RSA Opening Minds

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Left behind and losing out

Left behind and losing out: the government’s failure of leadership on the digital revolution in education

Three technology stories caught my eye during August.

First a story in the TES:

“The world’s ‘most wired’ nation, South Korea, expects to replace all paper textbooks with electronic tablets at its state-run schools by 2015.” TES 29th July 2011

Second, The Times reported (25th August) that Amazon has just launched a textbook rental service for the Kindle. It will only be a matter of time before it comes to the UK.

Then we had the Ofcom story on smart phones in the bathroom! Apparently two thirds of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socialising with others, nearly a third resort to their handset during mealtimes and nearly half admitted using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet.

The research[1] also shows that teenagers are ditching more traditional activities in favour of their smartphone, with 23 per cent claiming to watch less TV and 15 per cent admitting they read fewer books.

These changes are bound to affect the curriculum and teaching and learning. So where is the government thinking and leadership on the digital revolution in education?

Tim Loughton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Children, did actually make a speech at the BETT technology conference earlier this year. But when it comes to policy and the curriculum Ministers have nothing to say.  Neither Michael Gove nor Nick Gibb talk about technology nor appear to see its relevance to learning in the modern digital era.

Schools in England did well during the first decade of the century to catch up on using ICT in education.  They moved from begging and borrowing second-hand PCs from parents and collecting supermarket vouchers to buy computers, which was the legacy of the 1990s, to having ICT suites, laptops for teachers and electronic whiteboards in most classrooms and broadband in every school.

Learning platforms have become the norm enabling students, staff and parents to embed ICT in all aspects of learning, assessment, and communication.

Even then we should not kid ourselves.  The last annual report by the education technology agency, BECTA, before its abolition said that only just over one third of secondary schools and just one third of primary schools were, on a range of measures, judged ‘e-mature’[2].

And such is the pace of change we are in danger of getting stuck with old technology and falling behind other competitor countries. Tablets and smart phones are just two of the many developments that will have an impact on schools.

Just at the point we might need it most we have no agency to provide the vision, leadership and strategy, ensure that schools have the necessary bandwidth and Wi-Fi  infrastructure and are steered on how to make the most of the emerging technologies. BECTA is no more.

The coalition government took a very conscious decision to slash by £100m the harnessing technology grant, that underpinned schools’ ICT investment, and used the money not to cut the deficit but to fund Free Schools. That tells you all you need to know about the government’s priorities.

And despite the government paying lip service to improved social mobility the home access fund, that provided free computer and internet access for families who did not have these facilities, has been abolished. A practical and effective policy to reduce the digital divide has been axed.

Of course ICT is only a means to an end of improved learning but it is an increasingly important means. To quote Tim Loughton:

“More than ever before, technology is of profound importance to young people’s development. We know it supports good teaching, we know it helps students get better results, we know it helps to reduce truancy…the time has come to place technology at the absolute centre of our aspirations for a world class education sector.” BETT Conference, 13th January 2011

Fine words. Pity there isn’t any coherent strategy or leadership to put them into effect.

Robert Hill is Chair of RSA Opening Minds


[1] Communications Market Report: UK, Ofcom. August 2011

[2]  Harnessing Technology Review 2009 The role of technology in education and skills, BECTA, November 2009

End of term curriculum scorecard

The phone-hacking scandal masked the blizzard of announcements that poured out of the Department for Education shortly before schools broke up for the summer term.  In case you missed them here is a summary of three key announcements relating to the curriculum – along with headline scores and comments on each of them.

Revised professional standards for teachers[i] – score 8/10

Sally Coates, principal of Burlington Danes Academy, has generally done a good job of re-writing the standards for teachers in clear plain English. The one major omission from either Standard 2 (Promote good progress and outcomes) or Standard 4 (Plan and teach well structured lessons) is any acknowledgment of the need to develop the skills of young people as independent learners.

