Guest Blog: Why we must have a better bacc and why we need the understanding, imagination and common sense of the RSA
This guest blog from RSA Fellow Mark Hewlett reflects on recent changes to the national curriculum and last week’s launch of RSA’s Grand Curriculum Designs. It builds on my recent RSA Journal article about the Modern Baccalaureate.
Educational change continues; two weeks ago, proposals for the national curriculum. Last week, changes to primary accountability. We can all support initiatives to raise standards in basic skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT: the basic “languages”. But despite grand rhetoric there is a sense of disappointment, reflected in observations in The Times the following day, by Alice Thomson, who, being a self-avowed traditionalist, should be an ally of the Secretary of State. She sought, but failed to find, the imaginative vision to spark the originality, innovation, and inventiveness we really need for our national success. Equalling Hong Kong and Singapore in maths and literacy is fine but if that is the limit of the Government’s aspirations then we are being sold short. The Department’s sights are too low, its vision too narrow. We can do better.
These views were strongly re-enforced at last week’s launch of Grand Curriculum Designs, a new CPD programme led by the RSA and the Institute for Education. Teachers, dissatisfied with the current curriculum, were reporting on initiatives which focused not on the relatively superficial regime of the National Curriculum, but on outcomes in terms of general skills (intellectual/practical), competences (the ability to apply ideas to a range of specific issues) and positive attitudes to learning: the fundamentally important elements of learning.
Alice Thomson’s reaction to the modest proposals for the national curriculum reflects the views of those of us engaged in the arguably more significant task of designing a “better bacc” (shorthand for a curriculum and assessment framework) to meet our national interest, and the interests of all young people.
Our current curricular model (described misleadingly, as “academic”) is ill-designed to achieve the aims we all want, as stated by business leaders (the CBI is dismissive of the current E Bacc), by those responsible for the public services, the arts and sport even academics, and not least, politicians, whose statements of aims and aspirations are fine but bear only a weak relationship to the National Curriculum whose assessment system deflects energies from the essential and the important to activities of marginal relevance to the aims they espouse.
Questioning the relevance of our current curriculum, whose structure made sense in the thought world of 18th century Dissenters, whence it originated, Professor John White, in a seminal RSA paper, “How special are subjects?” recommends that we must ask fundamental questions about the purposes of education, for example as considered in “The Point of Education” (Matthew Taylor’s article in the RSA Journal Winter 2008) or the central question posed in The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education, “What counts as an educated 19 year old in this day and age?” These questions are not being effectively addressed by Government at this time.
If we agree that we want our education system to develop the whole range of young people’s talents to equip them with the skills (intellectual and practical) knowledge and understanding to achieve our national economic, social and cultural aspirations, what responsible person would produce an end-of-course assessment system which ignores or at best sidelines, Engineering, Design, Technology, Health Education in all its facets, Social Education, Citizenship, the Arts, and relegates to inferior status, those social sciences of Economics and Business Studies, Government and Constitution, Sociology, Psychology more relevant to understanding the world they will live in than History, that finds itself promoted with Geography, to pre-eminence, quite arbitrarily and with no coherent rationale. Let it be noted that all these subjects are as “academic” as those currently required in the E Bacc.
This is why we need the support of the RSA, to challenge ill-considered conservatism and inject some realism, common-sense and clear thought into debate about curriculum. The RSA carries weight as a society of thoughtful enlightened people who represent the interests of all educational stakeholders – in academe, business, the public services, design, technology and the arts, promoting intellectual thought and research and their translation into practical reality, a society characterised by its constant, restless drive to look forward and outward, to produce better solutions and characterised by its awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of learning. And all with no spurious distinction of status based on pseudo-academic prejudice -which infects thinking at the DfE, and results in a curriculum narrow, shallow and unfit for purpose.
This blog aims to generate support for those working for a better curriculum: broader, deeper and more imaginative. Visit the web sites of the RSA, Whole Education and HTRT or contact Joe Hallgarten for further information.
