Author Archives: Ian

About Ian

Ian is Senior Manager within the RSA Education team. He works particularly on Opening Minds, the Future Schools Network, and one or two developing projects that might never see the light of day so he won't mention them here. Ian's background is mostly in informal education, and community work.

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

RSA Academy recognised in Design Week’s Hot 50

A quick post to mention that we were delighted to hear the RSA Academy and Opening Minds being named in Design Week‘s Hot 50. Sadly the story’s not on their site yet, so I’ll give you a quote instead of a link:

‘The Royal Society of Arts has strongly supported design since it emerged as a professional discipline in the early 20th century…It’s efforts are recognised in this year’s listing as it sponsored the RSA Academy… The [Opening Minds] approach to teaching and learning has been adopted by the academy, which shows the RSA’s continuous hard work in introducing innovative ideas on education.’

Thanks, Design Week!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gifted and Talented kids – victims of teacher ideology?

The emerging nature of the education debate, notably being driven by the Conservative party among others, was revealed today in the Telegraph’s front-page, which shouted that teachers were failing to promote the brightest kids because they ‘fear promoting elitism’.

The Conservatives have been arguing for some time that schools are riddled with evidence of what they term ‘progressive ideology’.  Cross-curricular themes and classrooms where children sit more often in groups rather than rows are two things they point to. The general thrust has been enthusiastically taken up by some, notably the Campaign for Real Education, also quoted in the Telegraph article.

So, in the quoted responses to an ACL report on the now defunct National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth it is unsurprising to see the initial lack of uptake by schools spun as yet more evidence of institutions stocked with education professionals committed to ideologies which run counter to children’s success.

There are two problems with this reponse. The first is that that DCSF are able to point to greater uptake in recent years, particularly since the new Gifted and Talented scheme was put in place, now run by CfBT. 95% of secondary schools are, it is said, now engaged.

If this is truly a problem of entrenched ideology in schools’ staff, it hasn’t taken long to shift…

However, aren’t there other, perhaps more likely, effects at play? For example, our sytem of school based accountability and targets based on the achievement of 5 A-C GCSEs could easily be said  to skew the picture. If I were running a school, with those targets and league tables in mind where would I put my effort? Would I put Gifted and Talented Students at the top of the list, or those students on course for getting D’s at GCSE who could perhaps be tipped over into the government’s definition of success…

This may be part of the explanation for the findings of a recent DCSF-commissioned piece of research that showed that amongst high-performing education systems, schools-based accountability is relatively rare.  Most seem instead to favour monitoring approaches which enables comparison of performance between regions and internationally, while the performance of schools is understood based on their region and the  profile of their intake. Notably those taking this approach include Sweden, much trumpeted by the Conservatives for its promotion of choice and school freedom.

Rather than looking for a debate about ideology, wouldn’t students be better served by a focus on what evidence means for policy and implementaton?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Screen time is up, and book time is down. Should we worry?

The Guardian and BBC are both reporting on the growth of ‘screen culture’ for young people.

In particular, it is pointed out that the numbers of kids reading for pleasure is down from 84% – 74% in the two years from 2006-2008, while socialising on the internet and playing videogames are apparently big winners.

I must say, it first occured to me to wonder how much of this trend can be attributed to the end of the Harry Potter series. I also wonder if the growth of communications use is actually just about multi-tasking facilitated by access to phones or webtools that let kids have easier access to Facebook etc. That is to say, doing the same things kids were always doing but it is easier to text or have an instant message client running at the same time.

Anyway, what really worries me about our analysis of these numbers is that they are never accompanied by any analysis of the quality or propriety of what is being consumed.

Reading is down, and videogames are up. We assume disaster, because we believe reading is inherently good and videogames and the net are at best a waste of time and at worst morally damaging.

But surely the time has come to acknowledge that reading is crucial and irreplaceable by any other media, reading total rubbish is not. Playing certain videogames probably will be a waste of time, while others will stretch the mind and the imagination.

So, coverage of the amount of time spent on reading for pleasure or playing games or watching TV is important. However, without a more evaluative analysis of what is being actually consumed on the different media, it is always more likely to promote a panic which may or may not be justified…


Filed under Uncategorized

The numbers that really matter…?

This week, the education headlines will no doubt be dominated by the political row over the headline figure of 470 ‘failing schools’. Is it good progress, poor progress,  or not what we should be measuring in the first place…  

I have decided to be contrary and blog about other numbers that matter. The road less travelled by and all that.

So, turn away from 30 (per cent A-C GCSE’s) and consider 150. Or Dunbar’s number as some know it.

Dunbar’s number refers to the work of Robin Dunbar, an anthoropologist who argued that the brain had evolved to cope with social networks of about 150 people.

My colleague at the RSA, Matt Grist, is author of the excellent Social Brain blog. His most recent post, Social brains, social networks, big ideas and social change, points to fascinating work being done to combine recent insights such as this from evolutionary psychology with policy and practical application.

The theory goes that you find this number popping up all over the place as the limit to the size of social networks people can cope with. Historical and contemporary examples are dispersed through life like a mundane version of the Valenzetti Equation – the numbers of friends and acquaintances you possess, Christmas card lists, church communities. I might add Facebook friends lists.

If our brains are limited in the social complexity they have evolved to cope with, the idea is that when we try and break these limits we might see problems.  People can’t take in the complexity of the social arrangements, and therefore Alliances become hard to form, social norms are harder to reinforce and so on.

To draw a practical implication of my own, it reminded me immediately of Human Scale Schools.

Dunbar’s number is disputed – is it 150 or nearer 300 as others suggest?  Does is it shift depending on your use of modern technologies like bebo or instant messaging? But the weight of opinion tends towards the view that humans have evolved to deal with a certain size of social network. 

Either way, it is interesting to note that Human Scale Schools tend to contain 300 students or less, and possess a emphasis on the relationships within the school.

Equally, perhaps it should reduce our surprise when schools which experiment with large classes of up to 90 students, as some Opening Minds schools do, find it can work very well.

I’m sure I’m not the first to make the link, but it illustrates the far reaching consequences that such new knowledge could (should?) have on the way we organise schooling in future.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized