The RSA’s Whole Person Recovery project’s first anniversary is this spring. You may have been following our progress in West Kent through the fellowship newsletter, the Whole Person Recovery Newsletter or the Recovery Blog. Maybe you’ve attended a Public Event Programme lecture or a Recovery Alliance Meeting. If this is the first you’re hearing of the programme it’s a perfect opportunity to get involved. You don’t need to have personal experience of addiction or recovery to contribute to the programme. Recovery is a complex and individual journey with which we can all relate to in respect of its organic or non-linear nature.
Attaining ‘recovery’ and achieving a balanced, healthy and engaged life obtaining the things many of us take for granted such as a job, a car, and a family waiting for us when we get home can seem a difficult place to reach. However, Whole Person Recovery is based on the acknowledgement that both addiction and recovery do not occur within a vacuum and are based significantly on social, personal and community influences.
Statistical evidence strongly suggests that one in five of us will know someone who has experienced problems with drugs and/ or alcohol. For those of us who know these individuals, we recognise that alcohol and drugs are usually just a symptom of deeper problems yet to be acknowledged or resolved. Today’s world throws us all tough challenges; for the most vulnerable in our communities these challenges are more hazardous.
Our aim is help programme participants mainstream their lifestyles and plug back into their communities and tap the abundant social resources available so that their recovery encompasses work, housing, friends, family and purposeful activity, in employment, education or enterprise. So what if someone is stable and on their feet again after accessing available support? What comes next? This is where the RSA’s network of Fellows is an invaluable resource.
People in recovery span all strata of society – from the man who used to live on the streets to the mum who has seen her children grow up and fly the nest, but they generally all have one thing in common – they have had to take ‘time out’ to work on their recovery. This time may have left a sense of insecurity or limited or outdated professional skills. There will be a time when such individuals well on the path of recovery will want to achieve goals beyond the sphere of their health and physical wellbeing.
Fellows in West Kent and the South East can make a huge difference to our work in often, quite simple, ways.
- Offering a space on a training course
- Inviting someone to shadow you at your workplace for a number of days
- Attending or giving a talk at one of our West Kent hubs
- Mentoring someone aspiring to enter your field of expertise
Today I had the pleasure and the privilege of being a judge at this year’s RSA Student Design Awards (SDA). The competition issues briefs to young designers to demonstrate how the insights and processes of design can solve 21st century problems. The brief I was on the jury for, created in partnership with Yorkshire Water, was to design innovative solutions to help individuals and communities value water more. There were quite a few amazing entries, which made the shortlisting process challenging, but in the end we arrived at a very strong list (congratulations to my colleague Sevra Davis who heads the SDA programme, and to Robin Levien RDI who did a great job in facilitating the discussion).
The main themes of the entries were metering, and how to make better use of rainwater or grey water. Apart from some genuine insights I gained from going through the folders (how much water goes to waste only to heat up the shower!), I was delighted to also see entries from Hong Kong, the Czech Republic and Cyprus. In fact, SDA is becoming more international every year. Last year, with Eva Besenreuther for the first time one of the winners came from abroad.
As I am writing this post, the first ever RSA-US Student Design Awards are about to stage their annual lecture in New York at the Cooper Union this Friday (congratulations to David Turner FRSA and the whole team on this terrific Fellow-led initiative). The keynote will be delivered by Kevin Owens, Design Principal of the highly successful London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. On Saturday then, the big day, there will be a whole host of high-calibre speakers at the RSA-US SDA event itself, which will be followed by a reception. If you’re quick, perhaps you can book a spare seat.
Which brings me to another first for the RSA: Starting this autumn, in collaboration with Genovasi Malaysia we will run the first ever RSA Genovasi Malaysia awards as part of the SDA programme. As part of a consortium including Pearson, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam and Singularity University, we will partner to reward craft, ingenuity, insight, communication and social benefit of the designs of a new generation of Malaysian students.
And we are currently exploring further countries to add to our list together with the RSA Fellowship. Next year the SDA programme, which started in 1924 and is the oldest design competition of its kind in the world, will be going strong for 90 years – what a better way to celebrate than for RSA Student Design Awards to go global.
Here is an interesting Guardian piece on a transnational YouGov-Cambridge study. The research compared attitudes towards responsibilities of the state versus those of individuals in the UK, US, France and Germany.
To summarise, when it comes to the role of the state on issues like ‘a decent minimum income for all’ or ‘helping poor children get ahead’, British views are significantly more continental than atlantic. With the exception of company pay – on inequity of salaries, Britons are more liberal than Germans and French, if not as liberal as Americans – the results put the US on the individualist side, and UK, Germany and France broadly on the statist side; which highlights once again that the conversation on public services in the US is a very different one to this side of the pond.