I spoke this morning at the annual IBO conference for those schools who are piloting the career-related International Baccalaureate – the IBCC. We’re proud that our RSA Academy in Tipton is at the forefront of this exciting development. Nothing I have seen, in England at any rate, has come closer to breaking the academic-vocational divide. It demonstrates the power of schools and organisations bypassing policy fluctuations to take their own rigorous approaches to assessment. In a recent speech to Teaching Schools, Michael Gove signaled his enthusiasm for teacher-made GCSEs and other assessments. Today’s launch of the Progressive Awards Alliance is another intriguing example, although perhaps not what Mr Gove had in mind.
I was asked to talk about the future of 16-19 vocational education. Partly to avoid the morass of acronym-heavy policy reports, many of which aren’t relevant to the IBCC schools outside the UK, but mainly to cover up for my lack of detailed knowledge (if in doubt, broaden it out), I framed my presentation through a different question:
What would it take for the future of 16-19 vocational education to be bright?
Then, borrowing heavily from the OECD skills strategy, the Centre for Real World Learning’s report on vocational pedagogy, and a number of summaries of research on adolescence, I offered five possible responses.
1. Escape from the tyranny of the enlightenment.
2. Apply new findings about the teenage brain and behaviour.
3. Create a culture of evidence-informed and evidence-building pedagogy.
4. Turn vocational learning into an entitlement for 7-16 year olds.
5. Be clearer about the role of vocational education for the most disengaged learners.
To keep this blog short, I won’t expand on any of these, although if people ask me to via comments, I’ll be flattered enough to reveal more.
The photos above came from an RSA Area Based Curriculum blacksmith Project at Ark SCE School in Germany. They were taken by Windsor School SCE student Jack Turner to support his Arts Award Gold, with the support of photographer David Crausby.
Joe Hallgarten Director of Education @joehallg
The Centre for Citizenship and Community, a new collaboration between the RSA, the University of Central Lancashire and the Royal Society for Public Health, was formally launched at the RSA House yesterday. Grounding academic and social research in community practice, the Centre will bring together researchers and practitioners from universities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and business to implement community projects and guide social policy using a Connected Communities approach to social and community networks. The launch consisted of key-note speeches from the Centre’s associates followed by a series of discussion groups held by delegates from numerous professional backgrounds to debate the policy implications of the Centre’s early perspectives.
Co-production: a connected communities approach to social policy
In a plenary speech David Morris, Professor of mental health, inclusion and community at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Centre for Citizenship and Community, spoke about how the Centre will promote a vision of the ‘social value of empowered communities’ being integrated into public policy, with a culture of co-production emerging in public services. He stressed the need for policy makers to recognise the complexity and potential that lies within communities, to build innovations around shared community assets, and to use Connected Communities-inspired research to inform the production of community owned, networked social interventions.
Afterwards, RSA Connected Communities director of research Steve Broome criticised what he described as the standard ‘deficit model’ of viewing communities, which focuses exclusively on their problems rather than their assets and potential. In contrast he demonstrated how social networks approaches help us to understand communities using an ‘attribute model’ which reveals which assets in a community help people interact and support one another. He emphasised the prominent role that public services play in supplying or supporting these community assets, and went on to highlight the danger that ill-considered spending cuts present to social networks when community assets are not mapped or recognised. A forthcoming RSA report will develop these themes further, focusing on the viability of community assets and social networks in the context of government austerity.
Theory into co-produced practice: Murton ‘mams’ and ways to wellbeing
Examples of such projects were presented by Mandy Chivers of Mersey Care NHS Care Trust and Lyndsey Wood of the East Durham Trust. Both organisations are working in partnership with the RSA and UCLan to implement co-produced, network-based community projects based on findings from Connected Communities research. In Liverpool, Mersey Care is training volunteers from the BAME community in the principles of the New Economic Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’, while in Murton, a former mining town, the East Durham Trust has helped set up a new social group for single mothers called ‘Murton Mams’, in which the activities and programme are led by the members of the group themselves to help combat the widespread isolation among this group that the Connected Communities findings revealed.
