of this, and of their Ofsted rating – even if Ofsted’s remit for assessing the courses they run only represents a minority of their provision. The concept of a value added league tables still hasn’t filtered through to the education system. The barrier here might be owned by the bodies responsible for publishing and interpreting data.

To go beyond the current arrangement where central departments of the state driving their own outcome measures for political points, one government representative suggested funding for skills investment based on employment outcomes not qualifications, which would incentivise responsiveness and accountability. However, this is similar to the kind of payment-by-results schemes which have been tricky to implement in the Work Programme.

Making change in the skills system – at this budget and throughout the next parliament – is going to take a long time before having any affect on people, firms, institutions, cities and GVA growth. It’s also humbling to consider that we are “running to stand still”, and that predictions of future changes in the structure of the labour market make the skills system challenge even more acute. These changes, along with barriers and levers for change, will be considered in more detail in the City Growth Commission’s forthcoming research output, supported by JRF, released in the summer.

Revealed! Secrets of school collaboration

March 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Last week I attended an excellent Westminster Education Forum Seminar on school-to-school improvement partnerships, which managed to squeeze 17 speakers into a single morning.  In the same spirit of brevity I am sharing my top tips from the morning in tweet-sized chunks.  They are:

Collaborations don’t have to do everything – be clear about their purpose – this from David Crossley, Executive Director of Whole Education (an organisation that has its roots in the RSA).  It is all too easy to see partnership or collaboration as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end.  Within RSA Academies one of our four strategic priorities is, “to improve teaching and learning through purposeful partnership”.  As schools within the Family work increasingly collaboratively we will need to ensure that the focus on improving teaching and learning remains central.

Professor Merryn Hutchings from the Institute for Policy Studies in Education had directed the evaluation of the City Challenge programme in London, Greater Manchester and the Black Country.  A key message from that review was that Weaker schools benefit from a single partnership; stronger schools benefit from multiple partnerships.  This too is very relevant for the RSA Family of Academies, which includes both highly performing schools and those in need of support.  Schools within the Family should have the opportunity to benefit from all aspects of the relationship with other schools and with the RSA.  Nevertheless, there is a growing understanding that the focus of this is likely to be different for a struggling school which is looking principally for school improvement support, than for a good or outstanding school with more capacity to engage in a wider range of developmental activities.

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL, argued that Partnership works best when it is based on a relationship of equals.  RSA Academies certainly would not disagree with this as a principle.  Indeed our school improvement model explicitly recognises that “all schools, irrespective of Ofsted category, have both strengths and areas for development and will therefore be both offering and receiving support and advice from other schools.”

There are, however, aspects of the current Academies set-up nationally that mitigate against this equal partnership in practice, most notably that multi-academy trusts (MATs) are required to have a single accounting officer with ultimate responsibility for key issues across all schools in the group.  This probably isn’t a problem where a strongly performing school partners a weaker school, and where the head of the stronger school will take on this role.  Nor is it an issue for medium to large MATs, which can afford to take on a Chief Executive.  But, as Anne Jackson, Director of System Reform at DFE pointed out, for all the publicity around the big Academy chains, a typical Academy chains now comprises 4 or 5 schools.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, DFE are keen to encourage more of these small chains, particularly in the primary sector.  Schools coming together to form a MAT as equals will either need to choose one of the Headteachers as the accounting officer, and therefore the person with ultimate responsibility for the group, or commit resource to creating a new post of Chief Executive.  In many cases neither option will be attractive, and this may be one reason why the significant financial incentives to primary schools to form academy chains have so far had a limited effect.

Howard Lay, Executive Principal of the Samuel Ward Academy began his slot by talking very positively about the RSA’s work in Suffolk which resulted in the No School an Island report.  His analysis of the last few years, in Suffolk and nationally, was that Schools have been on a journey from dependence to independence, and are now moving to the next stage: interdependence.  This chimed very closely with the feedback I am getting from conversations with schools and local authorities about the possibility of new schools joining the RSA Family.  The first tranche of Academy convertors generally did so alone, and in the early years the new independence (as well as the financial incentives) was a big part of the attraction of Academy status.  More recently there has been a change in tack, with some of the schools that originally converted independently now looking to form partnerships and allegiances with other schools, and those that are considering Academy status for the first time more interested in converting in partnership with other schools.  The RSA’s Academies Commission stressed that in an increasingly academised system it would be particularly important for schools to be connected to one another to accelerate school improvement.  Mr Lay’s upbeat analysis, which reflected the mood of the morning , is that more and more schools are looking to offer and receive school improvement support from other schools, and school interdependence is becoming an increasing feature of our education system.

Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies, a charitable company that currently works with four schools in the West Midlands.  Follow me @Ali_Critchley

EduKit: Innovating Education

March 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

RichardRichard Blissett is Co-founder and CTO of EduKit, an online platform that will help disadvantaged students by matching them with organisations that can provide specialist educational and personal development support. Edukit has recently received RSA Catalyst funding. This is a guest blog from Richard. 

