Somebody give this organisation a kitemark!

January 24, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

There are many things that might help to explain the proliferation of internships over recent years. Perhaps too many young people lack the ‘soft skills’ demanded by employers in the increasingly important service sector; perhaps there are too many young people looking for graduate level jobs in our low-wage economy; or perhaps many employers are unscrupulously exploiting the abundance of eager young graduates and blaming it on the recession. As always, it is probably some complex mixture of all three. Whatever the specific reasons, I think this proliferation is a symptom of a general failure on the part of one generation to effectively discharge its duty to pass on a society and economy within which the next generation can thrive. This seems to me like a pretty big failure.

That being said, we are where we are, and even if national minimum wage law is enforced in cases of unpaid internships that can be shown to qualify as ‘work’, other forms of internship – paid and unpaid – are still likely to remain. I’ve argued before on this blog that internships should now be conceived of as a kind of near-essential training for the professions and, therefore, should be made accessible to all via grants and loans in the same way as higher education is. I must concede that this is very unlikely to happen any time soon, but one thing that could be introduced fairly easily is a kitemark for organisations offering top-quality internships. (An organisation called Internocracy was at one stage doing this, but it’s unclear whether or not they are still active.) This would recognise and encourage best practice, helping prospective interns (and potential future employers looking at their CVs) to distinguish useful and enriching internships from those that are not. If such a kitemark was introduced, the RSA would come top in class.

There are a number of reasons (apart from the fact that it is paid, which is obviously great) why my internship in the RSA Education Team has been so good. The first, and maybe the most important, is that is has given me some valuable skills and experiences that I did not have before. Perhaps the most rewarding was the opportunity (I call it an ‘opportunity’ now but at times it felt more like an impossible challenge) to design, organise, manage, and deliver an all-day event at the RSA in which 40 students from schools in the RSA’s Family of Academies came to discuss student leadership and design enrichment activities to be introduced in their school(s). Now I think about it, it is fitting that by planning an event in which students would learn about the importance of enrichment activities and design ones for themselves, I was actually enriching myself enormously. Another more recent example is the work that I have done supporting the RSA’s current research looking into in-year admissions in England, which has involved, amongst other things, helping to build, design, format and test a survey sent out to all local authorities in England.

Another reason why this internship has been so good is the fact that the RSA is such an interesting and enjoyable place to be. Coming in every day to work in a beautiful 18th century building which plays host to events and lectures from some of the most stimulating and groundbreaking speakers – including some of my favourite philosophers – has been a privilege. I don’t know what it was like to be around the RSA when Benjamin Franklin or Karl Marx were Fellows, but right now it feels like a place where imaginative, innovative and independent-minded people can come to discuss ideas (through debate and dissent, not brainstorming) and, most importantly, devise solutions to today’s most pressing social problems. I suppose that is what they mean by 21st Century Enlightenment.

The final thing which has made my internship at the RSA so great has been the staff, starting of course with the Education Team. Interesting and interested (I love that distinction), conscientious and collaborative, principled yet practical, light-hearted while hard-headed: the RSA is literally made by the people who work here, and they have made my internship the best it could have possibly been.

I’m now moving on to start a permanent job at the Citizenship Foundation, and no doubt my brief stint at the RSA helped me to secure that position. But I will most definitely keep close tabs on the goings on at the RSA, if only to see if it gets that internship kitemark.

If you care about admissions, we are not done yet

January 18, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

There has been an almost 13-fold increase in the number of academies in England since the Coalition government was formed – from 203 in May 2010 to 2619 in January 2013. It is in the context of this drastic change that the RSA, in partnership with Pearson Think Tank, published our Academies Commission report last week. Unleashing Greatness examines the implications of ‘mass academisation’ on educational outcomes, and explores the risks and opportunities associated with this process.

The report is substantial: it consists of seven chapters tackling issues ranging from school improvement to governance to public accountability. But, perhaps because it is a pre-existing controversy surrounding academies or perhaps because it is an issue many parents have had a direct personal relationship with, the media chose to focus largely on one topic: admissions.

This is not complaint about the media attention. As RSA Director of Programmes Adam Lent said last week, a think tank complaining about media attention is like a fish complaining about the sea. Indeed, instituting and maintaining a practice of fair admissions is crucial if we want to have social justice in our education system, and the Commission had many interesting – and challenging – things to say about this matter. The general message being that the complexity in the current system – particularly the fact that admissions for community schools are administered by the local authority while academies are their ‘own admission’ authorities – could have an adverse impact on equality of opportunity, and negatively affect the most vulnerable disproportionately. The Commission recommends that the system should be simplified and clarified, with parity of practice established between maintained schools and academies and all schools and academies being required to publish data on applications and acceptances for school places in relation to free school meals or other socio-economic data.

