What might the education system learn from home schooling?

EHE: misnomer, misunderstood, abandoned


About 15 years ago PLACE in Bedford (Parent-Led and Community Education), a co-ordinated provision for electively home educated families (or EHE), was supported by Innovation Unit funding to navigate the complexities of the legislation then in place. Basically, IU at that time facilitated Tony Blair’s “freedom to innovate” policy, introduced to encourage innovation in education. IU could wave policy and regulatory constraints, and PLACE was one of the projects. It resulted in a case study here – and it is still thriving.

As a former secondary school headteacher and EHE sceptic, I attended the Launch Event in the school hall of the partner school supporting PLACE. Perhaps 150 parents and children gathered to learn more, and by the end of the evening I’d experienced an epiphany. I have never been in a room with a more varied population of learners. Their stories were rational, moving, some of them deeply shaming. There were autistic children, dyslexics, physically disabled, the bullied and taunted, the children of bullied parents and educationally damaged parents, those with vulnerability to illness, children who were carers for their parents. There were international sports reps whose training didn’t allow time for school, prodigious musicians, the intellectually precocious and uniquely and differently talented.

It was a room of square pegs who didn’t fit the round holes of school. (And I wrote the first draft of this post the day following Sky Brown’s Bronze medal, aged 13, at the Tokyo Olympics. Does anyone imagine that she attends school 5 days a week?)

The point is this: For some families, what we call EHE makes sense and the refusal of policymakers to recognise this and to provide minimal supports such as access to universal services or SEND entitlements, or support for public examinations or, heaven forbid, the opportunity to flexi-school (attend part-time) is short-sighted and unacceptably punitive.

The UK’s largest ‘school

EHE has been in the news. Covid made it so. Post-lockdown saw an increase of 34% in EHE numbers. For most students and parents, forced periods of home study were a pain and return to school a welcome relief. But, for a proportion of young people, it was a blessing and they thrived, both personally and educationally. They benefited from managing their own time, from being able to personalise their learning, from the freedom to pursue their passions and interests – or from the removal of an institution that, for a variety of reason, can feel inhibiting or uncongenial.

Let’s face it, for some young people school isn’t much fun. Stressful journeys to school; the cruelty of peers; bullying; strict uniform; friendship problems; regimented movement; boring lessons; an incoherent curriculum; tests; dull homeworks; the pressure of exams; rules, regulations, punishments. Remember school? For some it’s the best youth club in town. For others it’s drudgery and seriously destructive of self-esteem. And for yet other groups, such as those with unmet SEND needs or mental health challenges, it can be purgatory.

So, unsurprisingly, following Covid, EHE numbers surged. The truth, though, is that they have been increasing year on year for more than a decade, but under the radar. And this raises questions that educators and politicians should be confronting rather than avoiding. The Select Committee response (principally, a national register for EHE) doesn’t even get close to addressing the real issues.

This blog post is informed by a commissioned review during 2021 in one Local Authority of its almost 300 known EHE students and families. You can scale this to approximately 115,000 nationally. And just to set that in context, there are almost three times as many EHE students in the UK as attend our largest universities (London and Manchester) and three times as many as attend Cambridge and Oxford Universities combined.

Only the Open University (125,000) has more students than the UK’s EHE numbers. Hold that thought. The only university model designed to support electively home educated students is also by far our largest UK university.

Now that is perhaps interesting!


Let’s deal with the misnomer bit of the title first. It won’t take long.

For the vast majority Elective Home Education isn’t elective. It’s a reaction, not a choice; it’s a ‘push’ issue, not a ‘pull’ one. In the study, 20% were those with a philosophical belief in EHE; 20% related to unmet SEND needs; 20% had been off-rolled by schools (and there is a whole other blog post in that statistic). Another 20% were Covid related. 20% were unknown.

With regard to the home bit, that’s misleading, too. Education other than at school is a better term. Many EHE families put together learning designs and projects that include community-based learning, real-world tasks, attendance at galleries and museums, shared interest groups in the arts or sports, internships, mentors and tutors etc. It is a learning by design model – often community based, sometimes grouped with other EHE learners, sometimes mentored or tutored. It is education other than at school (EOS), but not necessarily ‘home’ education.

Misunderstood and abandoned

So, the 60+% of parents who, through desperation, have withdrawn their children from school to educate them otherwise lose all support, financial and otherwise. If they had a SEND provision, they lose it (unless they have a reviewable EHCP). More likely, they are on a three or four year waiting list for SEND assessment – and they lose that possibility. They lose the government’s funding for education (the AWPU that schools receive) and the Local Authority loses that funding for its schools (£1.5 million in the LA in the study; £500 million nationally). No-one gets it. They lose the fees for external exams and quite probably the local venues to sit them, too. They lose careers guidance and support (and NEET figures are high for some EHE youngster categories). They lose the right to any school attendance – as government and Ofsted absence regulations (absurdly) prevent schools from allowing flexi-schooling.

Put another way, from the perspective of an EOS parent whose child has unmet SEND needs or who is being told that absence or behaviour mean that they are likely to be excluded if they don’t choose to home educate, this is what parent interviews said that it means:

We now have no funding, no support for learning (no personal budget to replace the AWPU), no SEND provision, no support for the personal challenges that led to unacceptable behaviour, no support for the mental health challenges that were resulting in excessive absence. We have to design a curriculum with no materials or experience and no access to the books, equipment or learning resources in a school. We have to fund tuition – often through online providersand pay for external exam entries and, if our children have special needs, we have to pay for extra time or for an amenuensis. We also have to find an external exam centre, often out of county. Our children can’t play for school teams, or be in orchestras, or act in school plays, or do DofE or foreign language exchanges. We don’t get EWO support and we don’t get careers advice. There is no facilitation of the EHE community by our Local Authority; there is no coordinated provision – and no opportunity for flexi-schooling either.

The starkest example of how this abandonment plays out occurred during the Covid period and relates to external exams. When Gavin Williamson belatedly introduced what has come to be seen as ‘the 2020 exams fiasco’, which meant at the last minute that schools would assess student exam grades, no provision was made for EHE students. None. They were left high and dry. Now that is vaguely understandable, given the general chaos at the time. However, one year later, when the inevitable happened again and the 2021 GCSE, A-level and BTech grades were school assessed, there was still no provision made for EHE.

You will get the picture. The general approach, fo the parents in the study, seems punitive – yet more than 50% of these youngsters are ones who have been least well served by our schooling system and who are therefore arguably some of the most deserving of support. In the review there were 10 times as many SEND students in the EHE population as in mainstream and 60% of the secondary EHE students were on free school meals (32% of primary). Oh, and you lose the free meals entitlement, too, if your child becomes EHE. We apparently cease to care about food entitlement, too.

And remember, there are three times as many EHE learners as there are students attending Oxford and Cambridge universities combined.

What could or should be done?