The nearest we get to it are requirements to “demonstrate knowledge and understanding of how pupils learn and how this impacts on teaching”; “encourage pupils to take a responsible and conscientious attitude to their own work and study”; and “promote a love of learning and children’s intellectual curiosity”.

But the thrust of new standards, which come into force in September 2012, is on teachers as experts who “impart knowledge”. That, of course, is important and necessary but on its own is not strong enough as a model on which to build sustainable teaching and learning for the 21st century.

School and college performance tables – statement of intent for 2011[ii] – score 5/10

This document describes the changes that Michael Gove is going to make to the performance tables that will be published in 2011. In comes more data on schools’ performance in narrowing gaps in attainment, the performance of high, middle and low attaining pupils, new value added measures and revised progress measures. Out goes contextual value added scores.

What parents will make of all this data remains to be seen. In theory schools will have less incentive to ‘game’ the exams system by just maximising the performance of their pupils on the GCSE grade D/C borderline – but in practice achieving five good passes (including English and maths) will remain the main yardstick for many schools as the floor targets are raised – and it will be joined by the new kid on the block: the English baccalaureate.

But the main reason for marking down the proposals is the Secretary of State’s continuing obduracy in drawing the baccalaureate so narrowly – music and religious studies still don’t get a look in.

Qualifications for 14-16 year olds and performance tables[iii] - score 6/10

Earlier this year Professor Alison Wolf produced an excellent report on 14-19 vocational education. But she is wrong to assert, as she does in the foreword to the consultation on the relative value that should be accorded  to vocational qualifications, that schools only adopted these qualifications to pile up points in the performance tables.

Yes, the equivalence of these qualifications in terms of GCSEs needs sorting out. But also let’s remember that many schools adopted these qualifications because the exam system was not fit for purpose and they wanted qualifications that affirmed achievement for students who saw themselves as failures. These qualifications have helped to engage thousands of students in learning.

So we need to beware of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The bar for including a vocational qualification is in future to be set very high – it has to pass four hurdles:

Does it lead to progression?

Is it of appropriate size?

Is it challenging enough and is it externally assessed and graded?

Has it got a proven track record?

Even then any qualification that passes these tests will only count as one GCSE and only two such qualifications will be included in the headline performance tables.

Will these reform drive more students to focus on an academic core or will they, when combined with the reversion to a ‘one shot’ exam system, increase alienation and disengagement among the very cohort that is holding our school system and economy back?

A better approach would be to undertake more fundamental reform and design a new baccalaureate system from scratch that builds in and recognises progress, allows for breadth, enables learners to go at their own pace, maintains a focus on key skills and does not compromise on quality.

Robert Hill is chair of RSA Opening Minds


[i] http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/t/teachers%20standards.pdf

[ii] http://www.education.gov.uk/performancetables/Statement-of-Intent.pdf

[iii] http://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=consultationDetails&consultationId=1766&external=no&menu=1

Time to confess – TES carries some important stories

I have a confession to make. It does not quite rank alongside the mea culpae coming out of News Corp over the phone hacking scandal but I feel I should get something off my chest. So here goes.

I am sorry to say that though I subscribe faithfully I do not read each and every page of every week’s TES. There I have said it.

Truth to tell I suspect I am not alone! However, in being so cavalier I have discovered that I may actually miss important education stories.

What has prompted this revelation and bout of soul searching? I was about to dump a recent edition of TES and was flicking through it to check that it was an edition I had read. My eye was caught by the following headline: View from the bridge: what pupils are missing[1].

The article is reporting on a series of interviews conducted for the charity, Heads, Teachers and Industry by my former Special Adviser colleague, Conor Ryan[2]. He talked to over 50 business leaders and educationalists on what is wrong with the current curriculum and how they want to see it redesigned.

For those of us committed to the competences and skills inherent in the RSA Opening Minds framework the findings come as no surprise But it is worth quoting a few of the views because they are such an affirmation of what Opening Minds is all about.