Just days before Christmas we received the amazing news that we’d been offered a £2k Catalyst grant to develop a prototype of our ambitious EduKit application – an online platform that will connect schools in deprived areas with youth programmes being run by social enterprises and charities (aka providers). Our prototype is important as it will help us to demo our planned online tool to teachers and students and to collect vital feedback that we will need before we start system development. In addition to this, we had also selected three schools with whom we decided to pilot our approach manually. We were all set for 2014 to be truly eventful – and momentous.

And we have certainly not been disappointed. In early January we handed our system design to our developer Christian, a bright new graduate, who set about turning our vision into reality. After two months of hard slog we have now almost finished developing a prototype which demos the different log in screens i.e. for teachers, school admin staff, students etc and shows the results and analysis that will be available for users. We have also finished our paper pilot during which we matched 29 students (each with interesting, high quality local programmes that they would otherwise have been unaware of) and are just waiting to hear back from schools as to which programmes they will be enrolled for. The feedback from the schools has been exceptional and each has provided us with a testimonial of the service!

The students have been able to access support from programmes that are tailored to their specific needs and we have already connected with local organisations recommended by Edukit, who offer support/services to young people. Some of the students are receiving free, regular mentoring, and for others we are hoping to give them an extensive experience of living and working on a farm for a week. The whole process has been so helpful in finding targetted programmes to ensure the needs of our students are being met.” Debbie Coloumbo, Eltham Hill School

“The matches between providers and our students have been ideal. For a number of our students, having an additional resource to support and engage them has meant that they are no longer at risk and are much more engaged in their education. This is equally true of those in Year 11 as those in Year 8″. Amanda Desmond Assistant Headteacher, Southfields Academy

But what has really surprised us is how much we’ve learnt about how schools work. During just three or so weeks, we’ve been able to find out so much about what their challenges and expectations are and how users will use and value our tool. For example, we’ve learnt that whilst schools are entirely committed to helping their students in whatever way they can, they can usually take far longer than we had hoped to get back to us so it’s best to either organise drop-ins to help them fill in their data or build an very user friendly online system which would allow both teachers and students to easily enter their data. We also learnt about how schools plan their budgets in order to finance external support.

It’s been a great learning experience but we’re not quite done yet, based on the feedback we have received we now plan to build a Beta version of the online service. This will allow us to test the online functionality and onboard many more charity programmes into our database. if you’d like to find out more about our progress so far please contact us at info@edukit.org.uk

Watch this space for further updates!

Richard Blissett

New Report: Everyone *Starts* with an A

March 14, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s trumpet time again.

After a highly successful launch of the RSA’s first foreign language publication in Germany earlier this week, we are pleased to announce that today we are releasing the English-language (original) version of our report: Everyone Starts with an A: Applying behavioural insight to narrow the socioeconomic attainment gap in education which was written mostly by RSA’s resident Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer and supported by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, based on Berlin.

I believe it is a sound, creative and timely report, presented with suitable caveats about its grounded but still speculative ideas and its potential impact. Whenever you come to know a set of ideas well enough to believe they are ripe for further exploration, it is healthy to remember that those who are not as familiar with the ideas will struggle to share your conviction.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

This report is a bit like that, as indicated by an unreasonably simplistic and hostile (if predictable) response from The Daily Mail, and a more measured, but still cautious response at The Daily Telegraph. ,The Times, and The Times Educational Supplement. We have also had appearances on BBC Five Live, Sky News, Drivetime, BBC Breakfast Television, ‘Voice of Russia‘, a range of national German newspapers, and we had the familiar honour of being ‘bumped’ from The Today programme at the last minute due to breaking news (last time it was the Pope’s resignation and North Korean nuclear tests; this time the death of Tony Benn).

Failing Better

In the feedback, there have been several hundred comments, some highly sceptical if not downright dismissive, but many of them favourable and curious. For the record we didn’t ever say you should eliminate the idea of failure entirely, or that failing is not a crucial part of learning…do commentators asked for a soundbite really think we are that naive? If you look closely at the ideas in the report, they are not classic ‘bleeding heart liberal’ material at all. Some of them (e.g. starting with an A) have the potentially to be highly exacting in spirit.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

A new angle on an old and stubborn problem:

There is a hugely stubborn and intractable issue at the heart of debates about social justice and it’s called the socioeconomic attainment gap in education. The point is broadly that children from families and communities that have better social and cultural resources get better school results, regardless of the quality of school provision (Crudely: richer kids do better at school, not so much because of the schools they go to, but because their families are richer). The attainment gap is a huge part of how inequality is perpetuated and why people get uneven life chances. So not only is it hugely important for major debates about equality  but it’s perhaps the toughest nut to crack in the whole field of educational research and practice.