Challenges ahead: austerity, tolerated harshness, and championing social networks
Following the introductory talks, attendees split into discussion groups to debate the implications of the presentations for public policy and community practice, and to begin to think about what the Centre can contribute to such debates in the future. Some key points that emerged from these discussions included:
i) The need for the Centre to promote and build the status of social networks in a context in which the very existence of ‘communities’ often seems to be doubted. The evidence base for a networked approach to public and community policy must be vigorously argued.
ii) The need to be conscious of the risk of ‘making a contrivance out of ordinary connection’. Co-production, in other words, must avoid the pitfalls of regularising informal, reciprocal relationships, or exposing what David Halpern has called the ‘hidden wealth’ of communities to overly harsh light where they would be better preserved by remaining hidden. An example given was the ‘spontaneous expression of citizenship’ of a train ticket saleswoman who enjoys smiling at her customers and once decided to give Easter eggs to her regulars; if a statutory system of formalised gift-giving on public transport was initiated, the spontaneity and charm of the exchange would doubtless be compromised.
Other challenges were also discussed. Morris and Broome both highlighted the dangers posed to sometimes fragile networks by austerity, growing inequality, and ‘externally enforced fragmentation’, while it was elsewhere noted that cultural norms are becoming less social, along the lines of what Hugo Young described as a growing ‘tolerated harshness’ in society. Other attendees urged that co-productive services must be genuinely co-produced with public services taking an active role, rather than simply deferring responsibility or ‘outsourcing by another name’.
The mood was on the whole optimistic, however, with numerous attendees stating that they welcomed the opportunity to network and debate issues in this way, and praising the new Centre as a valuable line of communication between community-oriented actors from the academic, public, private, and third sectors.
Based in the School of Social Work at UCLan and the King’s Fund offices in London, the Centre for Citizenship and Community will meet regularly over the coming months and offers organisations dedicated support for community engagement through:
- Strategies and integrated programmes for social and community- based commissioning
- Service development and redesign, based on economic modelling and cost-benefit analysis, organisational, leadership and workforce development
This is backed up by:
- Bespoke programmes of accredited learning and professional development
- Programme evaluation and research evidence.
Its associates will be posting regular updates from varied perspectives on the RSA’s blogging platform; in the meantime, more information on the Centre including contact details can be found on the RSA website. If you would like to be notified when the forthcoming RSA report on the impact of austerity on communities is published, or to be kept informed of the work of the Centre for Citizenship and Community, email email@example.com and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.
Today sees the publication of a report that Steve Broome and I wrote on behalf of Hanover Housing Association, as part of the Hanover@50 debate. It’s called ‘Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos: The end of retirement and the dawn of a new old age?’ and it explores perceptions of ageing, the implications of these for how older people are regarded in society, and what we need to do differently.
In recent years, older people have increasingly been characterised as a social and economic burden. As life-spans get longer, and the need to provide for older people’s social, economic and care needs grows, we have ended up regarding older people as a problem. The language used about older people is frequently patronising and paternalistic, and this shapes attitudes, influencing how older people are treated as well as how they see themselves.
I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways.
In our report, we argue that the time is ripe to turn the issue of ageing on its head. We need to move away from a culture that regards old age as inherently undesirable, perceives older people as having nothing to contribute to society and focuses on the economic ‘burden’ of caring for the ageing population.
Could it be that older people actually represent a tremendous untapped resource? If so, how can we shift culture, remodel how we accommodate older people and attend to their care needs, whilst enabling them to continue to contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them and useful to all of us?
In order to explore these issues, we conducted a literature review and held four focus groups made up of:
- Retirement community residents aged over 70
- Fellows of the RSA aged over 70
- A ‘transitioners’ group aged 57-70
- A ‘millenials’ group of people aged 21-32
In each of these focus groups we asked participants to tell us what comes to mind when they think of old age. We showed them a range of images of older people and asked them what they thought about those images, and used a range of ‘springboard’ techniques to stimulate discussion.
The results were extremely enlightening and sometimes surprising. The retirement community residents said they were happy to be described as ‘pensioners’, saying they saw it as stating a fact about them. The RSA Fellows disagreed, feeling that that it carried connotations of inactivity, stagnation and marginalisation (as in being ‘pensioned off’).