The Bedford PLACE programme illustrates that there are 5 capacities to be considered in the design of a facilitated provision for EOS students:

  1. Funding – the same funding entitlement students attending school receive via the AWPU would be nice, but even 50% of it would suffice
  2. A mentor to support students’ personal learning plans and wellbeing
  3. Flexi-access to formal learning, where people want it (and a centre to sit exams)
  4. Community learning opportunities, enrichment activities and social connections
  5. Facilitation, communication and enablement of each locality’s EOS community.

So, imagine if there was a Virtual Academy across a region (a Local Authority, or a city like Leeds or Liverpool or London or Manchester or Birmingham with multiple Local Authorities) where attendance equated to ‘attendance in learning’ rather than attendance in a building. This Virtual Academy receives a level of AWPU funding from the government in the normal way and uses some of this to provide core provision, mostly virtual, and to fund a team of mentors. Learning is readiness or interest driven not age-related. Virtual Academy then also devolves some funding to its Localities to pay for a local co-ordinator who facilitates the locality’s EOS learners and establishes a programme of community provision. Universal services then also become available to the Virtual Academy’s students, as do examination entries, not by age but by readiness.

It isn’t complicated, and it is happening elsewhere in the world. Te Kura is a national provision in New Zealand. Florida Virtual School has been, since 1997, an all-age statewide virtual school district, accessible free to all Florida families. In the UK, Pearson Online Academy is one example of an online private school delivered virtually.

The key to why this is potentially seminally interesting, though, lies in the text of Florida Virtual School’s description, which says: FLVS is designed for students looking for high-quality education, unparalleled flexibility and support, an academic challenge, and ownership of their education in a safe, distraction-free learning environment. Why wouldn’t we want to explore a model of education that offers flexibility and support, challenge and ownership, together with the freedom to personalise and to learn at one’s own pace?

Which is where the EHE or EOS community, as a cohort of existing non-users of the education system, are potentially extremely interesting. Might there be a better way to learn for some (even many) students than the conventions and rigours and constraints of traditional school? If so, might we explore those possibilities with the EOS community and in so doing right the wrong of making them outcasts from organised learning? And, once established, might an EOS Virtual School also offer possibilities for Alternative Provision, for hospital education programmes and other ‘education otherwise’ groups – and for some students in mainstream schools struggling to cope with the conventions and constraints of an entire traditional school curriculum – or those wanting to access extension options not available at school – such as Japanese, cyber security, linguistics, scientific inventions (all real possibilities).

Back to the Open University – an elective home education university

When the OU was established in the late 1960s, very few (that is VERY FEW) people thought it could succeed. How could you have a university for people of any age and where learning wasn’t age-cohorted or building-based? With no qualifications for entry? Where programmes were personalised? Where assessment was done when ready rather than all together? Where courses lasted as long as people chose? Where you could do some of it or all of it?

Now, more than a quarter of a million OU students have graduated (a third of whom will have had one A-level or less on entry); more than 2 million have completed OU courses. It is our largest university by far, and is the largest degree provider for people with disabilities (30,000 each cohort) – and, interestingly but irrelevantly, also the largest supplier of Law graduates.

In addition, OU’s flexi-learning approaches and ‘elective home learning’ designs have by now influenced provision in every other university in the country.


Could an Education Other than at School ‘Virtual Academy’ or ‘Open School’ be an Open University of statutory age education?

Our Education System Needs More Architect Leaders

Our Education System Needs More Architect Leaders

You may or may not think that leadership of our schools needs to change. I do. Probably most people feel that we will need to rethink the shape and purposes of school post-Covid. More emphasis on equity; more relational; more diverse in teaching and learning methods; a step-change in the role of virtual learning; more peer-to-peer support; ; greater awareness of emotional welfare; different modalities of assessment. It could be a long list.

We Need a Change in School Leadership Culture

Two or three years ago there was a lot of noise in the educational world about the Harvard Business Review’s publication of UK research into types of school leadership. A feature on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ and a great deal of debate on twitter and in Schools Week signalled its significance. People identified with the call for more ‘architect leaders’ — those who invest in the sustained improvement of learning and look beyond their school walls to have an impact in the wider community.

For Innovation Unit there was a deeper significance to this research. We are convinced that there are multiple imperatives — global, economic, social and equity imperatives — to go beyond improvement and begin the process of reimagining and redesigning ‘school’ as we know it. The disruptive power of the Covid pandemic has merely accentuated that belief. And for this to happen, a certain kind of leadership will be required. We will need the qualities, capabilities and characteristics of architect leaders who can go beyond school turnaround and take on fundamental school redesign.

The research

The research says that currently we are recognising the wrong qualities in leaders — with that recognition being signalled by salary levels and public approbation in the form of knighthoods and gongs. The researchers (Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard) generated five archetypes from their study of 411 Academy leaders. They are:

  • Surgeons — who focus on test scores and cauterise underachievement
  • Soldiers — who are task-focused and cost-cutting
  • Accountants — who grow revenue, increasing students and income sources
  • Philosophers — who focus on values and the debate about good teaching
  • Architects — who progressively redesign school and the community it serves.

Using financial savings and student results on test scores as the two primary dimensions of achievement (which is certainly open to challenge, I know) the research suggested that only the ‘architects’ create long-term and sustainable improvement. They are more strategic and their effects are more enduring, yet they are by far the least recognised group, in salary terms and in public recognition.

The conclusion, of course, is that we need to appoint more architects to our schools.

Now, there may well be some dodgy dimensions to this research, despite its peer-reviewed status. For example, the sample of 411 leaders is inevitably skewed — those 2012 early academy converter heads were, by definition, an a-typical sample, having been relatively early adopters of an aggressive system restructuring policy. Another is the association of school subjects with the archetypes — PE and RE for surgeons; IT and Technology for Soldiers; Mathematics for Accountants; English and Languages for Philosophers; and History and Economics for Architects. (We can assume that this has an empirical validity in the sample, but it doesn’t hold a ring of truth in reality. Many of us will know some stunning long-term leaders and team builders with a PE background, for example, and where on earth are the geographers — a subject that throws up some excellent leaders?)

The truth

However, reservations aside, there is undoubtedly truth in this — truth at two extremes.

At one extreme short-term improvement in results is all too often achieved by leadership ruthlessness — restructuring the organisation; getting rid of a proportion of staff; focusing on Key Stage 4 pupils to the detriment of younger learners; excluding unwanted students; disproportionately focusing on those near the C-D borderline; being tactical about exam entries; putting the most successful staff with high stakes groups…and a range of other similar short-term and culturally damaging strategies. They shout out to everyone that what matters in this school is ‘our league table position and my career as a leader’. Culturally, this tends to create threat, fear and internal competition, along with cynicism and resentment.

At the other extreme, we know that long-term growth requires deeper change strategies. Unification around a long-term vision and optimism about its feasibility tend to be supported by capacity-building and enabling strategies that liberate the creativity of staff, unleash discretionary energy, and develop collaborative learning between both teachers and students. Such a culture isn’t focused disproportionately on one type of achievement or particular target groups, but recognises diverse success and values all learners equally.