The attainment gap issue is relatively ‘stuck’, and we had the audacity to think that some ‘behavioural insight’ might be at least relevant in our efforts to address it. However, we also had the humility to recognise both that it might not, and that if it did, it would only be part of a much bigger picture. (Unfortunately you can’t put all those caveats in a press release, or nobody would pick it up at all). This kind of research is precisely what organisations like the RSA should be doing, because it is cross-disciplinary and too speculative for most academics to take on (although we had a great deal of academic input into the report and it is as rigorous as we could make it).

How much can we expect from schools?

Given how much of education takes place outside of the school and outside of the classroom(very different things), addressing the attainment gap without major structural and cultural changes outside the school is always going to be difficult. The question then becomes: what can schools do? And part of that answer is to work in ways that ensure the learning dispositions that are picked up automatically outside of school by relatively advantaged children, are fostered as far as possible in school, by those who have less of such advantages outside.

The question then is: how do we do that? Which is where we thought some behavioural insight might come in.

Everyone Starts with an A:

The idea in the report’s title (perhaps my main contribution to the report, most of which stemmed from the excellent work of Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer) is based on the endowment effect, which suggests that we value things more when we own them already, and are more motivated to avoid losing what we have than we are motivated to gain what we don’t yet have.

This widely known and important (it might explain rather a lot about home ownership and property bubbles, for instance…) idea made us wonder if it might make sense that starting with the top grade might motivate students to hold on to it through continuous improvement (it’s not at all about not having anything left to aim for!) rather than starting from a completely undefined place, and aiming upwards.

It’s an idea that is at least worth considering, no? The point is not the wishy-washy ‘all must have prizes’ idea, but more about how you best get all students – not just those with high levels of educational support at home – to care about continually giving their best, when you have the best opportunity to do it (i.e. in school).  

Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

The other standard objection has been: surely the only way to go is down – won’t students find that really disappointing? Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

You can, for instance, use it as a ‘love of learning’ or ‘learning to learn’ measure, and keep a different grading system for actual performance. You could interpret it very strictly so that 90% of the class lose the grade within a few weeks, or more leniently so that you really have to go quite far off the rails before losing the A. We don’t have firm ideas about such things, which are a matter for contextual and personal judgment, but what we are sure about is there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with everybody starting with an A; it’s just a different default, a new framing and a new set of teaching and learning challenges that we have reason to think might work well.

Keeping behavioural insight in perspective:

Those who are not psychologically minded, temperamentally sceptical, and wary of the idea that somebody else might know what could be good for them, instinctively feel suspicious of such ideas, but often make judgments before really knowing what is meant too, and sometimes react viscerally to the idea of behaviour change or ‘behavioural insight’.

In fact, Behavioural insight means a variety of things, as I argued in the seminal piece for the Guardian’s new Behavioural Insight blog. Moreover, behavioural insight need not be an elite discourse, and could be for everyone. Indeed I think behavioural literacy should be a core part of education.

However, some people struggle to hear new ideas as helpful additions to shed light on old ideas rather than some kind of special fix that will sort everything out. For this reason, we went out of our way to make clear that we are not suggesting our ideas are some kind of panacea.

For instance, one of the three authors of the report, RSA Associate Director of Education Louise Bamfield said:

“We’re not saying that these measures represent a silver bullet or that they will magically fix all the problems teachers face on a day to day basis. What they do provide, however, is more than a ‘nice to have’ optional bag of tricks. The ideas in this report include simple, low cost interventions that when added together could have a significant impact on the relationship between teachers and learners. Behavioural insight alone is certainly not sufficient to cure educational disadvantage, but it may be a necessary component of a larger whole.”

Here are the core ideas in the report, as expressed in our Press Release:

1) Mind-sets and attitude towards student’s mental abilities and intelligence: The report concluded that academic ability is not a fixed personal characteristic, but can be increased through practice and diligence. The report said that teachers should focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in order to break through stereotypes (held by both pupils themselves and teachers) and subsequent expectations about ability and performance. Researchers recommended that pupils are praised for effort instead of ability. The report also suggested giving a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’ and positioning wrong answers as an opportunity to learn more and enjoy the natural learning journey.

2) Cognitive biases: Whilst most of us like to think that we make rational, calculated, carefully weighted judgments and decisions, in reality, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking. Teacher’s first impressions of pupils in the first days or weeks of the academic year may have undue weight on their continuing evaluation of them throughout the year, and pupil’s may behave and perform in response to how they see themselves in the teacher’s eyes. The report recommended that educators engage in ‘perspective-taking’ (role-playing) exercises and discuss the relevance of such biases on a regular basis to promote learning reflexivity. They also suggested structuring incentives around ‘loss aversion’ with having an entire class defend an A grade.

