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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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!

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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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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?

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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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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…


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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.

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