The point is that if you care about the implications of admissions policy and practice, and in particular how it affects the most vulnerable young people, then you might be missing a trick by focussing exclusively on students applying to join schools in September. This is because many young people leave and join schools outside of the ordinary July/September round – a phenomenon known as ‘in-year’ admissions. And these young people are likely to be disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged groups, including looked after children being placed with new carers, children of refugees and asylum seekers, and children who have been excluded from their previous school(s). (With respect to the latter group, our research dovetails neatly with the excellent work the Children’s Commissioner has been doing on exclusions.)  Moreover, given the forthcoming changes to housing benefit, it is possible that in-year admissions could become a more widespread phenomenon as children and families move to new areas with lower rents.  Despite its potentially regressive impact and wide-ranging implications, however, the practice of in-year admissions has been largely underexplored.

It is for this reason that the RSA, in partnership with the Local Government Association, is currently conducting research to map the geographical spread, identify the key drivers, and explore the potential implications of in-year admissions in England. We want to know where in-year admissions are most likely to take place, the approaches that local authorities and own admission authority schools take to the administration of this issue, and the groups of children that are most likely to move ‘in-year’.

This is important research that we hope will have implications for policy, practice and priorities. So, if you care about admissions and, in particular, how the most vulnerable are affected, watch this space because we are not done yet.

RSA Academies Student Leadership Conference: Enrichment Through Student Leadership

December 5, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Just over a week ago we invited 40 student leaders from the schools in the RSA Family of Academies to come to the RSA to discuss student leadership and enrichment. We asked the students to prepare for the event by reflecting on what they thought student leadership was for, why it is important, and how it could be improved in their schools; and we asked them to do the same with regard to enrichment. Then at the event we mixed the students up so that they were all working with students from the four different schools – schools in Tipton, Coventry, Lambeth and Redditch – and asked them to draw on their thinking in order to discuss student leadership and enrichment. And, most importantly, to start to design innovative solutions to various student leadership and enrichment challenges. In fact, the main task for the students on the day was to design an innovative new enrichment activity that could be introduced in or across their school(s).

The event links to RSA Education’s three core themes: social justice, democracy, and innovation. We are determined to make sure that, regardless of the fact that schools in the RSA Family of Academies serve communities with above average levels of disadvantage, all of the students have access to worthwhile enrichment activities. We also want these activities to be as innovative as possible and one way to achieve this aim is to give the students themselves a say in how they are designed.

The event was a real success and the students engaged in some genuinely interesting discussions around what it means to be a student leader and what the point of doing enrichment activities is. They also came up with some great ideas for enrichment activities which could be introduced in the Family of Academies, and each school is currently in the process of selecting those which they would most like to lead on. I can’t divulge exactly what those ideas are because I wouldn’t want to pre-empt the result of the schools’ decision process, and, to be honest, the students made me take an oath of secrecy. But I can offer some reflections on what I think both the students and the RSA took away from the event.

Enrichment activities are those activities and experiences that students enjoy outside of the classroom which broaden horizons, develop new skills, and contribute to personal and social development. Part of the point of the event was to emphasise to the students that these activities can make a great deal of difference to their prospects and opportunities after school. The teamwork, creative, and project planning skills that you get from helping to direct your school play; the confidence, communication and public speaking skills you get from participating in a debating competition; or the spark of inspiration that you get from doing work experience at a law firm or going to visit an exhibition. All of these enrichment activities have the potential to be life-changing for young people. We wanted to make sure that the students understood this. Furthermore, we want the students at the schools in our Family to have access to innovative, exciting and challenging enrichment activities and the opportunity to contribute to their design.

We also wanted to make sure that the students understood how important it is to be a student leader and that there are ways to be a student leader outside of your student council. This is why we invited social entrepreneur and RSA Fellow Matt Kepple to speak to the students (read more about this here). Most importantly, we wanted to emphasise that student leadership is itself an enrichment activity and so the students should see the event as an experience designed to broaden horizons, develop new skills, and contribute to personal and social development. This is why the theme of the event was ‘Enrichment Though Student Leadership’: student leaders coming to the RSA to discuss enrichment and help to design new enrichment activities, gaining and developing new skills along the way.