3) Surroundings (environment influences): Subtle and no-so-subtle cues in our surroundings can affect pupils’ effort levels, aggression and test scores, the report said. The evidence in this area is significant and given the relative ease of the interventions they’re worth exploring. Changes to pupil’s environment could include priming students with exposure to words associated with intelligence, including priming with the letter ‘A’ on top of a quiz. The report concluded that views of nature of ‘green space’ can reduce mental fatigue and reduce aggression. Poorly maintained school buildings and classrooms (cues of poverty) were also found to have increased students impulsivity and short term thinking (over long term gain).

Professor Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mindsets’ features prominently in the report, and her core message, which is also, I believe, the very heart of behavioural insight, is that the most fundamental human trait is our capacity to change. More to the point, making sure this message is understood by everyone is one of the most effective changes we can make, which is what we hope this report will help to do.


The Big Idea: using the free cultural resources of a city to create a university

February 24, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The Big Idea: This University is Free (IF) is a new project co-founded by Jonny Mundey FRSA offering free humanities courses to young people priced out of today’s higher education market, by using London’s cultural wealth in innovative ways.

Jonny Mundey Photo (3)Late last year I met my colleague and soon-to-be IF co-founder Barbara for a coffee. Our meeting was billed as a routine catch-up but by the end of our talk we had posed ourselves a question it proved impossible to ignore: what if you could use the free cultural resources of a city, the web and shards of donated time from academics to create a series of free undergraduate-level courses? The IF Project was born.

The principles that have driven the project from day one are that an education in the humanities is an education that should be available to all (not just a luxury for the sons and daughters of the wealthy) and an education worth having, with the capacity to enrich young people’s lives and benefit society as a whole. In short, why shouldn’t the inspirational liberal arts education Barbara and I enjoyed be within reach of all school-leavers and young workers who wanted it?

There is clearly a demand for free self-driven learning: mass open online courses (MOOCS) have been expanding at a furious rate. Unfortunately, a lot of students abandon on-line learning. What they are probably missing is the college-type experience of debating and learning with and from fellow students; the fun and excitement of studying.

The IF project uses London as a giant lecture-hall, guiding students to free events relevant to our introductory short courses in subjects such as history, philosophy, music and the visual arts. It also brings together a network of academics and thinkers to lead weekly workshops, lectures and seminars with IF students.   So far, we’ve forged partnerships with academic organisations such as Gresham College (which offers free lunchtime and evening lectures of the highest academic quality); recruited professors from top universities to offer free lectures; and connected with youth organisations who work with the young people who have been priced out of the current loans-based education market.

The IF Summer School  

In May we are running our first course - a four-week humanities Summer School taking in history lectures at the Gresham College, visual arts experiences via the V&A’s standing collections and discussions around free concerts at The Festival Hall. We will use the Summer School to test out the logistics of IF and seek feedback and advice from our first students on how to expand the idea into something much bigger.

Get Involved with IF

We have just launched a crowdfunding campaign (as of yesterday!), supported by the RSA, to raise funds for the IF Summer School. We would be hugely grateful for anyIF help in spreading the word.

We would also love to hear from Fellows and contacts interested in being involved in the IF project. To expand we need to connect with volunteer academics who can provide, say, one lecture a year. We need academics and thinkers and post-graduate students who love their subjects and want to talk to and enthuse new students about what they are doing in seminar sessions. We want to hear from organisations who can donate space for seminars and lectures. We want to form close links with cultural institutions sharing our aims.

Just as we have been inspired by the community of UK “free university” projects along the way, if we succeed in London, we hope others will copy the IF model.

Jonny Mundey FRSA

Visit our crowdfunding campaign

To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage

Thinking beyond the classroom

Some good news for a Friday morning: Despite our Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Pupil Design Awards pilot falling just short of target (we had £8,000+ pledged), our Academies have agreed to support this pilot project using their own resources, meaning we are able to go ahead! We have begun working with teachers to transform three RSA Student Design Award briefs, and work with pupils will begin in April.

Mollie Courtenay, who was shortlisted for the RSA Student Design Awards in 2013, is one of our alumni who is keen to get involved. Mollie studied graphic design at Kingston University and graduated with a first in 2013. She has recently taken the new position of Junior Designer in the Design Council Challenges team who use design to tackle big social issues, working on a variety of projects including the Knee High Design Challenge. Here she reflects on her own experience of the RSA Student Design Awards, and why introducing social design thinking into schools will inspire pupils to think beyond the classroom…

EXIF_IMGMollie carrying out testing and reseach for her RSA Student Design Award ‘Social Insurance’ shortlisted entry

“Yes Miss! I believe introducing the RSA Pupil Design Awards to schools would offer a practical method of inspiring pupils to think beyond the classroom. How incredible would it be if young people began to build and use their skills and imagination to tackle real social issues?

