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Cambridge Primary Review puts DCSF on the defensive

It’s a shame that the DCSF response to (RSA Fellow) Robin Alexander’s thoughtful Cambridge Primary Review was so – well – unthoughtful.

The report includes a core emphasis on dispelling the “policy-led belief that breadth and standards are incompatible, when the evidence consistently shows the opposite – that one requires the other and the best schools achieve both”. It calls for higher standards across the curriculum, with the humanities and arts being given the same emphasis and quality of teaching as numeracy, literacy and science teaching.

And the response from the department?

“English children were recently recognised as being the highest achieving in maths and science among European countries.

Which is great, but is that it?

Either the department’s argument is that a narrow emphasis on success in maths and science tests to the detriment of other elements of the education of children does in fact result in those children succeeding in maths and science tests.

Or, and I suspect this is more likely, the defensive nature of the response means there is no attempt to engage with a counter-intuitive, but well evidenced, assertion that breadth begets success even against narrow measures.

There isn’t even any of the usual attempt to argue that the department deplores teaching to the test (see Ed Balls’ comments on this last year) or that all areas of the curriculum are important. For once the rhetoric matches what the policy drivers seem to imply.

We need open, accessible debates about education that help the public get into some of the complexity of these issues.

The DCSF’s blank-faced autopilot reponse to such a thorough and ambitious review doesn’t help. The public deserve better.


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Richard Layard – What Makes a Good Childhood event at RSA

Just a quick post to point out that Professor Lord Richard Layard will be at the RSA this Thursday at 1pm for an hour to debate the Children Society’s A Good Childhood Report.

And it is a key debate, because the report is both important and problematic.

It is important because it amplifies a voice often unheard – that of young people’s own sense of their well being. To raise this call above the clamour surrounding measures of outcomes defined as important by government is a real achievement.

However, it is problematic for two reasons (which I explore in more depth in the RSA’s online journal). One is that the implications are not thought through well enough in its recommendations. The second is that there was little emphasis on the importance of young people’s active citizenship. This opportunity to explore the relationship between association with others for a common purpose and combating the deleterious effects of individualism seems to have been missed.

Let’s hope the inquiry carries on to ask questions in this area. In the meantime, the RSA will continue to develop its thinking through the Manchester Curriculum pilot, (more of which soon).

P.S. For those who read the blog but don’t know the RSA, this Thursday’s event is part of the RSA’s regular series of free lectures and talks from top class speakers. Anyone can access them for free either by attending at John Adam Street, via download, or through iTunes.

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Extend schools even further

It was great to see Sir Cyril Taylor arguing last henry-morrisweek for the extended schools programme to go beyond longer hours and services provided in schools. His comments are welcome, because it is all too easy to see extended schools as a glorified child care operation, and it could be so much more.

Schools are uniquely placed to become real hubs of the community. They could be providing young people with learning experiences that are not wholly divorced from the real world, and act as generators of social capital for young people and adults alike.

Many schools are currently structured around the need to put young people somewhere out of harm’s way for the bulk of the working day. They are not designed to produce young people that are part of a community, that know how to make connections with people outside of school, that are capable of taking action to make their areas better, or that hit the ground running when they leave school and are expected to be adults.

Some schools are. Sir Cyril talks of Comberton Village College (one of the Henry Morris-inspired schools set up in Cambridgeshire as hearts of their communities – I went to another one) as a shining example. We at the RSA are working on a project entitled Schools without Boundaries that seeks to develop more. So you’ll be hearing from us on this topic again.

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The value of schools in a new austerity

On Monday, the Liberal Democrats published their plans to invest more in education, and yesterday I argued they missed the chance to set out a vision which was more responsive to the long lasting economic downturn we face.

So, how could they have responded?

Well, there are three responses.

One is essentially ‘more of the same’ like we saw yesterday. Admittedly, Nick Clegg did propose some changes, notably around school accountability and investing in reducing class sizes for 5-7 year olds, which brought the focus on inputs rather than outcomes.  But that hardly amounts to the vision we need.

A second is a reactionary response which amounts to a drive to ‘stop caring about kids and just teach them’. It will likely push for narrow accountability measures to evidence only young people’s subject knowledge, promote a traditional didactic classroom, while a wider local role in partnership or local service provision will be clearly labelled of low priority to the school system.We can see the threads of this in the Conservative position of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb as they emphasise traditional content and subjects, and their aim to greatly increase the numbers of schools independent of local authorities.