“Things employers want aren’t being developed in schools – creative curiosity, emotional intelligence, team-building. They are much more in demand in this current environment.” Jane Frost, Individual Customer Director, HMRC.

“Pupils should learn analytical and softer skills which permeate the curriculum, but not to the exclusion of knowledge.” Tim Melville Ross, Chair Royal London Insurance and former chief executive of the Nationwide Building Society.

“Anything that teaches analytical capability and argument is likely to be good.” Jon Moulton, Founder and managing director of private equity company, Better Capital.

“The important thing is that young people learn to articulate and express themselves. It’s also about how you work together, share information, build teams, make tough decisions. In the world of work, those skills are absolutely prime.” Heather Rabbatts, Former managing director 4Learning and executive deputy chair, Millwall FC.

“Citizenship is very important as today’s young people are tomorrow’s global citizens. It’s about what young people can do to make a difference in wider society – their local church, mosque, community group or the country.” Dr Noorzman Rashid, Director of for board and leadership services, Harvey Nash, plc.

The great and the good of the business world also identified the need for very high standards in English, maths and core knowledge of key elements of science, great literature and the country’s history.

Michael Gove and Nick Gibb will certainly like that bit of the HTI report.

But rather than continually harking back to the supposedly golden era of their own school curriculum the coalition’s Ministerial education team should also reflect on the rest of the findings from this report. It provides a formidable and authoritative challenge to the way they are currently approaching the review of the National Curriculum.

Robert Hill is Chair of RSA Opening Minds


[1] See http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6092141

[2] See http://www.hti.org.uk/html/ab/ab307.php?newsID=10108

Levers and educational ends and means

The former education secretary, Estelle Morris, made an interesting speech this week. Addressing school leaders at the National College for School Leadership conference in Birmingham she argued that politicians in England used four levers for shaping or controlling the direction of schools policy:

  • Structures, where Estelle recognised that it was far too easy for politicians to fiddle with the way things were organised
  • Markets and the development of greater choice for parents – which she broadly supported
  • Accountability, through the way that inspection and performance tables operated; and 
  • Curriculum

The nub of her case was that it was legitimate for politicians to use the first three levers as a way of giving effect to the values, the policies and the manifesto outcomes on which they had been elected, but that it was wrong for them to interfere or dictate on the curriculum. The curriculum should be left to school and professional practitioners.

Estelle went on to argue that if school leaders were going to enjoy greater curriculum autonomy then it was encumbent on them to be more rigorous about what worked and to develop a stronger research base to their practice – in line with how the medical profession works.

We need more of this grown-up dialogue between politicians and professionals about how policy development and implementation works in practice. Having said that I have some reservations about the argument Estelle has advanced.

First, the politicians have more levers in their toolkit than Estelle’s list suggests. Ministers are able, for example, to legislate and regulate (and have done so voluminously over the passed 20 years).

Funding is also a major lever – think how David Blunkett used the Standards Fund, the impact of Sports School Partnership funding, the behaviour changes that flowed from setting aside a modest amount of money for school travel plans, or how the coalition is using the Pupil Premium to set priorities and influence practice.

Another under-rated lever is what is sometimes called the power of the ‘bully pulpit’ – the ability of Ministers and the Prime Minister to use the power of elected office to set out a vision or champion a cause. Michael Gove’s advocacy of social mobility is a case in point.

But there is another flaw with Estelle’s argument. It is wrong to exclude school leaders from being able to influence how school structures, markets and accountability frameworks operate. There needs to be more interaction between policy makers and professionals about the design and implementation of these policy levers.

Dialogue on these issues will minimise the likelihood of gaming and creating perverse incentives as policy makers understand better how school and school leaders are likely to react to particular initiatives. There will be stronger ownership of policies among school leaders. And policy makers will be able to get a better balance on where and how to draw the line in being prescriptive about delivery of policy outcomes.

In this regard Estelle accepted that while the national literacy and numeracy strategies were valid as effective ways of addressing underlying problems, it had in retrospect been wrong to insist on them as the only way of improving literacy and numeracy standards.

If it is wrong to exclude school leaders from the first three domains, it is conversely also misguided to exclude politicians from the curriculum domain.

It seems to me legitimate for politicians to say that society values or the economy demands a particular emphasis or outcomes – and that this should be reflected in the curriculum for schools. However, the ‘how’ on delivering those outcomes can and should be left to schools – which can be assessed through the accountability framework.

So the whole interaction between politicians, policy makers and professionals is far messier than Estelle’s ideas might suppose. What is really needed if we are to avoid the constant and chopping of policy is a serious and sustained dialogue on the purpose and objectives of education in the 21st century.

If we could get some consensus on that, then the debate about the levers would take place in an entirely different context.

Robert Hill is chair of RSA Opening Minds

Shared practice the route to better practice

Last week I was re-reading the McKinsey report on how the world’s best schools system just keep getting better[1]. The report includes an interesting case study on Aspire schools – a group or chain of charter schools based in California.

As they visited the different Aspire schools the McKinsey researchers noticed a striking similarity in their teaching practice. This consistency had not come about because a particular teaching and learning model had been mandated from on high. Rather, the researchers concluded:

“This non-mandated uniformity is a product of collaborative practice. Instructional materials and methods are co-developed by teachers, tested in classes, and the results studied. What works well is shared widely and adopted by peers. What does not work is discarded. The expectation of teachers is not only that they should develop and employ effective practices in the classroom, but that they should share them throughout the whole system. Best practice therefore quickly becomes standard practice, adding to the pedagogy.

In other words the Aspire schools had developed a strong commitment and ethic of disciplined collaborative learning. Teaching and learning had become a constant process of action research – with teachers continually reviewing and refining on the basis of the evidence how they approached their role.

This contains and important challenge and lesson for Opening Minds school.

The schools involved in Opening Mind share a passionate commitment to a curriculum that develops competences, as well as promoting the knowledge and love of subjects. But practice across Opening Minds schools varies significantly in many areas – for example:

  • the exact list of competences schools use;
  • how the competences are defined and described;
  • how competences are integrated into the curriculum, schemes of work and lesson plans;
  • whether and how progress in the competences is assessed;
  • which subjects and Year groups are included in the Opening Minds part of the curriculum; and
  • what proportion of the timetable is dedicated to Opening Minds.

The intention of RSA Opening Minds cannot and will never be to squeeze every school or academy practising Opening Minds into the same mould. That would be foolish and it would be wrong. The diversity of practice provides a rich source of practice and innovation. And the context of every school is different.

But at the same time the scale of diversity presents a risk. Is there enough of what is shared and common across schools for there to be something distinct that represents Opening Minds?

And if Opening Minds merely represents a general commitment to using competences rather than applying and developing particular competences what basis is there for being clear about what quality practice looks like or assessing the added value a competence-based approach to the curriculum brings?

RSA Opening Minds has been set up to wrestle with and make progress with these challenges. The answer to diversity cannot be a centrally prescribed Opening Minds model. In this age of autonomy and freedom schools would not wear a de rigiste regime and in any event it would be anathema to everything that Opening Minds stands for in terms of shared collaborative learning.

We have set a few ‘must dos’ when schools sign up to be Training Schools or apply for Opening Minds accreditation. But we have still allowed a lot of scope for difference and diversity of practice.

However, the scale of diversity does mean that we have to work hard at assessing, sharing and evaluating what we are doing under the banner of Opening Minds and, on the basis of those discussions, work our way towards greater consistency of practice.

This will be difficult and at times painful. It will involve an openness and preparedness to change – where the evidence and informed discussion agrees a way forward.