My personal reflection of school, is that it could often make me feel like one of many others; year by year I was in the same class, in the same uniform, answering the same exam questions. Even when it came to Design and Technology, the end product was always prescribed; each of us designing perfume packaging or a place mat.

The Pupil Design Award project briefs would offer an opportunity for pupils to embark on an individual journey, to create a project that provides unique insight, and to design an innovative solution to a challenging question. There is no single correct answer with these briefs, which is often why they exist and why they are so exciting.

I took on a RSA Student Design Awards brief at University, as I was motivated by the realness of the issue I was designing for (encouraging safer driving among young drivers). At one point I remember I had covered a whole wall in my flat with my research. When my flatmate got home, he looked at me as if to say- ‘er, are you alright..?’ I was great – I had found something that I was interested in, and discovered the issue I wanted to solve through design.

I am currently working on a project that focuses on the development of children in their early years, up to the age of five. When working in this environment you can’t think about design in a way that produces shiny, perfect and one off things.

One of the most important factors when designing for society is to really understand the issue or problem you are trying to solve, whilst building empathy for people and situations you are working with. It is unlikely that this can be done without spending time with people where they are. This means getting out and about, learning from many sources, observing, monitoring, questioning, recording and interpreting. Having an agenda and going out to fulfill it.

Giving pupils an opportunity to take responsibility for their own project is a fantastic way of encouraging individuality and creativity. Unlike some school subjects, these design projects allow for mistakes; and that’s where the really interesting learning happens. It’s so important to continually look back and challenge your own thinking and not rely on your own assumptions.

I am super excited for the launch of this project and hope that schools can see the value in adding it to their existing curriculum.”

If, like Mollie, you want to get involved in the Pupil Design Awards, there are plenty of ways to do so!

  • Become a mentor or judge   We are looking for a handful of designers to help mentor the pupils through the briefs. 
  • Donate a prize  This could be an industry placement or some design-related goodies – we’re open to suggestions! 
  • Help take the project UK-wide    We are already looking for other schools and especially sponsors to take this project beyond our Academies.

If you would like to get involved, or receive project updates, please get in touch – hilary.chittenden@rsa.org.uk

My journey through ideas in education

February 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Bethan-MichaelThis is a guest blog from South Central Fellowship Councillor Bethan Michael.

Between June and December 2013 Fellows in the South Central region of the RSA offered their spaces, their time and their minds to the Ideas in Education series. For me, organising this series has been an extremely personal journey and the distance travelled has been considerable, in more ways than one. I’ve been frustrated and excited and stressed and anxious. And I finally know where Winchester is on a map. 

I was convinced that the best way to learn was to do, so the team at John Adam Street helped me to stand for Fellowship Councillor in my region

In 2012 I completed the UpRising leadership programme, which supports a diverse range of young people to access opportunities and undertake real-world learning. Through them, I was privileged to have the opportunity to apply for Fellowship of the RSA. After nine months of UpRising I was convinced that the best way to learn was to do, so I discussed this with the team at John Adam Street and they helped me to stand for the role of Fellowship Councillor in my region. They introduced me to the wonderful team of Fellows that constitute the South Central committee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my age, gender and background were quite different from those of the rest of the team. This didn’t faze me and it didn’t seem to bother them. They offered me their support, their friendship and their expertise, and I am extremely grateful to have worked with and learned from people I can’t envisage having had the opportunity to meet in any other way.

I am extremely grateful to have worked with and learned from people I can’t envisage having had the opportunity to meet in any other way.

Ideas in Education

In my new role I wanted to do something that would showcase the diversity of existing Fellows’ ideas, and bring Fellows and non-Fellows together in their own communities. The RSA aims to ‘enrich society through ideas and action’, so – in the hope that one would lead to the other – I emailed all of the Fellows in the South Central Region with a call-out for one idea to develop and promote new (or not so new) ways of thinking about education. I received around 50 emails from my initial request. After much discussion, and an enormous amount of work from Fellows, colleagues and me, we held seven events over seven months: the Ideas in Education series.

The events began with The Slow School Movement at Eton College in Windsor; moved to Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes to discuss Supporting Social Mobility; traversed to the Jelly ArtPad in Reading to examine Creativity in the Early Years; headed to Winchester to learn about Building Learning Power; trekked to Portsmouth to try out Citizen Science; migrated back to Winchester to explore learning environments and ended in Oxford considering ‘DIY higher education in the global swamp’.

From these events opportunities have emerged, connections have been made, friendships developed and ideas shared. But I don’t doubt for a moment that I am the one who has gained the most from this series, in the form of the opportunities it has afforded me to meet new people, discuss ideas, reflect and learn. When I embarked on my new learning experience trying to deliver a successful series of events, I faced two particular challenges. As the committee members and Fellows who provided me with countless lifts across the South Central region will attest to, both my appalling grasp of geography and my struggle to pass a driving test have been problematic. Both made for some eventful journeys in and out of London and, much to my embarrassment, to my being late to the first event. Luckily, throughout the series Fellows have reminded me that it is from our mistakes that we often learn the most. Thanks to the excellent hosts and speakers there truly was a fantastic energy around the discussions of The Slow School Movement.