What is just as interesting as the results, however, is the way the study is structured. It takes a classic two-dimensional approach: state versus individuals.
What about views on the responsibility of, and for, communities?
They are a pillar of social power just as much as the other two dimensions. And given fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasing amount of challenges will need to be dealt with via this ‘third dimension’ (e.g., as my colleague Matthew Parsfield pointed out recently, in Mental Health, or as our CEO Matthew Taylor has argued, in Care).
But as so often, communities get left out of the equation – what statisticians would call an omitted variable. Arguably, without taking this third dimension into account, there is a lack of depth in the insights generated.
My hunch is that we would see a picture emerge that is more complex and informative than the binary US/Europe divide. But perhaps there is already some comparative data out there, maybe even longitudinal – might a reader point me in the right direction?
The RSA is well positioned to work across all three dimensions internationally, as we have strong Fellowships in all four countries (altogether we have Fellowships in 101 countries, the US being the largest one with almost 800 Fellows), as well as Fellow- and staff-led projects in the US and Germany. I will elaborate on these in my next blog posts.
Also, I am looking forward to the upcoming RSA Lecture with Tim Smit, CEO and Founder of the Eden Project, who asks the very question: ‘Where does responsibility for community lie’?
William Makower FRSA has set up the National Funding Scheme which was supported with two grants totalling £7,000 from RSA Catalyst. Our grants helped William develop graphics and a demo for launch events. In this guest blog William sets out the thinking behind the idea and how Fellows can get involved:
There are 5 spaces left for tickets to the press event on Wednesday 27 March (8.30am -10am) at the Southbank Centre, London and 15 tickets for the evening reception (6-8pm). If you would like to attend either please email John Foster-Hill. These will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.
DONATE, from the National Funding Scheme (a registered charity) is designed to make it easy to give to cultural causes that inspire and move us when at a gallery, museum, heritage site, by using a mobile phone.
As Sir Paul Ruddock, supporter of The National Funding Scheme and Chairman of the Trustees of the Victoria & Albert Museum, said:
”The UK has some of the strongest and most diverse cultural organisations in the world but we need to ensure that we make it easy for visitors to give and show their appreciation. The National Funding Scheme, something I am hugely supportive of, enables us all to easily make a donation to specific causes by using our phones at those moments when we want to give. It has the potential to not only bring in incremental money, but also to do so from the younger generation.”
We need to ensure that we make it easy for visitors to give and show their appreciation… The National Funding Scheme enables us all to easily make a donation, whilst identifying specific causes, by using our phones at those moments when we want to give.
The National Funding Scheme has come to life after research showed that to encourage people to give to cultural causes two things need to happen:
a) the ‘ask’ needs to be made at the point of emotional impact (at the gallery, on the national trail etc.)
b) giving must be friction free, enabled by easy and straightforward ways of giving.
This is delivered through two elements of DONATE. First, the templated signs that provide both an explanation why the venue/cause is in need of support as well as an individual code that identifies donations as being for that specific cause. Second, a full range of payment options (including text, credit/debit cards and PayPal) which can be initiated by a user using QR codes, contactless technology or directly entering the web address.
The National Funding Scheme delivers two other crucial benefits. Incredibly powerful data sets will allow venues to understand the type of people that are giving to them, their giving patterns and how they might encourage additional support. To this end, we are also creating Culture Juice (part of the National Funding Scheme), to provide our partners with expert resource and knowledge in the fields of online giving, digital communication, fundraising, cultural insight etc. so that they can best use this newly available data.
The National Funding Scheme is therefore much more than a means to donate. It has been designed to democratise giving, provide data behaviour insights to the sector and support the sector in growing individual philanthropy.
DONATE goes live on 28th March with our launch partners and goes national at the end of this year.
As an RSA Fellow you can help in a number of ways:
- Attend the launch event (see top of this blog)
- Provide us with your feedback
- Encourage your local arts / heritage / cultural charity to sign up. There is no joining or annual fee to be part of DONATE
- Offer your help to Culture Juice by getting in touch
- DONATE at a participating organization
- Join our Twitter feed (@NFSUK) or participate on our Facebook page
Learn more at www.nationalfundingscheme.org (new site from 27 March).
Whilst obviously significant for all of us, today’s budget feels like a bit of pre-2014 Spending Review foreplay. So, provoked by Peter Bazalgette’s inaugural lecture as Chair of Arts Council England here at RSA this morning, the fantastic questions from our new Chair Vikki Heywood, and the launch of a new RSA-ACE project called Towards Plan A: a new political economy for arts and culture, here is an attempt at the real thing: a zero-based budgeting exercise for the arts.