The future of Opening Minds will lie in the willingness of schools to embrace action research as core method of operation. Accepting this challenge will not just benefit and advance the cause of Opening Minds it will also help to produce more inquiring practitioners, better teachers and more responsive schools.  

Robert Hill is Chair of RSA Opening Minds


[1] http://ssomckinsey.darbyfilms.com/reports/EducationBook_A4%20SINGLES_DEC%202.pdf

Co-operation – the word of the month

There I was on holiday in the US in the town of Fredericksburg, just over 50 miles south of Washington DC. Profound thoughts about education, the curriculum and the future of schooling were furthest from my mind. After a pleasant meal at a local diner I was strolling back to my hotel with my wife looking around the centre of this town, which featured tragically in the American civil war.

Suddenly I was aware of a sign that said announced: ‘Fredericksburg City School Board: Administrative Offices’. But it was not that wording that caught my attention. Hanging underneath the sign was the following:

‘Word of the month: Co-operation’.

Intriguing and typically American I thought to have a ‘Word of the month’. And interesting that they have chosen the word co-operation.

But I would have thought little more about the sign were it not for what happened the next morning. Whenever I travel abroad I like to look at the local papers – particularly in the US because I am able to read the language more fluently! The local papers give you the flavour of the place you are staying in and help you understand the local culture.

The front page story of the local paper was headlined: ‘Beach turnaround impresses the Feds’. This was not a story about cleaning up after the gulf of the BP oil disaster but was about the dramatic improvement of a high school in another part of the state of Virginia. And significantly the key to the improvement had been a ‘collaborative process’.

The school improvement journey followed by this US high school would be very recognisable to those in the UK familiar with how London Challenge and City Challenge have operated.

Extra funding was used to provide support from other schools and colleges, revamp the school day, regularly monitor and re-evaluate students’ progress, involve residents, businesses and parents in raising educational aspiration, provide intensive coaching for the principal and, crucially, support teachers to ‘improve their instructional technique’ and lesson planning.  The whole enterprise was being overseen by a Turnaround Partnership.

The result is that most students who had been seriously behind with their grades have now caught up.

Reading this story both elated and depressed me. At one level it is always uplifting to read of success stories and of progress being made, particularly when it enhances young people’s life chances.

On the other hand I was depressed because it seems to me that in England we are deconstructing most of the collaborative structures that will support this type of school turnaround. The baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

Yes, school-to-school improvement support has been built into the coalition’s plans, with high performing schools supporting or taking over those that are poorly performing. But the mechanisms and initiatives that were intensively marshalling resources across the piece and acting as the catalyst to organise and brigade collaborative school improvement effort are going or have gone.

The London and City Challenge initiatives have ended. Those local authorities that understood and were effectively engaging on this agenda have largely been stripped of resources and capacity to undertake this role. A lot now rests on the emerging Teaching Schools and chains of academies. 

But if you look at the US, Canada, Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia you do, as McKinsey research[1] on how the world’s most improved schools systems keep getting better found, also need ‘a mediating layer’. Despite all the tensions between schools and local authorities, local government still has a role: not to run schools – we are way past that and school autonomy is here to stay.

Rather we need a local presence to steer and mediate, not to control, the local tapestry of schools. The role is about providing education vision, raising aspirations, challenging performance, brigading support, enabling collaboration and involving parents and the wider community.

Without such an infrastructure I fear that co-operation is unlikely to play much of a part in the next phase of educational reform – let alone be the word of the month.

Robert Hill is chair of RSA Opening Minds


[1]http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/social_sector/our_practices/education/knowledge_highlights/~/media/Reports/SSO/Education_Intro_Standalone_Nov%2026.ashx

A primary challenge for Opening Minds

Opening Minds is embarking on work with primary schools to test out what a competence-based curriculum might look like for primary-age children. With the primary sector’s more cross-cutting and discovery-based approach to teaching and learning we expect there to be a natural fit with how Opening Minds has evolved at Key Stage 3.

There is also an exciting opportunity for secondary schools and their feeder primary schools to work together to develop an integrated curriculum across Years 5 to 8 or 9.

However, as Opening Minds develops this venture it is worth looking at the results from some recent research published by the Department for Education[1]. The research focuses on the progress of pupils during Key Stages 2 and 3. It analysed pupils’ progress in reading, writing and maths during years 3-9, based on a sample of termly teacher assessments for over 70,000 pupils in 10 local authorities.

Some of the results are not surprising. For example, pupils who were behind at the previous Key Stage are less likely to make progress than those who had achieved the expected level or above. The research also confirms that boys are less likely to make progress than girls in all three subjects.

However, some of the other findings provide a lot of food for thought.

  • For many pupils, progress during Key Stages 2 and 3 is not linear and continuous; episodes of regression to an earlier level of attainment, or remaining at the same level for a period, are part of the norm.

 

  • Patterns of progress are highly individual; there is low concentration of pupils into one pathway or another, especially in reading and writing.

 

  • The more progress a pupil made in the previous term, the less likely they are to make progress the following term, and vice versa.

 

  • More progress is made per year in Key Stage 2 than Key Stage 3 in all three subjects, but especially in reading and writing.

 

  • The majority of variation in pupil progress occurs within schools – rather than between schools.

 

  • Pupils make most progress during the summer term and least progress during the autumn term. The latter finding is not altogether unsurprising – for example, the autumn term sees pupils moving to work with a new teacher or to a new school. In addition the long summer break means that pupils have to retain their learning from the previous academic year over several weeks away from school. But why more progress is made in the summer relative to the spring term is not so obvious.

 

So the research identifies some fascinating trends but does not fully explain why they occur. In particular is the lack of non-linear progress due to inherent tendencies of pupils? Or are these patterns of progress more influenced by the ways schools organise their learning systems and focus interventions at different points in the academic year or the Key Stages?

We won’t be able to answer all these questions with the development of an Opening Minds primary model. But it will be a good challenge to see if we can help produce more even and continuous progression of pupil learning.

Robert Hill

Chair RSA Opening Minds


[1] How do Pupils Progress During Key Stages 2 and 3? http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RR096.pdf

Curriculum and inspection

– the latest Ofsted thinking

Ofsted’s consultation document on its proposed new inspection framework has been welcomed in many quarters[1]. There has been general support for the idea of narrowing down the range of issues that are put under the microscope in school inspections. But the document contains some woolly thinking – particularly in relation to the curriculum.

Under the proposals Ofsted will, in accordance with the provisions in The Importance of Teaching the 2011 Education Bill, conduct inspections that focus on four key areas:

  • the achievements of pupils at the school;
  • the quality of teaching at the school;
  • the quality of leadership in and management of the school; and
  • the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school.

Where, you might ask, does the curriculum feature in that list? Not very prominently is the answer.

In the section on the ‘Quality of teaching’ there is, from an Opening Minds perspective, a welcome statement that recognises the importance of skills as well as subject content:

“Good or outstanding teaching combines strong subject knowledge with effective teaching of the skills needed to learn and understand a subject effectively.”

But despite that statement most of the section suggests that inspection will in future focus heavily on assessment.

The current school inspection framework examines the curriculum as part of assessing the effectiveness of a school’s ‘provision’. Under the new inspection regime the curriculum, along with a whole host of other issues such as relationships with parents, safeguarding, narrowing gaps in attainment and working in collaboration with other schools, is brigaded under the heading of ‘The effectiveness of leadership and management’. It’s almost as if the curriculum is a secondary issue!

The one paragraph in the whole document on the curriculum comes in this section:

“A broad, balanced and relevant curriculum is a key factor in raising attainment, improving behaviour and attendance and promoting personal development. In schools where the curriculum caters well for the individual needs, abilities and interests of the pupils, there are increased motivation and better outcomes. We propose to include the quality of the curriculum as an important consideration in judging leadership and management.”

It’s entirely right that school leaders and school development plans will be expected to engage with the curriculum, but assessing and thinking about the curriculum should also form part of the inspection framework focused on teaching and learning. What is taught ought to go hand in hand with how well it is taught.

A cursory look at any of the thematic subject reports that Ofsted produces shows the impossibility of making judgments on the quality of teaching and learning without at the same time commenting on a school’s curriculum. Moreover as schools enjoy more curriculum freedoms in the future one would surely expect that Ofsted might be looking at how schools are using those freedoms.

The good news is that the Ofsted document is a consultation – you have until Friday 20th May to register your views on what is being proposed.

Robert Hill is Chair of RSA Opening Minds


[1] http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Ofsted-home/Publications-and-research/Browse-all-by/Documents-by-type/Consultations/Inspection-2012-proposals-for-inspection-arrangements-for-maintained-schools-and-academies-from-January-2012

Progressive reform is coming

Slowly but surely the building blocks for progressive curriculum reform are being laid.

That may seem a bold statement given the narrow and ideologically-driven terms of reference for the Coalition Government’s current review of the National Curriculum. But two other developments during February give more cause for hope.

 First, the Royal Society published an authoritative report looking at how the education system could increase the size of the pool of students able and equipped to study a STEM (science, technology, engineering or maths) subject at university[1].

 The report points out that although A-levels are still the most popular qualification for gaining entry to university, the emergence of competitor qualifications has inevitably created a patchwork of provision. Schools and colleges now have to make “tough decisions” about which qualifications and subjects to offer for study post-16.

 “Progression routes from some of these qualifications are unclear, which leads to confusion, and this increased ‘choice’ is actually creating inequity in the system, with students potentially being unable to access the course(s) they desire or are best suited for. Moreover, having such a wide range of qualifications on offer makes it incredibly difficult to measure and monitor the effectiveness and performance of the post-16 qualifications system reliably”

 The Royal Society says the way through this is to follow the example of Scotland and Wales, reform the A levels system and introduce a baccalaureate approach that enables students to study a wider range and increased number of subjects.

 This Blog has consistently argued that the reforms proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson provided the right template for creating a modern curriculum and qualifications framework. What killed the attempted reform were the forces of reaction rallying to defend A levels. The Royal Society’s analysis shows that A levels in their current form have lost another friend. Reform of post 16 qualifications must come – it is a matter of time.

 The second item of encouraging news was an article in The Independent on 17th February. Rachel Spedding highlighted how the existing exam system all too frequently focuses on students’ ability to demonstrate knowledge rather than their capacity to think and apply that knowledge.

 She describes how this is putting students, including the most able students, at a disadvantage when it come comes to apply for a university place – particularly at Oxford and Cambridge.

 “Now that university places are to become scarcer than ever, students have to demonstrate that they are not automatons; trained to repeat facts, but are capable of carrying on a conversation and developing an idea.

“While exams may still be stressful and difficult, what they are not testing is a student’s response to unfamiliar material; quick thinking under fire. In some subjects, students who appreciate the syllabus and the mark scheme can score the points needed to get their grades without being pushed to their intellectual limit.”

So students are struggling when faced with the entrance tests for Oxford and Cambridge. They find that they are expected to demonstrate “intellectual curiosity and the use of logic”. And experienced admissions tutors are testing applicants in their respective subjects beyond the narrow bounds of what they have studied during their sixth form years.

Perhaps more interesting than anything else is Ruth Spedding’s conclusion:

“Something has gone badly wrong in the education system, now that we have ended up with so many students glaring at admissions tutors for asking a question they are not expecting; unable to deal with its unpredictability.

“What we need to work towards is an education system that gives students the skills to solve problems creatively and with structure, rather than depend on a set of rules.”

Amen to that Ruth – and come and have a look at the RSA Opening competences which are designed to develop exactly the sort of sills you are talking about!


