What are Schools For? – conference report

What are Schools For? (10 Dec 2010, London) was the launch event for the UK’s Whole Education network, whose partners number many of the country’s most dynamic organisations seeking to effect educational transformation.

“So far the active partners behind Whole Education include: ASDAN, Building Learning Power, Channel 4, The Co-operative College, Discovering Language, Flow, Food for Life Partnership, Futurelab, HTI, Human Scale Education, Incerts, Innovation Unit, Learning to Lead, Open Futures, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, RSA Opening Minds, School-Home Support, Sixth Form Colleges Forum, Skill Force, Speakers Trust, UK Youth, ViTaL Partnerships Ltd, World Challenge and The Young Foundation.”

I went along wearing two hats: (i) as an Open Univ. researcher I’m tracking the shifting learning landscape with a particular interest in software tools for sensemaking in educational and workplace contexts, with a project in the Learning Futures programme for schools; (ii) as Chair of Governors at Bushfield School. I wrote a report to seed strategic discussion with school governors, but I’m adding it to my Future Schools blog posts, since it may be of wider interest to other schools, but also post-secondary educational institutions, and indeed, workplace learning: this is about skills and habits of mind for learning and life at large.

Whole Education sets out the following manifesto, which resonates closely with my school’s ethos:

“A gulf has opened up between what education systems provide and what children and young people need. Our schools and colleges rightly try to ensure that young people are literate, numerate and gain academic qualifications. But the emphasis on testing and passing exams often squeezes out other skills and qualities that are just as vital in today’s world.

Whole Education brings together leading education organisations that demonstrate a commitment to a more rounded education for young people, an education that:

  • develops a range of skills, qualities and knowledge that young people will need for the future
  • makes learning more relevant and engaging for young people, with them at the centre of their own learning, providing a mix of practical and theoretical learning
  • recognizes that learning takes places in various settings, not just the classroom, and the best schools engage the wider community in learning”

What are our common beliefs?

The event (Press Release) was a series of keynotes, breakout sessions led by W.E.’s partner organisations, partner exhibition stands, and a closing plenary discussion.

Keynotes (it was all videoed so I assume these will appear at some point):

  • Dr. John Dunford, Chair of Whole Education: Highlighting the current opportunities for those involved with education.
  • Dr. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College: “Why we need an end to factory schools”.
  • Prof. Guy Claxton, University of Winchester: “What’s the point of school?”
  • Caroline Waters, Director of People and Policy at BT Group: “What are employers looking for?”

I’m still digesting the many ideas. This was an inspiring mix of highly committed people who are used to thinking out of the box and blazing new trails in education.

My take-home from the meeting is currently as follows:

We are already in good shape, but there’s so much more to do. The work we have been doing over the last 4 years has clearly built on Bushfield’s many strengths, and tackled its weaknesses: as TLO concluded from their audit, we have been embedding BLP faster than most. BLP are W.E. partners, as are ViTaL Partnerships Ltd, who have developed complementary tools for tracking and strengthening Learning Power in individual pupils and cohorts, which we are about to investigate.

Another W.E. partner is Open Futures [www.openfutures.com] who focus on linking learning with life skills such as cooking or filming. We concluded that we are already doing many of the things they champion, although they will of course have potentially useful resources.

But the W.E. movement makes clear the many other opportunities to reimagine school, when the world is changing faster than ever. The question is which if any might we pursue in a clear-headed, strategic manner, which take into account the demands we already make on staff.

Things we might consider trying this year:

  • Pupil voice and leadership. Learning to Lead [www.learningtolead.org.uk] were championing greater pupil voice and leadership in schools, by moving beyond a small pupil group of specially elected children, to encourage all pupils to form groups and engage in practical projects either within the school or wider community. They had examples from primary as well as secondary. This resonates with the last Ofsted’s recommendation that we engage more often with the Student Council and perhaps empower them with a budget to put to specific projects.
  • Community engagement. A growing number of educational thinkers are pointing to the need to build rich relationships with one’s local community (international and virtual links are also good, but there’s something special about the immediate community in which pupils grow up). Just one of these is W.E. partner Learning Futures [www.learningfutures.org], whose most recent booklet (PDF) talks a language we need to grow more fluent in:

School as ‘Base Camp’: A genuine 21st century school should be a base camp rather than a single destination – a place where students meet to explore learning opportunities that take them into their communities, onto the web, and to local businesses and employers. It should also be a hub that creates connections with families, and with learning partners beyond school.

  • Partnering to secure external grants. We had one conversation with people from a trust focused on creativity in schools. Their job is to resource schools with skilled staff who can boost creativity, but they need funds from e.g. government programmes. It was clear that if we built good relationships with such people, when a new funding call came out, we would be much more prepared to seize such opportunities and catalyse innovation. Is this something governors can help with, or should it be staff — or both?

Longer term issues:

  • Freeing up the curriculum to experiment. There is a tangible anxiety in most staff when people start “getting creative” with school: how will we cover the national curriculum, and will we risk our SATS results? This is why it takes courageous Heads to do this stuff, but there are many schools who have found ways to cover the curriculum, and yet make space for new focii and ways of learning better suited to the demands of the 21st century.I’ve stumbled across different examples, including:
  • Joined up schools. I attended a great session by the Head of Bedfordshire East Schools Trust (BEST) [www.best-schools.org.uk]. Without getting starry eyed, he gave numerous examples of the power you can get when schools work well together, both regarding what goes in school, and how they engage with community, LA, and other external agencies like social services.
    • The buying power of a large network
    • Joined up liaison with social services
    • Staff and pupils crossing boundaries
    • Imagine a secondary school inviting a middle school to lead the teaching of a particular subject because they recognise that their staff are actually better at it!
    • As central services run out of money, they are committed to doing this themselves (Financial, Personnel, Leadership and Management Consultancy, Data Management, Examinations Management and Administrative Services.)

I was struck by their vision/mission statement (PDF), in which they articulate something I’ve always dreamed of for Wolverton schools: to have a collective sense of responsibility for the children as they move through the system:

We will take collective responsibility for the success of all children in BEST schools. BEST will be a powerful voice and one local accountable organisation delivering a commonly designed curriculum from 2+ to 19.

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