So, whilst there may be some reservations about the characterisations within the research, it is essentially true. We are encouraging, lauding and publicly valuing and rewarding the wrong kinds of leadership for sustainable growth in our schools and system.

From leadership for sustainability to leadership for school redesign

It makes sense that organisational architects, those that build for the medium term and grow for the long-term, will create sustainable improvement cultures. This is welcome, but we need more.

Our system needs leader architects who can redesign schools for the future.

Ken Robinson has said, in multiple ways, “Education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed”. Those who have seen the case for change made in the award-winning film “Most Likely to Succeed” will know what this means. The compelling message of the film is that our 100+ year-old model of schooling and learning needs to change, and change dramatically, if we are to serve young people well for the future and if we are to tackle the equity and achievement gap. (Despite more than 100 years of trying, the existing model has patently failed to do this.)

This equity and social justice reason really matters — and it matters in the UK particularly because we have some of the most dramatic equity gaps in the world. Covid brought this into stark relief. It is a priority morally, of course, but it matters socially and economically, too. Our schools still remain the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised a fixed notion of ‘ability’. We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children as if this is a defining categorisation – and in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world. We even group learning by spurious notions of ‘ability’ — notions which are, in effect, little more than socio-economic pre-determinants, but ones which then go on to become determinants. As Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High recently said: “The more narrowly we define intelligence, the more broadly we define what is not deemed intelligent.”

Innovation Unit believes that our schools need to be redesigned — we need to transform our schools for the future and, if this is to happen, we need architect leaders who can both reinvent and then sustain and grow the new model.

Why do we need leader architects in this context?

Such a learning transformation will of course require significant changes to the way we conventionally structure the curriculum, the way teachers teach, and the way students are assessed. However, for a school leader trying to redesign their school, these are secondary effects. There have been many experiments, projects and pilots over the years that have developed new approaches, and many have benefited students and convinced teachers. What is remarkable is that most of these new ideas have not been sustained; they have not spread within schools nor between schools; the practice hasn’t deepened with time; and the ownership of the practice hasn’t transferred beyond the innovators or transformed the deep structures of school – and certainly not survived changes at senior leadership level..

The fact is that the impact of these new ideas was limited because they didn’t go hand in hand with a systematic redesign of the architecture of school as an organisation. When we learn that at High Tech High there is an hour of collaborative adult learning every morning before students arrive; or that teachers do not teach 28 students on their own, but 56 students in pairs (plus support staff), in half-day units; or that all projects (Project Based Learning is the dominant norm) are refined and critiqued by other teachers before being introduced to students — then we know that something significant in the organisational norms is different. And it is changes to organisational architecture — the culture, the structure, and the organisation of time across the whole school — that make possible the design, delivery and evolution of more engaging learning opportunities for students.

Change of this depth requires strong and bold and committed leadership. It requires school leaders prepared to rethink some of the conventional norms in school culture, who are prepared to reimagine the structures that staff, students and parents have grown used to, and are prepared to change the way the timetable and the school year has governed people’s lives for many generations.

This kind of change requires architect leaders.

A moral from this tale

The research on leadership styles was welcome and has a resonance of truth. If we want sustainable school improvement, the qualities of the organisational architect need to be held in higher regard. That much is obvious.

However, as stated at the outset — and as as set out in the case for change in “Most Likely to Succeed” — there are utterly compelling reasons for taking seriously the need to reimagine and redesign schools. Indeed there are multiple examples around the world where this is already happening. If it is truly to happen here, in the UK, then we will need bold and ambitious leader architects to pave the way.

This research may just be more profound than the writers imagined.

A seriously new learning experience

A seriously new learning experience

This week I facilitated (or more accurately didn’t much facilitate) my first online workshop using Zoom and Miro.  Let’s be clear, Zoom is great and Miro is a really smart tool – way better than I was expecting.  However, I felt deskilled, to put it politely, or pretty hopeless, put another way.

Now, given that my professional identity is wrapped up in facilitation, and that it’s been a core skill for over 40 years (four schools, two university settings and twenty years on the road facilitating events) that was ‘interesting’ as they say.  It has certainly been a cause for reflection, so I thought I would share, and I’ve tried to do so in a way that may be helpful for others.

When we facilitate an event there are a number of ways that we are able to add value, both to the experience and to the outcomes.  If I list just some of them, you can see why the online experience becomes a challenge.  The orange ones hold up for online workshops; the blue ones don’t.  (Spoiler alert – there are also some huge benefits in red, of which more later.)

Before the event

  • Great planning and design – and clarity about intended outcomes and outputs
  • Smart materials
  • Mindfulness about environment and seating arrangements
  • Quality set-up instructions (and briefing for table facilitators)

During the activity

  • Orchestrate the motivational climate
  • Allocate nominal table facilitators
  • Move from table to table pollinating
  • Speak to individuals within a group to coach in
  • Hold the room for a moment to share or to unstick everyone…
  • …or to demonstrate what one or two tables are doing…
  • …or to show something that informs the activity
  • Move some people to different tables to change the dynamics
  • Read the room and the energy flow
  • Invite feedback from individuals

After the activity

  • Do whatever evaluation exercise is appropriate
  • Collect up all the flip charts and post-its and activity outcomes
  • Process them and turn them into useful tools and artefacts

Now none of this is definitive, of course, neither the colours nor the content, so don’t pick at it.  The point is to illustrate that much of the customary facilitation skill lies in subtle engagements with the activity process itself – and most of this is lost online.

However, there are also some things that are gained and these might be the key to effective online facilitation:

  • Everything that is said can be heard – you are a tacit participant, not a facilitator
  • Everything that is done (or not done) can be seen – you are an unseen lurking observer
  • There also may well be two or three people invisibly performing these roles
  • All the outcomes are secure, neatly packaged and downloadable at the end.

The implications of this feel to me to be that the skills required to optimise an online workshop lie primarily in the preparation beforehand, the ability to listen and interpret and develop insights during and the capacity to add value to the process afterwards.

Put another way, it feels as though the capacity to add value shifts from (a) during the event to after it and (b) from added value to the process/experience, and to added value to the outcomes.

This is obviously so because the person in the event with the greatest insight into what has happened and what has been generated becomes the ‘facilitator’, whose primary role during that phase is not facilitation so much as observation, reflection and insight gathering (much less the case when you are in the room, partly because you don’t hear all the conversation but also because you are constantly alert to assisting the process).

For many workshops, where outcomes really matter, this may be a pretty good trade-off.

To conclude, it feels as though the right instruction for an online workshop may not be to say: “This is what you should do and this is the output you should try to achieve” but instead: “This is what you should do together for the next 30 minutes to get as close as you can to this output.  We will be listening to all the conversation, seeing what you do and hearing what you say.  That, with whatever you create together, will enable us to add 20-30% to the outcome after the workshop and share that back with you.”