[1] State of the nation’ – preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education – http://royalsociety.org/State-Nation-Increasing-Size-Pool/

Learning = knowledge and skills

Matthew Taylor, RSA

Michael Gove is right to order a review of the National Curriculum. And it is also right to slim down the curriculum so that focuses it on outcomes rather than on the process of how subjects are taught.

But the Education Secretary is wrong to focus the review solely on subject content – on what pupils should know or be able to do by a particular age. The suspicion will be that by setting a narrow brief he is seeking to predetermine the outcome.

Learning is of course about knowledge but it is also about acquiring the skills that are necessary to enable and equip young people to be effective employees, citizens and lifelong learners. Subject content and learning skills should go hand in glove – it is not a question of ‘either or’ but ‘both and’.

 But the call for evidence for the National Curriculum review mentions only the former and not the latter.

Michael Gove argues that in focussing on getting the subject content right he is emulating the example of those countries that have the most successful education systems. That in itself is a debateable point (see TES for 28/01/11) but his argument fails to get to the root of what is wrong with the English educational model.

There is too much testing and there are too many resits. We are producing students who, as many universities will attest, are adept at passing exams and acquiring qualifications but are not equipped to study in depth.  

Too many students are being drilled to pass exams at the expense of being supported to be independent, creative, resilient learners. As a result we have higher education institutions running courses in study skills, research and referencing, writing and presentation, in order to help their students manage the rigours of studying at degree level.

Potentially the introduction of the English baccalaureate could make this problem worse as schools desperate to improve their position in performance tables scramble to push their students through the full set of qualifying subjects.

This could mean a joyless and dull education for those capable of making the academic grade. But there is also a problem with those students who choose a more vocationally orientated education route. An increasing number of students (still not enough) are leaving school having achieved basic levels of literacy and numeracy. But too often these students lack the sort of skills the CBI says are necessary to be effective in the world of business and commerce – skills such as: self-management, team working, problem solving, customer care and the application of numeracy and literacy. 

The RSA is part of the swelling chorus of voices calling for the curriculum to move beyond an outdated academic/vocational and knowledge/skills divide. Schools that practise Opening Minds, which the RSA has been promoting and supporting over the past decade, do not do so at the expense of subject content. Opening Minds is about a different approach to teaching and learning – an approach that develops and empowers learners at the same time as they broaden and deepen their subject knowledge.

It is surely telling that while the RSA spent virtually nothing on marketing or promoting Opening Minds (and had no support from Government) over 200 schools claim to be using it in some way. Opening Minds appears to be solving a real issue of pupil engagement in learning, as well as addressing challenges of secondary transfer, and providing young people with the skills they need for successful progression.

The RSA Academy in Tipton was purpose built to provide Opening Minds with, for example, classrooms which can accommodate lessons in which the format can switch seamlessly from large group teaching to small group project work.  It’s early days but the Academy’s results are very impressive. Another great example a few miles down the road is one of our Opening Minds training schools, Whitley Abbey in Coventry, which embeds the Opening Minds approach across key stage three and was recently given outstanding school status.

Opening Minds is not the only way to deliver holistic teaching and learning. It is not a panacea or an add-on; to succeed schools have to put time and effort into thinking afresh about the curriculum. But the Opening Minds Training schools, including  the RSA Academy and Whitley Abbey, are showing it is powerful and effective pedagogical model. It is neither anti-knowledge nor anti-subject as its lazy detractors suggest; instead students develop a wide range of competences that sit alongside their academic achievements.

 So let’s have the National Curriculum review. But let’s start from the challenges that schools, teachers and pupils face today and tomorrow now not hark back to what might have worked four decades ago for the academic few; a time when just three per cent of young people went into higher education.

Joined by the world renowned educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, we will be debating these issues as well as launching our Opening Minds accreditation model at the RSA Opening Minds conference on March 11th in London.