Zero-based budgeting is often threatened across public services and departments, but in reality rarely happens – there are too many powerful, vested interests in maintaining some sense of status quo. It, (or usually the Treasury in some form), essentially asks the question ‘what would happen if this programme/initiative/whole area of public spending was no longer funded? Rather than tweaking spending decisions, zero-based budgeting gives the chance for more radical solutions to fiscal challenges.
Whether you are lover and hater of public spending on the arts (and please let’s not call it ’investment’ – it’s spending, stupid), try this scenario.
Imagine that the Government decides to withdraw all national funding for the arts (apart maybe, from a tiny amount of art education in schools), and also bans local government from supporting the arts. What do you think would be the consequences of such a decision, in the short and long term?
Your predictions will, of course, only be predictions. But they may still help you to understand what ‘market failure’ in the arts might really look like, and build a clearer picture of the purpose of state subsidy for the arts.
I tried this with a friend, and we came to a simple conclusion… which, in a crude attempt to get some comments on my blog, I will promise to reveal once I’ve got five predictions from other people.
You can have this for free – a paper I wrote on ‘art as evidence for public policy making’, titled Speaking Doubt to Power.
As Matthew Taylor noted in an earlier blog post “it is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset”. Two key questions for staff in the Fellowship department are:
1) How can we support Fellows and provide them with new opportunities to help further the RSA’s charitable objectives?
2) How can we recruit new Fellows who have the potential to help us deliver the RSA’s mission?
A large number of Fellows are willing to donate their time and expertise to help others with projects that aim to have a positive social impact, and many organisations that share similar goals to the RSA would welcome the opportunity to access this expertise. By partnering with these organisations the RSA can:
- Provide new engagement opportunities for Fellows
- Help further the charitable objectives of our partner organisations and so in turn further the charitable objectives of the RSA
- Raise our profile within new communities of individuals committed to positive social change, and recruit new Fellows from amongst these leaders and thinkers
- Contribute to the growing sense that the RSA Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when solutions are needed.
Given the increasing value of partnerships I thought it would be useful to outline the RSA approach to collaborative working.
Selecting the right partner
Selecting the right partner is important and before moving forwards both organisations need to give some thought to the following questions:
- Can we create something we wouldn’t be able to create on our own?
- What do we want to gain from the partnership and how realistic is it that we will achieve our aim?
Honesty is the key to success. In most cases, it is useful to have a broad conversation at the initial exploratory meeting which covers what both organisations would like to achieve in an ideal world, and then work back from this to reach more realistic objectives.
Honesty is the key to success.
Getting it right at the beginning
Once both organisations have identified some potential areas for collaborative working, a number of steps should be taken before moving forwards. They are:
- Establish clarity of purpose – ensuring both organisations are clear on what the common purpose is as well as the shared objectives. It is easy to put in place very broad over-arching objectives; however these should be teased apart to be short, simple and specific.
- Establish roles and responsibilities – complex partnerships with different strands of work often have several people involved and so clarity of individual roles and responsibilities is important.
- Operational plan – put in place a plan which outlines what will be happening when, and who is responsible.
- Measures of success – ensuring that there is some system for measuring success against each objective.
- Review – agree an initial date to review the partnership to discuss progress against each objective.
- Memorandum of understanding – before commencing with the partnership a document outlining all of the above should be agreed – note this does not necessarily have to be a formal contract. This document is essential to ensuring the on-going success of the partnership and should form the basis of future review meetings.
Give and take
Partnerships tend to fall along a spectrum with more transactional partnerships at one end contrasting with much closer working relationships at the other. Partnerships are not static, and so there needs to be some flexibility regarding governance and processes. As a general rule, the more transactional the relationship the more you need strong governance (e.g. a contract for a reciprocal advertising arrangement across several forms of media), whereas more collaborative partnerships need to have greater flexibility built into the governance and processes.
Partnering with the RSA
If you would like to discuss partnering with the RSA please do get in touch.
For more guidance about partnerships and collaborative working, please do take a look at “Collaborative Leadership: How To Succeed in An Interconnected World” by David Archer FRSA and Alex Cameron. This publication is available from the RSA Library.
Adam Timmins is Deputy Head of Fellowship Partnerships at the RSA, you can contact him on email@example.com or @Im_AdamT. For more images please visit http://www.flickr.com/groups/rsa/
It is always a great feeling when a piece of work that has been long in the making finally goes public. This particular report was a real labour of love. It emerged from your scribe being deeply impressed by a set of ideas about how the brain relates to the world(and vice versa) and wanting to do whatever I could to help others to share in that understanding.
Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard explores the practical significance of the fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the financial crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a literal loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, articulate, instrumental world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, holistic but relatively tentative world view of the right hemisphere.
The report features a dialogue between myself, Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, and Psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist, about the practical and policy relevance of his critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. This discussion informed a workshop with policy-makers, journalists and academics and led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique and clarification of the argument, and illustrations of its relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.