2nd thoughts: What might the key actors in our schools learn from this crisis?

2nd thoughts: What might the key actors in our schools learn from this crisis?


It’s a good time for serious creative reflection.  Not because there’s not much else to do, although that’s true.  But because we have never before had such an opportunity to reflect upon what we can be learned when the constraints of historical practices are effectively removed.  My first blog post on this theme looked at some of the foundation stones of schooling and the liberating potential for redesign when these are taken away.  Attendance at school; examinations; lessons; subject-based instruction; age-cohorting; testing….  They are gone.

This post focuses on the key actors: students, teachers, parents and local systems.  What might be learned?

The role of the student as learner

Students’ primary job is to learn.  What that has meant, in schools, in essence, is to compartmentalise their learning into ‘subjects’. They record and remember subject content knowledge, predominantly acquired from teachers and recorded on paper, and they become skilled at representing all this in exam conditions – all ultimately aimed at acquiring grades in order to progress, or not.  (There is more to school learning, of course – applying the knowledge, experimenting, engaging with the arts and physical activity etc.  But ask any student and the core thing is to learn and understand the stuff on the syllabus so that you can pass exams.)  Some of the downsides of this are that learning is compartmentalised and abstracted from authentic or real world purposes; the learner is often relatively passive; learning is more insular than collaborative; and, indeed, students are essentially placed in competitive relationships with one another, competing for exam success.

So what happens when the essential architecture of this model is removed – no subject learning, no examinations, no teachers in classrooms, no need for pen and paper learning and no casting of students as competitors with one another?

Well, firstly, the essential motivators and objectives have gone – the deferred gratification ones that say you need to do all this to get the qualifications you need.  Instead, the only purposes for student learning become interests and passions, the desire to learn.  Second, the teacher in the classroom has gone, so the driver has to be learner agency.  Third, the competition has gone, and instead what makes sense for good learning (and social connection) is peer-to-peer collaboration.  And fourth, technological skills that this generation has, and which are so often suppressed within classroom custom and practice, will be absolutely essential to the new learning process – the design, planning, enquiry, recording and, most interestingly, the collaborative possibilities that modern technology makes available.

So, when learner agency becomes central, aided by peer learning support and collaboration, and when learning tasks are real-world, more interdisciplinary, motivated by intrinsic value and by authentic purposes – where do schools go from there when this is all over? 

The role of the ‘teacher’ – designer and facilitator

This may seem a strange place to start, but bear with it.  Let’s reflect on the professional knowledge-base of the teaching ‘profession’ – not least because in our current schooling model there hasn’t been nearly enough reflection on that issue. There are four things that characterise a ‘profession’.  They are (i) a qualification for entry controlled by the profession; (ii) a client-centred code of ethics; (iii) a distinctive and evolving knowledge-base, and commitment by members to keep abreast of it (iv) a professional duty to contribute to that knowledge-base.  Teaching does really well on (i) and (ii), but not at all well on (iii) and (iv).

For example, if you ask the average secondary school teacher (but not primary), they will probably say that their subject knowledge is their professional knowledge-base.  This is patently nonsense.  There are hundreds of history or maths graduates who don’t teach.  It clearly can’t be that.  A better definition is the design and facilitation, through relationships, of great learning. Teachers’ subject knowledge is in service of this.  Therefore, the career-long learning enquiry of our best teachers is the endless pursuit, individual and collective, of excellence in the design and facilitation of great learning, through relationships – and the contribution of that learning to the collective.

And, if this has even a ring of truth, one reason why our current schooling models don’t work well has become obvious.  There is virtually no time during the average school day or week for designing great learning; even less for doing this together with other teachers; even less still for doing it with teachers across subject disciplines.  And there lies one clue about the potentially liberating potential of the school closure period.  Teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to work together (face-to-face or online) to design together truly great learning experiences for students.  Not, of course, aimed at exam syllabuses and ‘results’, but with the objective of creating and learning more about engaging and fulfilling learning.  What an opportunity – teachers as collaborative designers.

That is one powerful new professional modality that we have the opportunity to learn together (and to learn from together) over these next weeks and months.  The other is what it means to be not so much a ‘teacher’ as a facilitator – of wellbeing, of mindset and of individual and collaborative learning.  And of parental support for learning.  What a fantastic opportunity!

Virtually every teacher will tell you that the endless round of solo preparation and solo lesson delivery, combined with pressure for content coverage, behaviour management and accountability for test and examination outcomes is utterly draining.  It erodes passion for the role.  However, for the next few months all that is gone.  The best we can now do is to engage students and equip parents with great learning designs and to support both of them with light touch facilitation.  And what this actually means in practice we don’t know.  It is a new dimension of our professional knowledge-base and we will need to create it together, just like heart surgeons learnt, together, how to make heart transplant surgery successful after the first patient lived for 18 days following Christiaan Barnard’s first heart transplant in 1967. (Average life expectancy is now more than 15 years.) In fact the first shoots of this new professional knowledge-base are already being created and shared virtually, such as here and here and here.

The question is whether our profession is able to take hold of this opportunity to reassert a role as great learning designers and facilitators, or whether schools will be sending home worksheets and lists of things to do. 

The role of parents

This will be short.  I visited a primary school in a challenging area of the North East not long ago where the staff designed “family projects” for out of school work, assessed by exhibitions, at which whole families came together to share their work with one another.

Parents have always been primary educators, both the first educator and the principle influence on young people’s development.  Yet secondary schools in particular have never properly taken the opportunity to involve them, inform them and engage them as partners.  We have that opportunity – the urgent need, even – to address this, and the legacy of such an investment could be enduring.

What might we learn by engaging and facilitating parents as partners in supporting learning – and what could be the long-term benefits of this?

Local systems

This, too, will be short.  One district system I worked with virtually this week had set up a top level team to plan scenarios – what should be done if it was three months, six months or longer before schools could return to normal.  Together we reframed this challenge.  What can we design and learn about in the next few months that will mean school will never want to return to ‘normal’?

We talked about a summit to create the strands of a system-wide enquiry (learner agency, peer-to-peer support, real world assignments, enterprise projects, passion-led learning, locality study, assessment by physical and virtual exhibition – or whatever).  We discussed generating a system-wide action enquiry process for leaders and teachers to work together to build the district’s knowledge-base. We talked about connecting elected members and employers and further/higher education with the process so that they own and understand it.

In effect, we talked about how to ignite the passion of a distressed profession around these circumstances in ways that might subsequently transform schools.

How might we enable whole systems to take hold of this crisis, not only to cope with the present,  but also to redesign future school practices together? 

1st thoughts: What might the learning legacy be for schools from this crisis?

1st thoughts: What might the learning legacy be for schools from this crisis?

