Schools compensating for society

It seems that overall educational achievement is being increasingly threatened in the UK by external factors, ranging from lack of family support, poverty and health.

Politicians find it easy to blame schools for the apparent drop in standards of literacy and numeracy – this is no help. The real answer lies in providing greater support for families. Schools have the capability to do this but lack the capacity. They are shackled to a unforgiving performance regime.

If we could free up schools and fund them to support families, we could make a difference. Schools could co-ordinate local care and health services to provide guidance and support for parents. If we can no longer rely on families to fully support the development of children, then schools, with the help of the community, will have to fill the void.

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Moonshot: The power of collaboration

One of my favourite classroom ‘simulations’was called Moonshot. The class were given a list of 15 things that they had with them on the moon and asked to rank these in order of value. So Oxygen was handy, a compass may be not etc. Their responses were collected in and then they had to repeat the same task in groups. We then compared the scores individual v group and as you might expect, the group scores were always better than the individual.

The web offers us a unique opportunity to collaborate with problem solving. We can turn the planet into a giant brain if the people with the ideas are prepared to do so. And do we need to. Some of the challenges that we face need all the brains we can muster. Stephen Hawking has just suggested that he thinks it unlikely that we can survive on the planet for much longer.

The implications for education? Begin with the premise that everyone can make a contribution. The process of design, from ideas to manufacture, involves a host of skills that many of us possess to some extent. Some schools teach Philosophy for Children (P4C) which can give children of any age the opportunity to get to the core of an issue. Facilitate co-operative learning through web based problem solving from an early age. Embrace the full range of problems and challenges from energy, recycling, health, house building, agriculture, transport, care etc. Encourage a local community based micro model to begin with and then expand. It is the process of education that we can change most rapidly and most easily (and where teacher autonomy can be protected).
The next generation will have to deal with all the challenges, perhaps we should have the good grace to step aside and let them make a start.

National v Local

The centralisation of control of education is leaving schools prey to even more political influence. The pendulum will swing back – this usually happens as a result of an eventual realisation that things are not working and because of a weakening of the collective amnesia as to what the merits of the old order were.

Local management of schools brings the system closer to the parents and communities which the schools serve. One of the areas of collective amnesia at the moment is about schools being an organic element of a community – if you detach the system from its immediate roots it will inevitably wither.

Schools work best when the community and the parents feel ownership. Teachers feel valued for the wider aspects of the work that they do in supporting families and community.  The curriculum can be adapted to suit local needs. The whole process is a partnership, a joint enterprise. It surely takes the proverbial village to raise the child.

The current climate is pressing schools to collaborate – the economies of scale in the current climate are too great an advantage to forgo. The threat of take over by an external asset stripping academy chain is another driver towards local networks. What we miss at the moment is local leadership. This has been exacerbated by the relentless attacks on Local Authorities and it is difficult to see where leadership will emerge. Such a need for local leadership is not confined to schooling – locally organised responses to economic hardship, energy supply and threats from a lack of planning control also stand out.

Atomised societies are difficult phenomena to change.  What we need are successful pioneers to emerge and for their achievements to be shared and understood. There must be a community somewhere in the Western world that is leading the way, but where?

The Co-operative Multi Academy: A true beacon.

Amidst the churn and chaos of the current school system, with the shrinking Local Authorities, the growth of Academy Chains and Free Schools, there is a ray of hope. Any school that wishes to bind itself to others, for the sake of security from predators and for the sake of achieving a little of a collaborative’s  political and economic power, might consder the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS) Multi Academy model. This model provides the philosophy and the framework for schools to collaborate on secure and equal terms.

The  SCS structure enables schools to link together, either on the basis of needing to receive or wanting to provide support, without losing identity and without being seen as predatory. The structure also provides a distinct role for the Community and where possible for the Local Authority. The model probably provides the best chance that some of the Every Child Matters mechanisms and Community Leadership philosophy, will survive.

The Academy Trust is established around a series of representational forums for staff, parents, pupils and the community. Each group has equal voting powers. The Trust is also built on the tenets of the Co-operative ethos (self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, ethical values) which, in the developing ‘fighting for a place in the lifeboat’ atmosphere, is a true  ‘beacon’.

Education, Growth and Cottage Industries

It is clear that this country faces an enormous challenge. The current policies seem to involve tinkering with some infrastructure projects and waiting for the private sector to pull us all through. There are big problems with this kind of ‘traditional thinking’.  For many, there is no confidence in the future and they may avoid expansion. 

Other, successful countries, appear to have far more ‘pro-active’ strategies – they make long term investment commmitments to the new industries such as the scientific, the green, the creative, the new media and knowledge industries. The positive aspect here is that we have very good resources in all of these.

A good plan would be to target the young. On line programmes that encourage innovation, creativity and business skills could be freely available at schools and colleges. Each local centre would need access to resources and coaching as well as help from mentors from the local community. What could help are cottage industries that keep us actively engaged in enterprises that will save the country money (i.e. by avoiding imports and the consumption of expensive and unsustainable goods and services) and make money by selling products and services abroad. We need to develop our co-operative projects and explore ideas about  the sharing and making better use of resources. Greater working from home could reduce transport costs and can free up office space for conversion to housing.

We have some of the best universities in the world, a strong international reputation for education and a command of one of the world’s  main lingua franca. If we cannot entertain huge numbers of foreign students here then we need to get serious about on line delivery systems.

It is to be hoped that traditional political, social and economic prejudices do not prevent this assembly of  the kind of people who can develop a radical and prophetic vision and who could set these things in motion. Our country needs them.

Competition amongst schools: Thinking it through

Imagine a city with 6 secondary schools. In a year or so these may be schools that are part of national academy chains, free schools, stand alone academies or schools that have stuck to a partnership with what remains of the Local Authority. The unavoidable logic of competition is that schools will compete for the best staff and the best students. The market forces would also suggest that one school will eventually prevail and swallow, supermarket style, all of the others. So now we have 6 ‘outlet’ schools which undergo the usual rationalisations and economies of scale – one head, one bursar etc. The question arises – what incentive is there for such a chain to persevere with the students from the most deprived areas – the ‘loss making’ parts? Extra funding from government? Perhaps. But what we will have is an absence of local choice for parents and staff and an absence of local competition and diversity. Who would referee disputes and concerns on behalf of parents and students? What happens when the chain goes bust? What would be the costs of restoring the schools to autonomous operation? These are surely fundamental questions and without some notion of answers, who thinks it is safe to pursue the current policies with such haste?