I took advantage of the many train and bus journeys to read the authors that Fellows recommended to me during the series. These included Richard Hoggart, W.E. Deming, Richard Sennett, Donald Schön, Paul Goodman and Shirley Brice Heath. Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, discussed at the second event in the series, struck a particular chord with me, as I have always felt somewhat ‘anxious and uprooted’ in my own formal education, initially at a bilingual comprehensive in Wales, then a private sixth form in Oxford, and then at university.  My experiences have taught me that education is difficult, requiring reflection and a willingness to challenge your own assumptions, to ‘climb out of your own skin’, as Hoggart says, and be challenged: to undertake personal exploration and be ready to fail and to persevere.

Many of the authors I read on those journeys were already familiar to me. My parents both worked in education, my father in Coleg Harlech, a further education institution for mature students. The discussions around social justice, community, lifelong learning, and the increasing marketisation taking place in education that featured throughout the series were strikingly similar to those I overheard as a child, and those I continue to have with my parents now. When they had five children, they didn’t anticipate university fees. Nor did they anticipate the vibrant town of Harlech would suffer such dilapidation and neglect over time. During the series I went home to take a fourth attempt at my driving test in a location with fewer roundabouts. I failed. I also found more boarded up buildings, fewer jobs and higher rates of child poverty than I did the last time I went back. There was some discussion that the local school will be shut. At Coleg Harlech you can now take a course in willow basket making or wedding flowers, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be offering the second chance, that it seemed to when I was a child, to those whose social and economic background never offered them a first one. Frustrated and angry at the radically changed landscape of the home in which I grew up, I returned to South Central, (finally) passed my driving test, and attended the final event of the series. 

What all of these events had in common is that the Fellows who attended are committed to addressing the challenges that individuals and communities face in the 21st century.

The Ideas in Education series has allowed me the opportunity to share my feelings of frustration, anger, enthusiasm, hope, and ambitions for education with others who have shared with me their own. What all of these events had in common is that the Fellows who attended are committed to addressing the challenges that individuals and communities face in the 21st century. There has also been a consensus that to be truly transformational, socially just and effective, learning has to be broad, real, in-the-world and exploratory.

Although these seven events haven’t brought me any closer to an understanding of how to bring about the level of change I feel is required to ensure this happens, or how to address the challenges that face the communities I have called home, it has given me some ideas.

How do you tell a powerful story?

February 5, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

magic book x120v2One evening over the Christmas break, I found myself at the home of a friend and her partner, both of whom happen to be psychoanalysts. Over dinner, whilst attempting to steer the conversation away from work, we began discussing the role of storytelling in our lives; the social narratives we believe in, the stories we pass on to others and the ones that resonate at a personal level.

The conversation led us to conclude that whilst a good story will always have readers, a really powerful story, will inspire people to act. In the Fellowship department, we often discuss how to make this shift. When there is so much great material available, it can be difficult to know how to piece it all together and the power in a story can easily be lost.

At first glance, social change appears to lend itself well to narrative. For a start, there is natural beginning; if we are trying to solve a problem, first we have to understand it. The starting point has to be-

What exactly is happening here?

This is especially poignant when encountering subjects that people might be uncomfortable talking about. Rachel Clare FRSA is Assistant Director at the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) which deals with the issue of male suicide. According to recent government statistics on mortality rates, suicide is a bigger cause of death in young men than HIV, traffic accidents and assault combined, with 77% of all cases of suicide in the UK every year being male. CALM was born from a simple need to generate greater awareness of the problem.

Once a problem is defined, we have to figure out the best way to solve it – how do we improve the world around us?

Monday night’s Fellows event RSA Engage demonstrated that within the Fellowship there is a wealth of ideas about how we can transition from the beginning to the middle; problem to potential solution. Amongst the seven Fellows who pitched their project at the event, was Richard Blissett FRSA. Richard was recommended for Fellowship by a previous Catalyst winner and in turn decided to apply for funding for his own project. Through RSA Catalyst, his digital tool Edukit is well on the way to helping teachers find the appropriate resources to support disadvantaged students, quickly and easily. For Richard, the how lies in getting the right tools to the right people.

However, for a modest enterprise like Edukit to earn a place in the grander narrative of social change, it must also create a story around itself. Tools will not reach people if it’s not clear why they’re relevant, so creating a strong, individual narrative is critical – it is not enough to be heard, you have to be understood.

New RSA Fellow Emily Farnworth founded her social business Counter Culture on precisely the understanding that powerful stories are the key to changing indiviual behaviour, yet when tackling complex issues such as poverty or climate change, a simple beginning, middle and end doesn’t always cut it.