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste” – Rahm Emanuel


The situation facing the UK schooling system is unprecedented in modern times.  Schools are shut down for all but the most needy students or those children of key workers.  In most schools staff are working shifts, partly home working, partly school.  Exams (GCSE and A-level) have been cancelled, as have key stage tests.  How long this will all last remains uncertain, but longer rather than shorter is most people’s best guess.

So, rather than simply carrying on during this period doing a weak version of what schools have always done, this challenge also offers an unprecedented opportunity.  The creativity of the profession is being called upon to reimagine what is possible by way of student learning when few of the norms of schooling are in place – no subject-based ‘lessons’, no classrooms, no teacher directed learning, no age-cohorting, no exams or tests. This is not home schooling, which is an act of choice by parents, but it is a form of ‘de-schooling’, an idea explored in the early 1970’s by Ivan Illich, who imagined (among other things) networks of learners supporting one another facilitated both by technology and by adults.

We are not, when things return to normal, going to de-school, but we could ‘re-school’ if we reflect carefully on what might be learned from the practices that evolve over the next few months.  This is the first of three posts that will look at (a) how the architecture of school might change; (b) what this might mean for students and for teachers; and (c) what interesting new practices are evolving during the months of school closure.

School Features: Some things appear fixed but they are not…

(i) The primacy of examinations – This is the first and perhaps the most obvious feature, not least because it has happened.   For so long the exam system has been a taken for granted – the objective of learning in secondary schools; the means of managing progression within schools (to post-sixteen courses) or beyond school (to university or employment); the ways in which schools’ performance is measured .  There will be other ways – and indeed there once were, when coursework and teacher assessment were valued.  So what happens when students are no longer sitting exams; when the purpose of learning has to be defined differently; when teachers’ judgement about each student’s potential to progress becomes a valued assessment measure?  Could it be that there is no way back to the primacy of examination and, if that is so, how do we define the new purposes of education for students and parents?

(ii) Time – For far too long the design of time in schools, with minor variances, has appeared fixed – students attend five days a week; terms and half-terms are standardised; school starts at 8.30 or 9.00 and finishes at 3.30 or 4.00 – making it the most cost-effective childcare in town and the best youth club, too.  But what happens when a new normal is explored where students don’t attend school at all?  Does learning cease to take place?  When it does take place, does it follow the same rules?  Might it be possible to imagine new time patterns that better suit the contemporary purposes of education – four-day schooling, or morning-only schooling, or some standard attendance and some elective attendance (like community college evening classes)?

(iii) Three taken-for-granted ‘platforms’ – By ‘platforms’ is meant foundation-stones; things that are utterly accepted features in almost all schools; things that define and perhaps constrain all other features.  The first is age-cohorting, the second the lesson and the third subject-based teaching.  The first thing to say is that none of these will be key features of the learning that evolves during the closure period of schools. 

A word about each, age-cohorting first.  When I was a headteacher, the school was also a community college with about 3,000 adult learners participating each year.  School students over the age of 14 could enrol, too, so, having been segregated into age-cohorts all day in school, you could go into beginners guitar, or the history of blues music, or yoga, or conversational French and find 14 year-olds learning alongside 70 year-olds.  Age-cohorting doesn’t makes sense for learning purposes; it makes sense for testing all students in exams at the same time and for comparing school ‘performance’.  Think: we don’t all have to sit our driving tests, or music grades, or PhD submissions at the same time.  If we did, the pass-rates would be very different.  Second, the lesson.  If depth of learning or engagement in learning is an objective, the last thing you would do is to break it down into 50 or 60 minute chunks, then a bell and move to the next learning unit – this five times during the day.  No adult would structure their learning in this way.  It only makes ‘sense’ as a means to apportion units of subject teaching on a timetable in two or three of these units per subject spread across the week.  It makes no sense in terms of quality learning.  Third, then, subject-based teaching, and it might be interesting to reflect first on why (given that subject disciplines began as a medieval means of classifying knowledge – when knowledge was finite) ‘subjects’ have been so enduring.  The answer is vested interests, and the three most significant are: teacher education sections of universities, which prepare in subject departments; the examination board industry, which tests subjects; and subject associations, which serve them and advocate for them. And then, of course, there is also Ofsted, whose framework mirrors history and favours subjects.  These are strong forces resistant to change – and yet the logic of interdisciplinary learning, of using knowledge in service of authentic learning applications is very strong.  Just as happens in the real world and for the rest of our lives.  If you took these three platforms away – just flexed them even – what different learning experiences might schools offer?

The dominance of pen and paper over forms of learning more innate to students – This can be brief.  It really does make no sense that the tools of modern learning are not ubiquitously available to learners at all times – the internet, laptops, tablets, mobile phones…  (A decision to ban mobile phones in the classroom is a decision to place behaviour management or school control above learning.)  These are not just necessary tools for personal learning.  They are also the means of access to the world of knowledge previously privileged by teachers.  As importantly, they are a medium for peer-to-peer support and collaboration – as we will no doubt abundantly learn during this enforced school closure. Another sure bet is that we will see massive growth in, and satisfaction from, making things.   What might learning look like when we liberate students to use all the tools at their disposal?

Teacher dependency – in the second blog post there will be a broader (and deeper) exploration of the role of the teaching profession and the distance we have travelled from the essense of that role.  There is also a discussion of the role of the learner.  The point made here is by way of introduction.  Modern teaching is still a recognisable version of that experienced by parents and grandparents – a classroom, a teacher, 25 – 30 students behind a desk or table, with control of the design and delivery in the hands of the teacher.  There are some great teachers, of course, lots of them, who work wonders to engage students, but whatever the originality in design, it is no more than innovation within the one hour subject-based lessons.  This model doesn’t liberate student agency; it reinforces dependency.  What might happen to learner agency if learning was structured into half-day or whole-day units – and might the next few months give us some answers?

Two end notes from the front line…

On day one of school closures, a local primary headteacher sent the letter below to parents.  One day in and a new vision for learning was starting to emerge…

We are all winging this. You are your child’s primary educator. You always have been. You decide what they do with their time. This is a great opportunity to allow our children to be children. Let’s take it.  Make mud pies, wear silly costumes and dance like no one is watching! Don’t feel guilty because your child is having fun instead of learning spellings. We were told at very short notice to prepare lessons and send them home. What nonsense. We would all be out of work if that were possible. Teaching is a social process, no one ever learned anything valuable from a worksheet…. Your child will not fall behind. We will cover everything when we are all back together. Baking, Lego, playing outside, climbing trees, gaming and using tech to communicate with friends is learning.  Also, READ EVERY DAY .

We have been given an unprecedented opportunity to spend time with our families, and particularly our children. It won’t be long before your children inevitably leave this wonderful stage of their development. Make the most of it. Enjoy it. Yours and their mental health is extremely important at this time. De-stress the situation and see it as a gift to enjoy quality time with your amazing children. I miss them already! We will be sharing home learning grids and some website links as soon as possible. Remember, you are doing the right thing by being with your children and showing them the love of your family. Stay safe, John.