One of the key things that we learnt from the students on the day is just how eager they are to engage with each other, not simply as students from different schools, but as fellow members of the RSA Family of Academies. Part of the aim of this event was to create this atmosphere of community and collaboration across the schools, but we did not anticipate that this would strike such a chord with the students. Almost all of the new enrichment activities that they designed involved the schools in the Family engaging with each other in some or other interesting way. It is clear that the students are keen to learn from and about each other. And it is clear that they can sense the great potential in bringing different schools with different strengths and weaknesses to work together – so can we.

Showing some civic heart

December 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Here in the Fellowship department we are very keen to forge partnerships with organisations that share similar values to our own, the overall idea being that through mutual collaboration we can make a much bigger impact. Recently, our thinking has turned to how we can open up the expertise within our network of Fellows to a younger audience.

Since the summer we have been working with an organisation called Student Hubs to develop a partnership which will bring together the collective expertise, enthusiasm and ideas of RSA Fellows and Student Hubs participants.  Working across the UK, Student Hubs seeks to transform student involvement in social action. They act as a catalyst, empowering students to become active members of their community by promoting social action, social entrepreneurship and citizenship.

As with all of our Fellowship partnerships, by collaborating with like-minded organisations we hope to reach out to new audiences – making a bigger impact and helping our partners to do the same.   With the support of Social Enterprise Berkshire’s Tony Davis FRSA, we held our our first joint event in Oxford two weeks ago, where students from the Oxford Hub met with RSA Fellows for an evening workshop to brainstorm ways to use Oxford’s empty shops to address a social need.

Be it youth unemployment, sustainable food production or community isolation, people came armed with ideas and possible solutions…

Set in the amazing Turl Street Kitchen (Oxford Hub and Student Hubs HQ), the event had a dual purpose: to introduce social enterprise by thinking about how we could use empty spaces for social good, and to encourage a mix of ideas and collaboration between different generations.

And this is what happened (click to enlarge)…

Great conversations made for some great ideas!  But where can we go from here?  Well, Student Hubs offers access to a range of funding bodies to support new ideas, and of course RSA Fellowship provides access to small grants through the Catalyst fund and the expertise of Fellows through the SkillsBank. The RSA South Central region is also launching a pop-up shop advice line for Fellows and RSA friends who want to know how to go about taking their ideas forward – get in touch with Alice Dyke, Regional Programme Manager at the RSA, for more information.

Next up…

We’re hoping to run similar events and initiatives with Student Hubs in 2013 – so watch this space!  Student Hubs are based in universities across England such as Southampton,  Bristol and Cambridge – if you live in one of these areas and want to get involved get in touch with Amy Anderson, Oxford Hub Manager.

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We’re always happy to hear about potential opportunities for collaboration and partnership at the RSA – if you’d like to find out more, please contact our Partnership Development Co-ordinator, Jo Painter.

For more pictures from this and other RSA events,  join the RSA Flickr group.

Philosophy at the RSA

November 29, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Two of my favourite living philosophers have given talks at the RSA over the last few weeks. The fact that these lectures took place at all reminds me what a great place the RSA is to be around, especially for someone like me who is slightly obsessed by philosophy. But I also think that each talk provides a really good illustration of two central purposes of philosophical thinking, and how each links to the work of the RSA.

The first talk – which you can listen to here – was given by Robert E. Goodin, a political theorist whose work on international law and civil disobedience greatly influenced my masters dissertation. Goodin’s paper Enfranchising All-Affected Interests, and Its Alternatives is also a must read for anyone seriously interested in global democracy, or the foundations of democratic theory more generally. In his talk, Goodin discussed his new book titled On Settling in which he argues against the commonly held view that we human beings are constantly striving for more and greater achievement on all fronts. Instead, Goodin argues, the concept of settling, though largely unexplored and underrated, has an incredibly important role to play in human life. In fact, it is precisely what enables us to strive. Settling, Goodin says, “is not in opposition striving. It is rather an aid to striving. We settle on some things so as better to strive for others”.

The most interesting thing about Goodin’s talk is, I think, that his central aim is not really to persuade us to do anything. This might appear strange for a political philosopher because ‘ought’ statements are assumed to be their lingua franca: we remember Plato because he said (among many others things) that philosopher kings should rule; we remember Mill because he said that that society should not interfere with the liberty of the individual if he or she causes no harm to others; and we remember Marx because he declared that the “workers of the world [should] unite!”.