This divergence in views around the word points to the possibility that new, positive language could reinforce a sense of empowerment and enable older people to keep contributing to society in various ways as they continue to age. For the RSA Fellows, being active professionally and feeling that they maintained a degree of influence were important elements of identity, while for the Hanover residents, this was less important that being socially active, although volunteering, and keeping up with the issues that were of interest to them before retirement were also very important to them.
The ‘transitioners’ group expressed a range of views about what it feels like and represents to be approaching old age. With 65 as the traditional marker for the beginning of old age, some members of the group talked about the way they don’t recognise themselves as being ‘old’ and felt instead that ‘late middle age’ is a phase of life that lasts longer for their generation.
I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful
When we showed this image of an older couple kissing in bed, reactions were diverse across the groups. Most strikingly for me, the ‘millenials’ group (which I’m only just too old to belong to) responded with almost unanimous distaste.
“I’m sorry but that’s just wrong. I don’t want to see that. Nobody wants to see that.” (Female, 20s, Millennials).
“I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful.” (Male, 20s, Millenials).
By contrast, reactions were overwhelmingly positive from members of the other three groups:
“Oh, yes, now that’s lovely. It’s so refreshing to see. It makes me so happy to see that. There should be more pictures like that in the media.” (Female, 80s, Hanover)
“Ah, that’s an unfamiliar image. You don’t see much of that sort of thing. Sexual images of older people should be more commonly available.” (Female, 60s, Transitioners).
“Great, that’s great. They’re in love. I love it. Most people would hate it. Young people would hate it, definitely.” (Female, 70s, RSA Fellows).
The negative reactions from the Millenials group were certainly surprising to me. Coming from a culture that is saturated with sexual images, many of which are far more salacious than this, one might assume that the younger generation would be indifferent to an image like this. The revulsion that some members of the group showed appeared to be purely on the grounds that the people in the image are older. It is noteworthy that one member of the RSA Fellows group predicted that young people would not like the image, and that the comment “I don’t want to see that,” was followed with “nobody wants to see that,” indicating the view that even older people would prefer not to be exposed to an image like this.
Although we were surprised by the vehemence of this disgust, in the context of a society that is overflowing with imagery that champions youth, assumes that getting old is fundamentally unattractive (especially for women) and side-lines older people as having no useful purpose to serve, it is, at least understandable.
So, what do we do? In our paper we suggest three potential ways forward.
- The word ‘retirement’ is part of the problem – we should abolish it. Retirement literally means withdrawing from active life. Whether or not older people continue in paid work, they should be encouraged, enabled, and even expected to remain active, in whatever capacity they can, until the end of their lives.
- Society needs to completely rethink older people’s care. Policymakers and providers must lead a move away from institutional care that disempowers people and forces them into passive dependence. They must develop models of care with roots in the community, for instance by enabling older people to share their homes with each other or younger members of the community.
- These changes should be part of a broader campaign to reposition older people’s place in society. Demographic changes mean that older people not only should be but have to be seen as a part of our human and social capacity. The point is not that older people are all ‘wise’ but rather that there are enormous reserves of experience and time that we are not currently drawing on. It is up to us to choose to see them in this way rather than as a cumbersome burden. This could include a think tank run by older people with a remit that covers the entire spectrum of social issues facing all of us.
- Industry should look at the design of products, buildings and services that older people use. Most age-related goods and services are needlessly vanilla. They are overly institutional and bland in perspective and design. A specialist design agency could rethink design, revitalising and popularising products to make them appealing to everyone, not just older people.
I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways. Such an investment will reap huge rewards for all of us.
Dr Emma Lindley is Senior Researcher at the RSA’s Social Brain Centre – you can follow her @DrEmmaLindley
A trained psychologist myself, I took great interest in today’s call of the British Psychological Society for a departure of the biomedical model of mental illness. And, to my delight, so did other colleagues – read a great blog post from Social Brain’s Emma Lindley here, where she writes that we might be right now witnessing a bona fide revolution that may change mental health services so radically, ‘they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation.’ As Emma points out, the debate is as much driven by differing concepts of human nature as it is by politics, and the struggle for professional relevance and power. It is the latter aspect that I want to focus on in this blog post.