This is from another local primary school.  Four days on, the school has established a new rhythm…

We call all families every 3 days – all 500, and the most vulnerable daily. We also drop in a weekly hamper to families who need it.  Pupil premium children still pick up a lunch every day. The whole school gets a learning ideas sheet sent out each day, too, from our planning team (who are working together from home, coordinated by a middle leader who is self-isolating) and we have set up a parent hotline run by some ex-teachers at the local air-force base who were really happy to help.  Our staff each do a video story time for the pupils, to have a story with their teacher each day, and everyone gets a daily optional challenge, usually play-based learning.  (I suspect secondary schools would say it is easier in a primary school, but we have even less favourable staff-student ratios.)

OFSTED – no part of a solution, but a huge part of the problem

OFSTED – no part of a solution, but a huge part of the problem


The profession has to start claiming “emperor’s clothes” about Ofsted.  Time now is long past.

In the Uber travelling back from a work engagement recently, one of our party received a notification letter of early retirement from her son’s school’s headteacher.  Following an Ofsted visit, of course.  (You may have read about it, as it created a stir.)  This is the highly regarded headteacher, we are talking about, who was recruited to sort out the school after its last inspection, and who a year previously won an award in recognition of that improvement.  This is an extract from her letter:

“Following the inspection I have completely lost faith in the system and have decided that I will never be in the position again where such poorly informed judgements are made and despite whatever action is taken I am powerless to change things.  I put my heart and soul into all I do and this desire has now been completely extinguished by this Ofsted experience.

… We have collectively made such a great difference.  It was always my intention to eventually retire from Bramhall with the expectation that I would leave behind a successful school that would continue to flourish.  This is the case despite the conclusion that Ofsted has reached.” 


Case One: Hartsholme Academy was one of the two most astonishing primary schools that Innovation Unit has supported.  Serving a low income white population, it had not too long ago been deemed ‘inadequate’.  Three years later, with practices established that drew international interest and recognition, it was rated Ofsted ‘outstanding’.  So confident did it become about its progressive models of relational and PBL practices, it became a voluble critic of some of the orthodoxies holding back the evolution of schooling and learning in the UK.  Then, under the same leadership and staff, in came another Ofsted team to deem it ‘inadequate’ again.  Leader departs; forced incorporation into a new Academy Trust.

Case Two: Stanley Park School was lauded as ‘Times Educational Supplement’ secondary school of the year in 2016, notable for its innovative curriculum, its ‘small school organisational model, the quality of its teaching and learning and its ambition for students.  In 2019 Ofsted deemed it ‘inadequate’, the headteacher left and the school became a new academy with a different name.

Trust me.  Neither Hartsholme nor Stanley Park were ‘inadequate’ schools.  Both were exceptional in many ways, not least their commitment to designing and facilitating challenging and engaging real world learning for students.  I’m sure that both were imperfect, as are all schools, but the scale of their ambition for students, their boldness in designing new curricular experiences and the respect they drew from other schools wishing to learn from their practices singled them out as exceptional in ways that really matter to young lives.  It also made them different from the prescriptive framework of our inspection system.

The broader argument

I don’t like imposed external accountability processes for many reasons.  They induce fear and paralysis and restrict creativity.  At the extreme they lead to perverse outcomes, or gaming of the system, or even unethical practices.  They are not developmental and are primarily judgemental.  More generally, they lead to dull practices designed to hothouse youngsters through approaches aimed at meeting schools’ accountability indicators (grades, targets, attendance figures, behaviour, even the study of subjects not in the best interests of students, but designed to improve ‘Progress 8’ or ‘Attainment 8’ or eBacc scores).

They don’t just limit ambition.  They are damaging to relationships and trust, too.  The inspection framework spawns performance management systems linked to the Ofsted framework, usually involving line managers making judgements about performance (or, more madness) some external pre-Ofsted team hired in, all supported by ironically titled ‘learning walks’.  What could go wrong?  Well, for a start, I’d guess that upwards of 50% of staff don’t hold their line manager in particularly high regard, and even more won’t feel that they are the best person to review practice performance or to provide relevant support and they don’t feel inspired by ‘passing Ofsted’ as a vision for the school.

(If performance management is such a good thing, why don’t we introduce it into marriages?  Or if Ofsted is such a valuable process, why doesn’t the government have its own practices inspected?)

The system health argument 

All that is pretty old hat critique.  Not cheap shots, but certainly predictable lament.  What is more, when Ofsted was introduced in 1992, it was needed,  There was no national map of school quality, too big a gap between schools’ practices and little agreement about what great schooling and learning should look like.  The brutal naming and shaming of those early inspections could probably be justified in giving the system the jolt it needed.  It was the start of a solution.  But it absolutely shouldn’t be an enduring feature of the landscape.  For two reasons…

The first is about innovation.  A system that isn’t innovating and experimenting is moribund.  Ofsted is a regressive template, based on a historical view of educational practice.  By definition, innovative practices won’t fit the framework – if you try, you can be badly bitten, like Hartsholme and Stanley Park.  And we desperately need schools that innovate, because the historical models just aren’t good enough.

The second is a simple value for money point, about the best use of an external army of expertise.  Just imagine if we had a task force the size of Ofsted (2,300 contracted inspectors; £200 million annually) engaged in learning – rather than inspecting – on behalf of both the schools visited and the wider system.  What kind of a learning system might that be!

This is why Ofsted is a huge part of the problem.  It paralyses the system; it lowers morale; it fosters inhibiting and culturally damaging secondary accountability practices.

If that wasn’t enough, and worse, it stifles healthy innovation and it is a very poor value for money strategy.

A narrative of success for every learner

A narrative of success for every learner

Three things have happened in the last couple of weeks that led me to write a blog post after a hiatus.  One was learning that another innovative (and nationally recognised) school was recently deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, and the headteacher driven to early retirement.  The second happened this week when, at the annual conference of the Girls’ Schools Association, headteacher Rose Hardy described GCSEs as follows:

I think many heads would say that in 30 years’ time, maybe sooner, we’ll look back and say what we’re doing now with young people is the equivalent of what the Victorians did – building their school rooms with windows so high up pupils couldn’t look out, and putting them in dunce caps.

Geoff Barton, former headteacher, now General Secretary of the ASCL followed up:

It’s good that the leaders of some of our longest established independent schools are leading the drive for qualification reform. 

ASCL has already proposed one radical alternative to the woefully old-fangled GCSE English language qualification. We set up a Commission of Inquiry to look at how we could improve the prospects of the “forgotten third” of 16-year-olds who every year fall short of achieving the grade 4 “standard pass” in GCSE English and maths.  Its answer was the introduction of a new type of qualification: a Passport in English, and in time maths, which students would be able to take between the ages of 15 and 19 at the point of readiness, and which would enable them to develop their skills over time.