For the purposes of promoting the report, I have frequently been asked to encapsulate the argument in as few words as possible, but this is not at all easy and feels like crafting the last of many Russian dolls. Iain’s argument is most fully expressed in a huge book that is about 350,000 words long, our report (including appendices) is about 45,000 words, a previous blog post gave an overview of the argument in 1400 words, and the RSAnimate (over a million hits) lasts about 12 minutes. So you can whittle it down, and the RSA has done what it can, but a simple elevator pitch is dangerous because there is so much nonsense out there about left and right brain thinking that anything too brief runs the risk of being misinformation.
Thankfully, in the report we have much broader capacity to develop the ideas, and in the afterword I reflected as follows:
The book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it.
“During the course of reading Iain’s work, the process of preparing and conducting the dialogue, organising the workshop, and compiling and writing this document, I have often felt somewhat overwhelmed by the effort, but never underwhelmed by the goal. The theory is big, difficult and audacious and most people don’t quite know what to do with it. So, there have been times where it has felt like the drive to extract importance out of the interest has been in vain, but when I reflect on the initial motivation, and the potential prize, it feels more like we just have to try differently, or better.”
You see, the book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it. You can think of it as a grand theory for our times. The argument is pitched at too general a level to ever reflect a single direct cause of a single phenomenon, but once the narrative as a whole seeps into you, it feels like it is relevant to everything around us, and you want everybody else to be able to see the world through that lens.
One of the respondents, Independent Researcher Simon Christmas FRSA captured the value of this kind of contribution well (p67):
“It has given me a better way of grasping many things I had already thought or felt. By doing so, it has made those thoughts and feelings clearer and more meaningful. Iain himself notes that there is little in the book that one might not arrive at by some other route. I think that is key to its impact: it speaks to an audience who have already fumbled
their way to an intellectual discontent for which Iain’s argument provides a shape, a story, a narrative.”
We tried our best to make sense of the ‘so what?’ question and made some headway that I hope others might build on. In the report, John Wakefield’s (former political journalist) extended feedback piece(p71) gives a particularly careful account of the extent to which we should expect practical implications from such a nuanced and high-level thesis, but for the press release we were naturally a little more direct:
“This issue has deep significance for anybody working to affect social change. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate world view of the right hemisphere. This cultural trend can be illustrated in a range of current policy issues, for instance:
- An obsession with exam results in school education
- The creation of absurd forms of bibliometry and citation counting in higher education research assessment exercises.
- Funding cuts for arts and humanities courses that struggle to justify themselves in instrumental terms.
- Pervasive ignoring or denial of the scale of our climate change problem.
- Political failure to think through the implications of the fact that beyond a minimal threshold higher income does not equate with higher wellbeing.
- Political failure to question the imperative for economic growth.
We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can. Iain McGilchrist
Some might think the report has a negative quality, in that it’s basically a critique of the modern world and the direction we are heading, but at its heart it is hopeful, constructive and even optimistic: Iain closes the dialogue as follows:
“I call myself a hopeful pessimist. In respect of where we are currently headed, yes, I am a pessimist. In respect of our potential to adapt and change quickly, I am hopeful. I sense that people are sick of the current worldview in the West… In response to my book, people of all walks of life all over the world have written to me. They are looking for a change in direction, and I think all I have done is to give them courage to believe in what they already really know at some level – something which has not been articulated in quite the same terms before. In many ways my message is a very positive one. We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can.”
A Note on Reading the Report:
I really hope as many people as possible can read the full report. However, if you just press ‘print’, you’ll get about 48 pages double-sided, so it is worth thinking of what you most want to read by going to the contents page in the PDF first. The dialogue with me and Iain is split into three parts: 1) The argument(p8) 2) Challenges to the argument(p23) 3)Practical Implications(p31). The Reflections section (p51) includes 14 feedback pieces including Ray Tallis, Mark Vernon, Tom Crompton, Rita Carter, Theresa Marteau and others. The Appendices (p80) feature details of a three-hour workshop discussion where Guy Claxton, Mark Williamson, Matthew Taylor and many others spoke, and has been included to capture some of the best ideas generated collectively, but will probably only be of interest to those who are truly committed!
I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes. But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.
RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School
Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012. It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.
Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.
I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:
- Work with your local schools. You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships. Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables. In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
- It is hard to involve local business. Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them. This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
- Use your RSA network of local Fellows. In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event. A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools. National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town. A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school. And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods. He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
- Only do what you feel comfortable doing. When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough. But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.
Which brings me to my own learning point. When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.
We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling. Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.
This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working. It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon. It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact. Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.
This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
What next? Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14. And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.
All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.
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.