We need a new, third, alternative – one which addresses our society’s need for a new generation of citizens who, individually and collectively, are capable of meeting the major social challenges we face, including those thrown up by our economic circumstances, not to mention sustainability, shifting demographics, and so on.

The question becomes, ‘what are the institutions like which can foster a new citizenship in this country?’.

There are no easy answers, but Sir Cyril Taylor made a valuable point when he looked back to the experience of Henry Morris’ Village Colleges, which I think reflect to two things:

1. If we are to equip people to be active citizens, we must take account of their need to be knowledgable, their competence (not least to keep learning throughout life), and their networks and relationships that create the possibility of impact and change.

2. We should explore the idea of schools far better connected and embedded in their local areas. One promising piece of work is the RSA’s Manchester Curriculum – a pilot running this summer of an area based curriculum developed around on Opening Minds.

There will be further news on the RSA site and here about the progress of the Manchester Curriculum soon.

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Liberal Democrats education spending plans miss the point

The Liberal Democrats published their spending priorities for education on Monday, but by ignoring the debate about the content and purpose of schooling they missed the chance to make any contribution to the real debate in education.

In pledging to scrap tuition fees, increasing spending on poor kids at school, and grow child care provision, Nick Clegg made great play of counting the cost in our current economic circumstances. So, he also announced a range of cuts, notably tax credits for 2.5 million people and the Child Trust Fund.

But, in the context of ballooning public debt and rising unemployment,  a ‘more of the same’ argument isn’t what we need.

It’s not just that all parties are agreed to protect and even grow slightly their spending in education (hence why the headlines are less about the investment, and more about the cuts). Schools are likely to be relatively protected, but not from pressures that greater hardship will bring.

In coming years, a rise in unemployment seems likely to contribute to a range of social problems affecting communities – for example property crime and hate crimes, none of which will be good for young people’s wider well being. At the same time, money for third sector community services, a notable example being youth work provision and youth centres, seems likely to shrink. Schools are likely to be amongst a lessening number of community institutions and services, and the pressure they are under to account for the welfare and caring role may well grow as a result.

We currently have a push-me-pull-you approach in the education system, where league tables and initiatives like the National Challenge on the face of it push schools to emphasise subject knowledge (though evidence seems continually to grow of various institutions gaming the system). At the same time, a raft of initiatives pull schools to think about the wider well being agenda, most recently flagged up by the A Good Childhood report. SEAL, PLTS, and extended schools are notable examples.

This approach seems likely to creak even further in the coming climate of austerity, and needs rethinking.

The parties need to articulate a vision for schools which show how they will place them at the heart of communities, combatting the growing problems of acquisitive individualism by resourcing local people to live a fulfilling life in greater association. 

It can, and as Sir Cyril Taylor points out in his new book, A Good School for Every Child, has been done.

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Sir Ken on why we should leave common sense out of education

Just got back upstairs from Sir Ken Robinson’s lunchtime talk at the RSA based on his new book, The Element. In his talk – among other things – he sought to explain why the educational debate is so cyclical.

Now I’ve heard this argument before, but as usual, Ken Robinson says it very well. People, he said, see education as obvious. Everything about it is obvious – it’s common sense. “I went to school – I know what education’s about”, and “my school was like this, and it never did me any harm” are arguments frequently heard in support of this or that form of education. We should go ‘back to basics’, they tell us, meaning back to what they were told was important when they were at school.

As Sir Ken put it, because education seems obvious, people tend not to question the core assumptions from which they derive their common sense judgements, and their ideas about what the ‘basics’ are. It’s almost like assumptions about education are so deep seated, drilled into us from and throughout childhood, that they are a fundamental part of how we understand ourselves, our own lives, and the lives we want our children to lead.

Add to this the fact that everyone has an opinion because everyone went to school (or didn’t – in which case they’re even more likely to have an opinion on it) and you have the makings of an ideologically entrenched debate. Add further that everyone has a very personal view of education based on that of themselves or perhaps their children and you have the makings of an emotional debate.

Perhaps this explains the special inertia of the educational debate, and its vitriol. Because no one is an outsider.

How do we take the fact that education is something that includes everyone, and make that a democratic, citizen-centric, force for good, rather than fodder for a reactionary, populist, vitriolic debate?

PS The audio of Ken’s talk will be on the RSA site before long – check back here in a couple of days


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