The third thing, more bizarrely, was remembering this stray tweet containing a photograph of a Record of Achievement.

Record of Achievement

More about this later.

There are, then, two themes to this post.  One is to howl at the moon about the demise of educational innovation in the UK – hence the ‘Ofsted inadequate’ point – and about the regressive models of testing and accreditation – hence the GCSE quotes.  The other is humbly to suggest that we have so lost the plot in this country about the purposes of education and the outcomes that we want for young people that those quotes come over as radical voices.  Welcome and valid as they are, the truth is that they don’t go even half way towards what we should as a profession be calling for.  It isn’t just a Passport to English (and later Maths) that the system needs.  It is a revolution in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, school design, the structure of the profession, the design of the day, the locations for learning etc etc etc.

Let’s take just one trivial bit of the system as an example to make the point – homework.  Is there anyone who thinks that “homework” is an appropriate twenty-first century model for deep learning?  There are a hundred reasons why it is out of date, but the fact that it is an imposition, is set in bite-size chunks, is subject-based, is not owned by the learner and severely restricts students’ freedom to do interesting things in their evenings (including learning of their own choosing) are just a few of them.  I’m not arguing against out-of-school learning, far from it, but I am arguing against the dominant model of homework.

Perhaps a story will help.  In the 1960s, when the Open University was proposed, virtually nobody thought it could work, least of all existing universities.  How could you have a university with no qualifications for entry; open to people of all ages; where students selected their own learning pathways; for which much of the learning was online; where they were assessed when they were ready and where assessment methods were varied in modality? How could that possibly work?  Fifty plus years later more than 3 million students have gained OU degrees, many of whom left school designated as ‘failures’.  What is more, there is not a university in the country whose curriculum and pedagogy have not been influenced by the OU.  It was a game changer.

Yet, despite that, the OU’s methods have not influenced schools at all.  There is little or no mixed age learning; there is very little inter-disciplinary curriculum design; students have very limited choice (a bit amongst their GCSE options); the idea of assessment when ready hasn’t informed the testing regime; the personalised study methods that underpin the OU’s pedagogies have hardly touched school.

I said that I would come back to the Record of Achievement.  The tweet cited above led to a flurry of similar ones, the general theme being – ‘what a waste of time that was, because nobody has ever asked to see it’.  And, of course, that is a fair response.  But what should definitely not be lost is that it was absolutely the right way to journey.  It built on Tim Brighouse’s pioneering work with OCEA (Oxfordshire’s Certificate of Educational Achievement) in the 1980s, which included student self-assessment.  It was also in harmony with Mick Waters’ statement that “Every learner has an entitlement to leave school with a narrative of success”.

The Record of Achievement was very much the right direction of travel, and shame on our political class that, having backed it and introduced it, they quickly let it fade away to become optional and subsequently obsolete.  The twitter flurry I mentioned was right to be cynical.

So, to pull these themes together.  We definitely need brave school leaders, ambitious MATs and visionary Local Authorities to reassert the role of innovation into our schools and to unite local communities around what really matters in education.  And it needs to go way beyond railing at GCSEs and a Passport in English – great foundations though they are.  Every young person should receive, probably at 11 and 16, their School Graduation Diploma, as a right.  It should be a diploma that maps and records their personal narrative of success and gives them the collateral and the evidence to embark with confidence on the next phase of their life, knowing who they are and what they have achieved.

And if it feels as though the innovation theme above is not quite in sync with the GCSE one and the RofA one, reflect a moment.  It should be an entitlement to have a narrative of success.  Mick Waters is spot on.  But there is no way that the current school model is designed and configured to enable that to happen, and there is no way either that the current school experience will equip our youngsters to thrive in and to influence the world of today and tomorrow – and it will take both innovation skills and courage to make those changes.

Just think Open University.


Is this the most innovative school in the US and the most successful?



When Larry Rosenstock and Ted Sizer were contemplating the blueprint for the first High Tech High school, more than a dozen years ago now, they debated the measure by which they would want to be judged. They asked themselves: why does it seem impossible for all children in a mixed community to go to university or continuing education? They decided University admission would be the test by which they would judge their new school. High Tech High went on to exceed everyone;’s expectations but theirs: since the first school opened, more than 95% of students have gone to College or University. Examined in detail, the figures are even more remarkable: 55% of students are the first generation in their family to attend University. 88% of their poorer students on free or reduced school dinners complete a University degree. These numbers are surely impossible to ignore.

Larry Rosenstock is Chief Executive of High Tech High (HTH), a group of fourteen Charter schools in San Diego (elementary, middle and high schools), each containing no more than 400 students. HTH featured in the excellent film documentary “Most Likely To Succeed” (which you can read more about here).  I have been to HTH twice on study visits, each time for multiple days.   In addition, Innovation Unit has hosted six HTH teachers over for one or two years each to work alongside us in UK schools.  It remains the most impressive and the most innovative school I have visited.

So what makes it so different?

An innovative curriculum – teachers as designers

The HTH curriculum supports personalised, project-based learning with pervasive connections to the community and to real world uses. Visit the schools, and you see every available surface covered with the students’ projects – which are regularly showcased to the wider community in popular open-house events, as well as other public spaces.  Everything starts with student engagement. Students are given the satisfaction of thinking, making and doing for real-world purposes. The learning is personalised and integrates the rigour of academic content with the application of vocational pedagogy – hence their name High Tech High. 

Learners as producers

“Kids do production not consumption” at High Tech High. As Larry Rosenstock says, “High quality work results from high quality teaching – we let practice speak through demonstrations of student work.” Several student projects have been published, and are available in bookshops (and on Amazon) – for example, Perspectives of San Diego Bay (a biology field guide to the bay) and Calculicious (a collection of artwork by students that explores calculus).

Learning disciplines

They do not focus on standardized tests, which “suck oxygen out of the system”. Learning is about enquiry, collaboration, kids doing and making and shaping things. “Memorising 500 biology words makes people think that they don’t want to be biologists. Behaving like a biologist does. Our students behave like mathematicians or historians or photographers or writers. They are encouraged to think like someone who learns for a living.”

Small Schools

They are small schools so that students are known – and Bill Gates, whose Foundation invested hugely in the Small Schools movement across America, is a huge supporter of High Tech High, which he says shows that “You can work hard and have fun”.

So, how do they make it work?