The RSA has long taken an interest in professions and their future (including this project in the early 2000s), and is currently managing an independent review of the Police Federation. Further international projects with other professions may follow soon.
Interestingly, even though Psychiatry is the younger term, it is the arguably the older science, and literally means ‘the medical treatment of the soul’, whereas Psychology means ‘study of the soul’. Psychology and, specifically, its subdomain Clinical Psychology, have always had a hard time standing up to their medical cousin. Part of the reason for that one can find in the etymology; isn’t medical treatment is just so much more tangible than mere study? Thus, in more than one hospital of the world (including one I interned in a long, long time ago), Psychologists have not been much more than overeducated sidekicks to doctors. This may change soon.
The main reason for this is that over the last decade, and particularly since 2008, Psychology has arrived in the scientific establishment. It did so by using a strategy applied by underdogs since the advent of mankind: collaboration. (And, of course, the emergence of discipline rockstars like Steven Pinker has helped.)
Not having enough leverage itself, Psychology entered functional marriages with up and coming disciplines like neuroscience and traditional ones like economics, a process that led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields like behavioural science. A prominent victim of this process was homo economicus – the notion that humans are wholly rational and narrowly self-interested. Homo biomedicus (not an official term, my inadequate creation), the similarly reductionist paradigm underlying present day psychiatry that acknowledges only the physical side of human existence, but leaves aside the social and psychological aspects, may very well be next.
There are two reasons to be concerned about the potential revolution of mental health services given that professional battle lines are drawn:
Firstly, while for Psychology there was the possibility of a non-threatening complementary relationship in the mutual interest with economics or neuroscience, with Psychiatry it is different. Here the question is ‘who runs the show?’, or, if you will, one of professional hegemony. Still, one hopes that the critical voices on both sides steer the process away from the zero-sum-game it is in danger to become, which certainly would leave everyone worse off.
Secondly, the homo biomedicus model is not entirely wrong, just as the homo economicus model is not completely off the mark. The concept has its merit and adequate areas of application, and it will need to be taken into account when designing future services based on a richer, more complex understanding of man as Homo biopsychosocialis that is embedded in a capabilities-based approach. Throwing out the baby with the bath water would be just as wrong.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him at @joseflentsch
As a committed Labour supporter, Alex Ferguson’s announcement to retire could have been better timed. It took the heat and light out of a Queen’s speech that was even duller than her annual Christmas message. If Ed Miliband did give the front bench the hairdryer treatment, it was lost in the photos, eulogies and trophy infographics of one of Britain’s greatest post war leaders (or is that brand-builder?)
We shouldn’t judge a government by the content of its Queen’s speech. Halfway through an administration, the big policy changes have already been pushed through, and the inevitable suite of unintended outcomes have not yet revealed themselves. It may be that “we don’t need much legislation”. New laws don’t grow economies, although like most of us I can’t quite work out what might.
But a dearth of real parliamentary business offers a potential opportunity. Margaret Hodge pointed out recently that too many MPs don’t have enough to do. This year’s legislative programme may lead to even more slack time.
How might MPs fill this time? There probably isn’t any room for more MPs at Number 10, whatever school they went to. As more policies become scrutiny-ready, Select Committee members should get even busier. The unlucky ones will be swallowed by the dull machinations of party business. Others may find more interests to register this time next year (one of the greatest ideas to come from Mark Thomas’ People’s Manifesto was that MPs, like F1 drivers, should be forced to wear the logo of any organisation which pays them). The natural and ethical way to fill your time will be to serve your real employers, your local constituents. A few MPs such as Stella Creasy and Robert Halfon are taking this beyond the standard reactive surgery and letter-passing approach to become genuine community entrepreneurs in their patch. Matthew Taylor once proposed that MPs should be given specific government projects to oversee, to improve their understanding of implementation, and feel the heat of accountability.
