As a recent RSA Fellow I take a keen interest in the education lectures from afar. On thursday I attended my first daytime one on School Wars with Melissa Benn, co-founder of the Local Schools Network who was talking about her book and the merits of the comprehensive system with Lucy Heller. Lucy, managing director of ARK Schools, was representing the Academies.
I remember Lucy Heller from the infamous Channel 4 Education conference in 2010 where she shared the podium with Stephen Heppell and Rachel Wolf among others. I seem to remember she had very forthright views on the use (or not as was the case) of ICT in schools. Perhaps that is why information about her on the internet is rather meagre whereas Melissa Benn has a blog, a twitter feed and even a wikipedia entry. I am still trying to get footage of that day out of Channel 4 for some of the comments made at the time.
The speakers were eloquent and polite but both, to be honest, seemed rather out of touch as did a lot of the audience. Speakers, even the audience, kept referring to taxi drivers’ views as if they meant anything at all. This was quite amusing and reminded me of Myles na gCopaleen’s satirical construct of The Plain People of Ireland. I wondered if anyone would quote what a teacher had said at any point?
Becky Francis, head of education, RSA, sat between them doing a good job of chairing. However, I was unconvinced. She did mention that the RSA had academies and I do know those academies have a cultural remit completely different from some chains I could mention.
Melissa was very gracious about Lucy’s Ark Academies and it was all very polite and Lucy even mentioned she could have been Melissa’s publisher at Verso at one point.
But I just think they are hopelessly out of touch with the cultural change going on in society in general and in education specifically. There was an obsession in both camps about GCSE’s as if these were the only passports to success and that was the agreed nostrum for everything and how many pupils did or didn’t get to Oxbridge from families who have free school meals.
Ofsted was mentioned quite a lot as some kind of salvation for failing schools on both sides. I always marvel at how Ofsted have achieved this high reputation. They are in no way a formative assessment body and any aggregation of data they do have, they seem to keep to themselves for strategically timed press releases that self serve the organisation. What is needed is a truly professional and independent inspection and mentoring body that can sell services to schools to show them good models based on all the data they have but rarely release. For years I have suggested it might be useful to have an inspection system that makes transparent what schools do well and then to link to specific instances and aggregate lessons through simple searchable data techniques then bring in some good mentors for heavens sake not just grade professionals like some 1950′s infant’s test. There just hasn’t been any will to up this professionalism and why? Because rather than engage in pedagogy Ofsted is more concerned with number crunching a small subset of easily definable metrics that give the government purchase on some semblance of accountable attainment but which bear no relation to learning in the wider world. And I am afraid the wider world is beginning to breach the school walls and as pedagogy turns more into heutagogy aided by technology in some cases there is a rapid cultural change beginning to happen. Arguing over the carapace of old and outmoded systems doesn’t cut it I’m afraid. But I won’t go into that argument here. It just seemed the obsessions with qualifications were to the fore on both sides without any reflection on what it is to actually “learn”.
One of Melissa’s arguments was that the climate of Free Schools and Academies would bring an unstable atmosphere into the local areas and there was lots of anecdote but no really hard evidence on both sides. I was amazed that the lack of transparency about differing funding arrangements wasn’t mentioned once and that Academies and Free Schools and especially the NSN have a cloak of invisibility when it comes to these inequalities. Money was mentioned but in terms of benefactors. It all seemed very patriarchal on both sides. That school is something to be done to you rather than something you do!
Our education system, when it comes to exams, is beginning to run its course. More and more pupils are sensing a lack of authenticity. People like Melissa and Lucy should listen to this interview I did with Pete Bell at TedXLondon. He sets the exams for a major examinations board!
My other concern was the issue of chains of Academies. This seriously worries me. I have been in public meetings where representatives of the DfE have freely admitted they are very concerned about this aspect of scaling up one particular model and corporate governance beginning to take hold. There are alternatives to both systems and I could quote reams of exemplars but I’ll point to Neil Hopkin as one particular head responsible for more than one school. Both protagonists would do well to read his blog.
I am afraid I am deeply cynical about LAs as a teacher who kept coming into conflict with them over innovative and ground breaking projects being pulled down by petty bureaucratic paperwrok at local and governmental level. I once had to get a letter of permission from the government to set off a plastic water rocket in Regents’ Park for an after school science club – I still have it framed on my wall. But I am no fan of Free Schools either because when it comes down to it the government would like us to believe we can teach any way we like but still sets a whole new bunch of parameters that can be easily quantified and measured by Ofsted. Let’s face it – there is no true freedom in the curriculum and all this propaganda involving “rigorous” and soft subjects is totally ridiculous it is a false dichotomy. The arts have brought in as much income for this country over the last few years as the financial sector and with less ethical concerns.
I am afraid part of the session at the end consisted of barracking by Westminster councillors; this was unfortunate for them really and didn’t give a very good impression. Even when I worked for Westminster it had, possibly, one of the less favourable reputations in the country for school management; ever zealous about cutting back on services and funding but not much support or scaffolding for teachers and their professional development – always too top down – thank goodness the TeachMeet movement is putting paid to that attitude all over the country.
It was a stimulating afternoon but judge for yourself and listen to the whole session here. You don’t have to be a fellow and they are all free so I’d urge people to go along if they have the time.
I noticed Francis Beckett writing in his blog that he is considering giving up his subscription (Why I have got to cancel my RSA subscription) – I’d urge him to get into those RSA Academies and have a look around – he might be surprised at what he sees. There is localism instead of corporate governance for a start. I am pretty upbeat about lots of innovative and forward thinking about how to run schools and I think that there are several elements that are obvious to anyone who has been in the game for some time:
- great leadership
- community involvement and parental engagement
- mentoring and learning for both staff and pupils
- excellent channels of communication
- local and involved governance
- increasingly good use of ICT
Why polarise the issues – the real war will be fought when more innovative models start to roll out. For me it seems it is about interleaving the school within the community. It is not about structures two away from the communities we serve. My recent interview with Dan Roberts of Saltash community school might give an insight into the way things are going. To be quite honest the new educators aren’t interested in old battles – they just want to get on with new ways of learning that are more democratic and more effective.
Francis Beckett also wrote on his blog:
“There was no educational debate at all..” And I will agree with that but the difference is I am trying to change it and I’ve become a Fellow to help that process along.
There is an educational revolution going on out there and you won’t get the news sitting in the back of a taxi.
There are numerous organisations coalescing around these ideas:
Learning Without Frontiers
Computing at School
I could go on but I would challenge the RSA to stop acting as a conduit for debates around old media and bring in some new blood, the bloggers, the teachers, headteachers and parents who are evolving new and highly agile systems of education. Bring them in – stir things up a bit and create a bit of change to see things anew.
And the Gas Mask?
Well it was a threat that never became a reality. And also at the end of the debate a somewhat elderly gentleman sitting next to me, turned to me and sighed, and said:
“They didn’t say anything – just a lot of hot air…”