Author Archives: louisethomasrsa

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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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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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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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75% of the adult working population can’t add up, and guess whose fault it is?

Last week saw another example of an attempt to mire education in an unhelpful debate about ideology (see Ian’s previous post for another).

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last week released a report on adult literacy and numeracy which claims that three quarters (that’s 75% for the seven and a half out of ten of you that couldn’t work that out) of adults of working age in the UK don’t have sufficient functional numeracy skills to get a good pass at GCSE.

Edward Leigh had put the deficiencies in basic skills among the adult population down to the ‘progressive’ education of the 1960s and seems to believe little has changed as he was quoted by the BBC saying:

“It’s down to teaching. As a country, we’ve got to accept that since the 1960s we have performed woefully in international league tables…We’ve got to accept there’s something wrong with our teaching.”

Heartening then to see Barry Sheerman’s subsequent attack criticising the use of  ‘thin’ evidence to make ‘wild accusations’.

Seeking to raise levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy is welcome, and the PAC clearly has a duty to investigate the issue. However, associating percieved failures of progressive education practice in the 60’s with modern teaching practice prevents us from moving forward with serious and honest debate.

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Lunatics, caning, dumbing down and Shakespeare by rote – can they really think that?

strawmanStraw men are rife in the debate on education. Anyone who has tried to stand up for student voice and been accused of ‘letting the lunatics run the asylum’ (as we have), or has defended the importance of knowledge and been told that they oppose skills, will recognise this fact.

We are proposing a series on this blog that highlights ‘straw men’ arguments when they occur in the educational debate – so we’re asking for input from our readers!

Why do I think this is important? It’s because I’m so bored of spending so much time disavowing positions I never held (see the Campaign for Real Education’s wonderful description of what ‘progressive’ means) before being able to engage in a debate – and there are real debates to be had.

It’s easier to assume that because someone believes in relevance they are against Shakespeare, or that because they advocate Shakespeare they are for teaching by rote, but I simply don’t believe it is true. Such characterisations make the conversation harder to have, and most of the time we probably all agree on more than we think – or like to think.

Once a week we will highlight a straw man from among your suggestions and try to understand what is actually going on in the said debate. Please send us examples when you see them!

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The difficulties of blogging on education


There is a big drive right now towards improving the RSA’s presence in the blogosphere – RSA Projects teams are being encouraged – and supported – to blog on their various areas of expertise. Arts and Ecology have an excellent and busy blog, Design and Society, Design and Behaviour, Prisons and the Social Brain are new and a fascinating insight into the diversity of the projects (and people!) here at the RSA.

We the Education Team have been blogging for some time now, with varying degrees of success and frequency. However, I’ve been finding it difficult and our blog account is full of my abandoned, half written blogs. Why?

It’s partly because I find it difficult to stick to writing short posts on a single idea and always tend to get distracted and go off on tangents. Like this one.

But it’s also because education feels like a particularly contested field – both ideologically and personally – where the stakes are high. All that makes it difficult to write about without being controversial.

We’re told that this is OK – that we are blogging as individuals and that the blog is the place for our opinions, thoughts and provocations, rather than meticulously thought out pieces of writing. We have organisational go ahead to say what we think without worrying too much.

However, we also have a responsibility to the reputation of the projects that we run, the partners we work with, and – most importantly – to the schools we work with, their learners and their teachers, whose lives and careers are subject to plenty of scrutiny and critique as it is.

So, can we embrace the open, collaborative, opinion driven climate of the blogosphere without courting damaging controversy? If not then our account is going to remain full of half written pieces that I found the inspiration to draft, but not the courage to post.

But we will try, and all we ask is that those who read these posts take them in a generous, thoughtful spirit and then comment to tell us why we’re wrong 😉

– Louise Thomas


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