Emily believes that ‘the only way to solve the world’s biggest problems in a meaningful way is to see all sides of an argument.’ Counter Culture was established to help businesses and charities reach their audiences through a more agile form of storytelling that incorporates multiple and differing perspectives.

This can be achieved in many different ways. Even if you don’t recognise it immediately, brands, charities and individuals are communicating with us all the time without ever needing to put pen to paper. New Fellow David Pope, filmmaker, consultant and member of the British Council’s Creative Economy Pool of Experts, is interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by new technologies because this evolution is creating opportunities for a more diverse range of voices and stories to reach wider audiences.

New mediums can transform the way an issue is presented and the type of people who can tell the story. An example -

In December, Mark Leruste FRSA joined the Fellowship. As well as being an ICF Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), he is a Country Manager for Movember, the infamous worldwide men’s health charity that invites men around the world to grow a moustache for 30 days in November to raise awareness and funds for men’s health. This in itself proves that a serious message can be communicated through the power of a moustache.

The RSA's 2011 Movember efforts

The RSA’s 2011 Movember efforts

A story can still carry weight even if the chronology is disjointed or the medium unconventional.

Movember shows that a life-threatening disease affecting a particular demographic can gather mass support using humour and facial hair. If that isn’t re-writing the story, I don’t know what is.



If you would like to find out more about any of the projects or Fellows mentioned above, or would like to know more about joining the Fellowship  please contact fellowship@rsa.org.uk


Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA

Beyond the school gate

January 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Fellowship 

As Chief Executive of RSA Academies I travel regularly to the West Midlands to work with our four RSA Academies, in Coventry (Whitley Academy), Redditch (Arrow Vale RSA Academy and Ipsley CE RSA Academy) and Tipton (RSA Academy).  Yesterday I ventured even further north, to speak at the Academies Conference in Manchester.

In a programme that included some essential but somewhat dry topics such as governance structures and admissions arrangements, I was delighted (and not a little relieved!) to have been asked to talk about an area that lies at the heart of RSA Academies’ work: preparing students for life beyond the school gate.  The talk was a timely one, with yet another survey published this week showing that the vast majority of young people don’t feel they received enough information about post-secondary education and careers.  If there is a crumb of comfort to be found in the survey, it is that UK students are not alone – the survey found a consistent pattern across Europe, with the possible exception of Germany.

So, what are we doing in the RSA Family to ensure that young people in our schools are informed about and prepared for the world beyond the school gate?

Well, firstly we’re recognising that Universities and employers are looking for more than just good qualifications, and so we’re helping our pupils to develop a range of skills and competences.  One essential component is the development of leadership skills.  Our annual student leadership conference at the RSA in London are a high point of the school year, and the students themselves are setting the agenda for the year’s work, which has included a series of student voice podcasts, and a student led peer review of the schools in the Family.  Students at Whitley Academy recently participated in a debating competition, and this clip of the winning entry shows just how far they have come.  Our next step is to increase the number of opportunities for younger children by introducing a Family-wide year 8 leadership programme, which will be targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who may be lacking in confidence, to develop their skills in this area.

We are also developing a strong partnership with Warwick University, building on their existing widening participation programmes, to increase the number of applicants from lower income families or those who would be the first in their family to go on to higher education. The programme has been informed by children themselves, including those at Ipsley CE RSA Academy.  These pupils convinced the partnership of the need to start working with children when they’re young, and so it will give children from Year 7 upwards the opportunity to meet lecturers and students from different faculties, and to visit Warwick, giving them the confidence to believe that a University education really is for people like them.

And we continue to benefit from the generosity of our Fellows and Royal Designers for Industry who give their time and expertise in various ways to bring new experiences to our students.  The RSA Academy in Tipton have just had their first student provisionally accepted into Oxbridge following coaching and support from Bill Good FRSA who was on hand to support students at a Post 16 evening before the winter break.  Other recent examples include a project with Ben Kelly who has encouraged students from Arrow Vale RSA Academy to think differently about the school’s entrance hall.  The students successfully pitched to the Governors for funding to realise their designs with Ben coming back to school in the coming months to support the conclusion.

For 2014/15 we want to make it even easier to enable Fellows to connect with our Academies, by developing a menu of things that they might offer e.g. a work-place visit, a careers talk, to be a mentor for a sixth form student.  If you have ideas about how this might work, or would like to make an offer, please do let me know.

Licenced to create: five thoughts on a teacher licence scheme

January 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Despite no formal announcement of Tristram Hunt’s ‘licenced to teach’ idea, the concept has already been constructed and deconstructed by the edurati, with especially useful contributions from David Weston, our own Louise Bamfield, and Charlotte Leslie MP, who argues with the easy conviction of a backbencher  that:

“Any relicencing scheme that is the brainchild of a politician and born out of Whitehall is doomed to fail, and become just another stick with which to beat a demoralised, worn-out workforce.”