But Goodin’s primary task isn’t to do any of these things. Although his argument has some clear normative implications – implications about how people ought to behave – his main task is try to get clearer about how we do in fact behave. To cut through the bluster and propaganda about the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power” that is often claimed to be our essential nature, and seek, through careful, considered and sensitive analysis, to understand what we are really like. This is philosophy undertaking the crucial task of trying to help explain us to ourselves. It is an essential task because without an accurate account of who we are, how we behave, and how we value, we cannot hope to provide any plausible or realistic principles for action. This links very nicely to the work of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre which seeks to look past the myth of ‘homo economicus’ and to enrich our understanding of how human beings actually behave, in order to help provide solutions to a whole range of social problems.

The second lecture was given by Thomas Pogge and in it he argued that the structure of the global economic order bears some degree of responsibility for the incidence and persistence of severe global poverty. Pogge’s argument is both intricate and important so I’ll save a discussion of it for a blog post all of its own. But for now it is enough to note that Pogge engages in what you might call activist philosophy. By which I mean that he marshals rigorous moral reasoning and an impressive command of the empirical evidence to make us think differently about global poverty, and suggest some ways that we could do better. This intellectual activism also runs through the work of the RSA: applying rigorous enlightenment thinking to today’s social problems and, most importantly, coming up with innovative solutions to them.

Now, the only way that ideas like this can begin to make a difference is for people to hear them, so you should listen to Pogge’s lecture on ending poverty here. But if only there was a more accessible and entertaining – perhaps even visual – way for complex and important ideas to be shared with large numbers of people… RSA Animate anyone?

RSA Fellowship partnerships: sharing is caring

September 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

For the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the value of partnerships and collaborations between organisations.  My role at the RSA is to lead on strengthening and diversifying our Fellowship networks with new pools of expertise and experience.  And one of the best ways to do this is by broadening the range of partners that we work with on a variety of projects and ideas.

Partnerships are really about sharing resources…

In a tough economic climate, finding effective low cost ways to collaborate between charities is becoming increasingly important, and partnerships based on the exchange of human and intellectual resource even more so.

RSA Catalyst funding is available for Fellow-led start up projects, along with an expanse of expertise in the Fellowship and the ability to connect Fellows around the world

At the RSA, we are fortunate enough to have built extensive networks of skills and experience through our Fellowship, which itself extends to 101 countries across the world.  In our ongoing search to strengthen these networks and the impact of the work our Fellows are doing, partnering with other organisations offers an effective way of bringing in new skills and best practice to the RSA.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Ashokaan organisation that’s a world leader in supporting social entrepreneurs.  Ashoka is one of our newest partners and we’re very excited about the potential positive impact working together can have.   With the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network, RSA Catalyst, RSA SkillsBank and our Fellow-led networks across the world, both the RSA and Ashoka will benefit from sharing our networks of people with extensive skills and dedication to tackling social issues; supporting both of our core missions.


UpRisinga leadership programme whose mission is to open pathways to leadership for talented young adults aged 19-25 from diverse backgrounds.  Through this partnership, not only is the RSA able to offer the expertise of our Fellows and staff by running Catalyst workshops and mentoring for the UpRiser’s, but we are also able to increase our engagement with young people in London, Bedford, Birmingham and Manchester, as well as the local Fellow-led networks in these areas.


Winston Churchill Memorial TrustAn organisation that awards British citizens from all walks of life to travel overseas, to bring back knowledge and best practice for the benefit of others in their UK professions and communities.  Our partnership with WCMT brings together two communities of people across the UK: RSA Fellows and Churchill Fellows.  A pilot in Wales this year has matched these two networks and various RSA Fellows are providing advice and support to some of the Churchill Fellows’ projects.

Our existing structure is also well placed to support returning Churchill Fellows to develop their projects and support the impact they make.

With Catalyst funding available for Fellow-led start up projects, the expanse of expertise amongst the Fellowship and the ability to connect them with Fellows around the world, you can see the benefit in sharing human and our organisational resources.

We have many other fantastic partners (you can find out more information here), and each demonstrates how we in the RSA Fellowship department approach our collaborations; with the mindset that we can fulfill our own historic mission and objectives by supporting and sharing with other organisations.

And that is one of the RSA’s greatest attributes…

You see, as a convenor of networks, we can connect top social entrepreneurs with young leaders from UpRising, and projects looking

Time for networking at the RSA/Skoll Centre event

to start-up overseas with RSA connectors and a network of like-minded individuals across the world (psst! We had a great partnered event with the Skoll Centre on starting up a social enterprise overseas, have a look!)

There will be more from me in the coming year, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface and am very excited to share with you our work and the fantastic impact our partnerships have in supporting people to change the world – you see, sharing really is caring.

Jo works in the Partnerships Team and you can follow via @Jo_Painter