However, there could also be scope for under-occupied MPs to use some of the time to transcend the short term needs of their constituents, and the myopic demands of parliamentary non-business. They could do what politicians of all sides find most difficult, partly because we voters make it so difficult for them – to think about the longer term challenges we face, outside of traditional party or departmental divisions, and develop philosophies and policy ideas that will probably have too much depth to be manifesto-ready.
So for those MPs who are twiddling thumbs rather than fiddling expenses, here’s an offer of work. RSA education is currently developing a new research programme to redefine adolescence. How can society relish rather than fear the teenage years, harnessing its ‘hidden wealth’? How might attitudes, funding and policy towards adolescence make the same step change that we saw in the Early Years during the last 15 years? We are looking for a small number of MPs from all parties to help develop this programme. The salary is less than minimal, the coffee isn’t great, and the chances of promotion and prizes are zero, let alone of winning cups with big ears.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
Is there anything Ofsted won’t do? Fresh from Michael Wilshaw’s ‘Damascene Moment’, changing his mind to pitch for Ofsted sticking around to support school improvement (aided by their new regional directors), David Laws claimed last week that Ofsted would make sure that the Pupil Premium was well spent.
Last week’s TES leader questioned Ofsted’s mission creep. Accountable to the Queen, Ofsted has a clear role: “to inspect and regulate services which care for children and young people, and those providing education and skills for learners of all ages.” The Chief Inspector’s comments should be limited to telling the world what inspection evidence, and inspection evidence alone, tells us about the English education system, and priorities for improvement. Conflicts of interests around inspecting your own school improvement programme are not insurmountable, but are probably an unnecessary risk, given the emerging market amongst teaching schools, academy chains and other schools and providers to deliver school improvement services.
This mission creep goes against the original instincts of our Chief Inspector. As a brilliant school leader, his philosophy was about focusing headship on the key role of improving the quality of teaching and learning. All other activities, if not necessarily a distraction, should be subservient to this goal. This steer, and a much more focused inspection framework, rightfully reminded those headteachers who were tempted towards excessive innovation, social entrepreneurship and peripheral issues that they should to some extent ‘stick to their knitting’.
Ofsted has enough to get right, right now. Raising the quality of its existing inspectors, strengthening their scrutiny of the FE sector, and sensitively changing its inspection framework to incorporate new priorities should be enough for any body. All public bodies occasionally feel the seduction of extending their remit. Unless it’s a clear takeover of someone else’s powers, this strategic slipperiness is often problematic. Ofsted should resist.
Building on an earlier blog about four foundations for a self-improving school system, I am currently thinking through what the idea of self-regulation might mean in a school system context. It is too early to claim any breakthrough, conceptually or recommendations-wise, but I am fairly sure that a truly self-improving system will need to develop the power to self-regulate, and therefore to write Ofsted, if not totally out of the script, into the margins of footnotes and stage directions. A decade ago, Matthew Taylor and I wrote that ‘Ofsted’s long term aim should be to render itself unnecessary.’ I remember Chris Woodhead laughing off this idea, and perhaps it is fantastical. However, the principle of “inspection in inverse proportion to success” as currently applied to outstanding schools should hold true for the system. Our school system is improving, whilst Ofsted’s role may simultaneously be growing. This makes no sense.
When I was a primary school history coordinator (in those heady, deluded days before literacy and numeracy targets swept most other priorities away, and QCA schemes of work did the rest), I had the delightful job of planning a whole-school history scheme of work. One of the many attainment targets for history was for children to be able to ‘distinguish facts from opinions’ by the time they got to secondary school. Given their collective seniority and expertise, I am hopeful that the Education Select Committee has the same ability, even if some of their witnesses struggle with this distinction.
When asked this week by the Select Committee about the Academies Commission’s critique of some aspects of policy, former schools minister Nick Gibb claimed that the RSA had a ‘particular view’ and didn’t come from ‘neutral ground’. This contrasts to others who wondered aloud (via twitter) whether a commission led by an academy provider such as the RSA would ever be anything other than positive about academies.