Given that almost everyone who has commented on licencing has used the ‘devil in the detail’ cliché, I’ll say that the angel could be in the bigger picture. Although I blogged in this week’s New Statesman that our school system should in 2015 have a ‘gap year’ from any new policies, I still believe that the licencing idea deserves air, time and hopefully support from the wide range of people who could together guarantee success. Here are five thoughts that might help.


1) Licencing is an ineffective way to remove bad teachers

If my child is being taught by anybody who is not up to it, I want him or her given immediate support to improve, with rapid removal if this fails to happen. Waiting five or even seven years is too long, and may create a further disincentive to do the right thing at the right time. Putting teachers into Capability, and finally removing them, is difficult, and always will be, but brave, assertive school leaders are finding ways through, and recent chagnes to regulations have made the process easier. This may be one area where academies and chains have been more effective and ruthless than local authorities, often if not always with positive outcomes. Setting up licencing as the magic bullet to remove poor teachers is setting it up for failure.


2) Licencing could reduce teacher bureaucracy

Of course, the process to gain and regain a licence is just that, a process,  so will therefore come with some bureaucratic burdens. However, any licence worth the paper its written on should be a licence to be trusted – that your professional judgement is valued, and professional autonomy revered. Armed with a licence, most teachers should be able to resist some of the more mindless soul-numbing paperwork that senior management teams, often falsely in the name of Ofsted, request of their teachers: The over-detailed lesson and termly planning documents; the written justification for every individual assessment decision; the word-hungry performance management papers. “Back off and trust me, my licence is up to date’ could be a useful bulwark against the creeping growth of petty paperwork demands.


3) A licencing system should be carefully created by a new Royal College of Teaching

Tristram Hunt has suggested that the College enforces and administers the licence. I think that the College needs to design and create the thing. This means that we would need to create a college in advance of the introduction of any licencing scheme. If this slows down progress, then that might be beneficial. Despite Hunt’s rush to announce the idea, any follow-through should be slow and cautious, understanding the impact on teacher retention and the teacher labour market.

I’ll declare a potential interest here in that, although the Prince’s Teaching Institute and others have done some fantastic development of the idea over the past few months, I think that RSA could be perfectly placed to make the College happen. We have a good history of incubating new ideas and institutions, are prepared to bash the heads that need bashing, and would also work to learn from the mistakes of the General Teaching Council of England. The GTCE was an example of New Labour policy implementation at its worst – a kind of half-hearted, ADHD-riven dirigisme which built the weakest of institutions. I am sure that the RSA could build an alliance that could do this better, and not just because we have a ‘Royal’ in our name too. Pitch over.


4) Licencing should be built around the concept of ‘clinical practice’

This builds usefully on the BERA/RSA Inquiry into teacher education and research. We launched our interim report this week. Here, we defined clinical practice in education as  

 “the need to bring together knowledge and evidence from different sources through a carefully sequenced programme which is deliberately designed to integrate teachers’ experiential learning at the ‘chalk face’ with research-based knowledge and insights from academic study and scholarship. Inspired by the medical model, the goal is to refine particular skills and deepen practitioners’ knowledge and understanding, by integrating practical and academic (or research-based) knowledge, and to interrogate each in light of the other.”

 This is more complex, nuanced and developmental than any crude aim to ensure that teachers’ practices more ‘evidence-based’. But the idea of clinical practice, also powerfully articulated by the US National Council for Accreditation in Education’s  ‘ten design principles for clinically-based preparation’  could  provide a powerful foundation from which to build a licencing scheme which would improve, engage and motivate teachers.


5) Licencing should offer teachers the ‘power to create’

I haven’t  joined the fray of my colleagues’ blogs about creativity, although I love RSA’s confidence to have these discussions in the open. I’m not yet ready to give my view on RSA’s possible overall approach to creativity in education – my five years of leading Creative Partnerships has rendered me cautious, if far from speechless. However, there is a genuine linkage between the philosophy emerging from the non-ivory second floor of John Adam Street and the teacher licensing scheme. David Weston’s blog neatly sums up teacher effectiveness as a combination of “subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, behavioural knowledge and interpersonal skills”. This isn’t enough. Teachers need the motivation, skills, and sense of self-efficacy to develop their own pedagogies and practices that can lead to the best possible outcomes for their pupils. Of course, innovation should be built on evidence, and all teachers need to adopt and adapt existing successful practices as well as develop their own. Although only a few teachers may ever create genuinely new knowledge, ‘little C’ creativity, the ability to generate and develop ideas that are original to you, and valuable in your context, should be at the heart of any licence – not just a right but a duty for all teachers.

Joe Hallgarten    Director of Education  @joehallg

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