These claims insult the independence of the commissioners themselves, and the process they led. The RSA’s Action and Research Centre, with the remit to act and think, show and tell, innovate and recommend, will constantly need to navigate healthy tensions between our practice and our research. In combining thought leadership and social innovation, we aim to create a virtuous circle between research and practice. The Commission’s findings will inform how we develop our family of academies model, Working directly with these academies gives us insight to which areas of policy need exploring, and provides us with both inspiration for and reality checks on ideas for practical innovations. And the practical innovations we lead with larger numbers of teachers and schools, for instance through our Opening Minds framework and our area based curriculum, also help determine our priorities for future RSA programmes of work.
At the same time, recent exchanges have caused me to reflect on that slippery word ‘evidence’. When committees or commissions ‘take evidence’, they are really collecting stories, some of which will be facts, others opinions. As Dylan William and others remind us all, evidence is not the plural of anecdotes. Stephen Gorard has distinguished between the legal use of evidence, which aims to push a single viewpoint, and the academic use, which, to quote Chomsky, aims to ‘tell the truth and expose lies’. In thinking about education, only the latter will do, alongside a recognition that most evidence is far less conclusive that we’d like (and the more rigorous the evidence, the less conclusive it will probably be, as Education Endowment Foundation-funded projects are likely to find out in the next few years).
After such a deep, rigorous progress, it’s a shame that admissions ‘gossip’ (as opposed to the carefully considered recommendations about admissions in the report) dominated media headlines. We hope that the RSA’s current project on in-year admissions, which will involve surveys and data collection, may help shed light on wider questions about the impact of academisation on admissions.
Those who still have influence over the future direction of academies have welcomed the commission’s findings and want to engage in serious discussions about next steps, Whatever people’s views on the Commission, lack of balance is not the issue. Whatever Nick Gibb said, the Commission was entirely neutral in its deliberations. Mind you, given Nick Gibb’s dislike of RSA Opening Minds, he would have said that, wouldn’t he?
Commissions can be tricky beasts. Often, in the drive to achieve consensus among all parties, they can drift towards the lowest-risk common denominator. Last minute changes and compromises can skew narratives. And, as with all policy reports, subtle sets of recommendations can be misinterpreted by the media and others. Low-lying ideas can suddenly become top-line recommendations.
After nine months of gestation, we are delighted that the Academies Commission has avoided all of these pitfalls. We congratulate Becky Francis, her team at the Pearson Think Tank, and the three Commissioners Christine Gilbert, Chris Husbands and Brett Widgortz for producing a rigorous, fascinating and highly readable report.
We welcome the Commission’s contribution to the academies debate. The recommendations should have significant implications for policy and practice. The RSA, as a partner with a family of academies and with an education programme focussed on social justice, democracy and innovation, will reflect on and respond to the recommendations in due course, and we urge others to do the same. Comment below, or use #acadcomm on Twitter.
Many academies are transforming learning and form a valuable part of the school improvement ecology. However, the Government’s frenetic drive towards a fully academised system is not yet justified by evidence, and could actually damage the potential systemic value of a better targeted, more carefully supported approach to the growth of academies. We also hope that this report helps to initiate a more intelligent discussion about autonomy, centralisation, governance and collaboration in the English school system.
Two months late, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s launch of our Academies Commission report, here are some reflections from a very valuable National College for School Leadership seminar on self-improving school systems. The college is dealing well with both reduced budgets and; the risks that come through conversion to an ‘executive agency’ of the Department of Education. In truth, even as an NDPB the relationship between Department and College was usually less arms length and more Venus De Milo. But school leaders are rightly asking the College to exploit its privileged position within government without going totally native. It’s a space that the interim Chief Executive Maggie Farrar is occupying with astuteness and panache.
At the seminar, David Hargreaves discussed his fourth thinkpiece on the development of a self-improving school system in England, and offered views on progress made since 2010. Nearly three years since the white paper on the Importance of Teaching stated that “our aim should be to create a school system which is more effectively self-improving “, my own 3-point progress report reads as follows:
1. The system as a whole is up for the self-improvement challenge.
Education leaders, whether in schools, local authorities or academy providers, largely ‘get’ that this government is serious about a self-improving system, and that self improvement will only happen through collaboration. If there is recalcitrance to collaborate, it is probably down more to the prevailing uncertainties in policy direction than to the decisions that have actually been made.
2. Converter academies, despite government hopes and the fantastic work of some headteachers and chains, are insufficiently committed to and involved in school to school support and system leadership.
Whether this is due to genuine under-commitment, or the within-school capacity issues that come with conversion, it may be too early to say. But it is clear that conversion comes with very weak collaborative strings attached. If individual academies want to go for splendid isolation, there’s not much stopping them, and too many are taking the money and freedoms and running.
3. Teaching schools and especially teaching school alliances are positioning themselves to go beyond leadership of ITT and CPD towards full system leadership.
Teaching Schools appear to have a confused, multiplying set of expectations placed upon them, for very little funding. Despite or possibly because of this predicament, many are poised to grow their remit and influence. This is less mission creep and more mission clarification.
So overall, in response to Ben Levin’s question about whether we are ‘creating an institutional context that promotes or prevents collaboration’ I am generally optimistic about our education system’s collaborative potential. New drivers are coming into play. Austerity, which has barely touched school budgets (although is deeply affecting the budgets of the families they serve) could force the pace, catalysing the creation of harder federations, especially between small, otherwise-unviable primary schools. There is also the succession planning opportunity of a large number of retiring headteachers to exploit, possibly replacing them with a smaller number of executive heads. Emerging new technologies could support progress on all four of Hargreaves’ ‘criteria for deep partnerships’[i].
However, I would also agree with Hargreaves’ prediction that the next few years will see the growth of a “scattered and weakly connected self-improving sub-systems of school….but not yet a self improving school system”. I suggest four additional foundations that need to be considered if we really are going to move towards a self-improving system.
First, sustainable self-improvement will need policies that encourage genuine self-determination, so that schools have authorship and ownership over ends as well as means. To avoid the risk expressed in the DfE White Paper that “the attempt to secure automatic compliance with central government initiatives reduces the capacity of the school system to improve itself”, schools need what one seminar participant described as ‘the authority to determine the values of an education system.’ The new curriculum is a key opportunity and battleground here.
Second (and if Gove favours it for the press, why not for schools?) schools need to move to a culture of collective self-regulation – self and peer evaluation of their own performance against nationally and locally agreed goals. Challenge Partners has led the way here. Government should commit to a declining role for external inspection, in proportion to educational success, so that OFSTED gradually becomes an external moderator of collective self-regulation.
Third, schools should have a broader conception of ‘self’, and look to other people and organisations to support system improvement. Kevan Collins talked recently about a local mosque that had been successfully commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council to help reduce truancy, especially those caused by in-term visits to Bangladesh. Schools, if delegated budgets for collective approaches to school improvement, should sometimes look beyond schools for the best solutions.
Finally, system leaders need to learn the art of self-deprecation. From various off-record conversations, there is a feeling that headteachers as a tribe are developing a reputation for being self-satisfying, self-aggrandising, and self-serving, even when in the act of system improvement. This, of course, is a caricature – headteachers are as heterogeneous as any other group of leaders. One leader of a teaching school alliance talked at the seminar about the subtle differences between leadership language and partnership language, to keep the values and egos of all participating schools on board.
At its deepest level, the transformation towards a self-improving school system is a behaviour change issue, one that requires adaptive rather than technical solutions. As part of a new project on ‘re-minding education’, we are working with the RSA’s social brain centre to understand how research from neuroscience and behavioural economics might contribute to our understanding about how schools and teachers can best collaborate for improvement. Please get in touch with your insights and ideas. The project is not even half-formed yet, so this is a perfect time to shape our thinking.
Thanks to Shipa Nessa for her support with this blog. Shipa in on a short placement at RSA through Ladies Who Learn, a project developed by RSA Fellow Asma Shah with the support of Catalyst funding.
[i] Criteria for a deep partnership (in ascending order of difficulty)
- Joint practice development is well established within and between schools in the partnership.
- Social capital is high within and between schools in the partnership.
- Collective moral purpose is a value shared and enacted by all stakeholders, including students, within the partnership.
- Evaluation and challenge are practiced at every level within and between schools.