Rich descriptions of innovative practice sometimes fail to identify the critical building blocks – the way something is organised, the systems, and the management practices that enable astonishing educational achievement to happen. Some of these building blocks at High Tech High include the following:

  • Teachers are learning designers and they do that together.  All lessons are collaboratively planned and they build from teacher and student passions (see ‘Where Do Projects Come From?’ or ‘Into the World of Projects’).
  • Nothing much changes for student learners unless staff are also learning together, so “students learn in teams and teachers learn in teams”. The school year begins with a two or three week ‘Odyssey’ during which staff work and learn together in collaborative teams to undertake a curriculum project that students will do later that year. At the end they create an exhibition of their work. Together, they learn the pedagogical models that they will use with their students.
  • More unusually, staff engage in one hour’s professional development before school every day. During this time they plan together, they study student work and they observe each other teaching and facilitating student learning (via work of the videographers – below). They have investigated what works best for staff learning time, and discovered that it works best at the start of the day, not the end (for obvious reasons). Larry Rosenstock believes that the cumulative effect of this learning time is much more important than any set of formal qualifications the teachers might have.
  • There are two full-time videographers, which means that they are able constantly to study teachers teaching and students learning, and to refine and problem-solve their practices together.
  • Assessment is unfailingly ‘authentic’ – including presentation, exhibition, real-world assignments, performance in front of peers, family, community and, importantly, real-world experts.
  • Staff design adult learning materials for their credentialing programmes and their Masters programmes. They produce their own in-house education journal called ‘Unboxed’ and all work – both teacher and student work – is public and available for others to learn from. Anyone visiting the High Tech High site can access this rich resource (and you can watch a series of videos, too)
  • In addition, staff (like students) are recognized both as producers and learners.  All syllabi and portfolios of work are online and publicly available from the school’s digital commons.  High Tech High is accredited to certify its own teachers, and provides Masters-level programmes both for its own staff and for others.

Teachers routinely craft lessons that blend subjects. Teacher loyalty is not to other teachers who teach the same subject as them, but to other teachers who teach the same students at the same time. That way the gates are open for the planning of integrated work programmes. It is customary, therefore, to timetable together groups of students with small teams of teachers who plan together and make public their work plans for critique or use by other teachers. The quality of these curricular and pedagogic designs are ultimately judged by the outcomes of student work. Some work better than others, but that is how everyone learns. Unsurprisingly, teachers want to work at High Tech High. They receive hundreds of applications for every vacancy, yet no-one has tenure – not Larry Rosenstock, not the Heads of School, nor any other teacher (“Why would you want to retain a teacher who can’t produce outstanding student work?”).

So what is the big idea?

At the core of HTH is a philosophy of integration. “At High Tech High we are committed to desegregating kids. We are committed to both a diverse and an integrated community in which all students follow College graduation programmes.” Integration begins with the community of learners, but it goes much further. They integrate:

  • across social class (following Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the purpose of public education is both to serve the public and to create a public)
  • school and community – in Rosenstock’s words, “You don’t want to isolate school from the community kids are going out into. You want the walls to be as permeable as possible, with adults coming in and learning going out.”
  • public and private – because San Diego business leaders are stakeholders in the schools’ success.
  • secondary and post-secondary education, assuming that all students have the potential to progress to college and university if they choose. (Rosenstock cites his grandmother: “There are two kinds of people, those who think that there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.”)
  • head and hand (following John Dewey’s belief that understanding derives from activity; from making and doing)
  • learning with and through assessment.

High Tech High has turned away from much of what is outdated and self-defeating about traditional schooling –  classroom design, divisions between subjects, isolation from the community, limiting belief systems about student ‘ability’ and potential, assessments that only one teacher ever sees, a model of school that fails to inspire and develop staff.  It is not the only successful alternative model for secondary schools, but it is one that is within our grasp in the UK if we choose to learn from it.

Where could a UK school start this journey?

When asked, Larry’s advice was clear: he would divide the school internally into small schools of 400 students. He would identify outstanding teacher leaders to lead those small schools, together with a small design team. He would agree with them some defining values and some key principles, and then he would liberate them to design and define their curriculum and pedagogy. He would support this with resources – time to collaborate and to recognise everyone’s leadership roles. He would set a workshop date when they would all present their school designs (in a collaborative, peer critiqued learning setting) and he would know that they would be different.  After the group had modified each other’s designs, he would accept them all and liberate their creativity to implement them, so creating an internally diverse set of designs, bound by common principles, from which they could learn.

For most leaders, though, that will be too bold a leap.  There is, though, an alternative first step.  In the recent Innovation Unit/Paul Hamlyn Foundation publication ‘The Engaging School: A Handbook for school leaders’, there is a section that outlines implementation models.  The first of these (pages 64-65) is the ‘school within a school’ model.

Essentially, this entails the creation within a school of a separate, self-contained school community that has a unique ethos and organisation, and that follows a distinct curriculum. The school within a school (the mini-school) can be formed as a big bang (e.g. with some Year 7, 8 and 9 students starting together), or it can be allowed to emerge gradually with a 25-40 students from Year 7 in year one. For the students in the mini-school, their primary learning identity will be linked to that mini-school – following the curriculum particular to that school, having advisories or tutoring within that school, but also being able to access the main school facilities (library, resources, dining rooms, etc.) and opportunities (the cultural programme, residentials, sports teams etc.).

This mini-school would have its own headteacher and staff who may do some teaching across the wider school, but whose primary responsibilities, professional identity and accountabilities will be in the school within a school.

You can read more about Larry Rosenstock and High Tech High here and here.

BPL Study Visit to The Met in Providence: 10 things we learned

BPL Study Visit to The Met in Providence:          10 things we learned


We – that is the newly formed charity Big Picture Learning (BPL) UK, supported by Innovation Unit – are officially opening the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in April 2019, commissioned by Doncaster Council.

There is lots to share about BPL and not much space.  It is an astonishingly successful new school design.  It is also radically different from the paradigm of ‘school’ that has become institutionalised in the UK.  It was founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor about 20 years ago as a contribution to the impetus in the US to explore new school models.  They started by asking: “If we didn’t know that there was such a thing as ‘school’, what set of experiences would we design, starting with a blank sheet?”  There are now 150+ BPL schools around the world and the results are extraordinary – they have been endorsed by multiple research reports and findings, by the Gates Foundation, by President Obama and by the recent XQ nation-wide school design competition.

For example, BPL schools overall have 98% graduation levels, even though they often work with students who have dropped out of mainstream education.

However, despite their astonishing success, even more astonishing is the fact that until now there are no BPL schools in the UK.  All this concern about school improvement; about transforming outcomes for students; about school exclusions; about disengagement; about stress and mental health concerns – and no-one has thought to try what is quite possibly the most radically different and evidentially successful new school model.  If you want to know more, this recent article from Australia (which only introduced BPL about five years ago) will give some indication of its potential: “There is a better way of teaching bored Australian students”.

Our visit to The Met

That is a bit of context.  This post is about our visit to The Met.  One of the things that BPL insists upon is that those involved in starting up a BPL school undertake an immersion experience, often in their original (and now iconically successful) school, The Met.  It is in fact a suite of six small schools, each of about 300 students, mainly on one campus – and recently incorporating also College Unbound, a provision for adults who were failed by the education system, many recruited from the criminal justice system.

So, for a week in late October 2018 the principal designate and Practice Lead of BP Doncaster, the CEO of BPL UK and two Board trustees (both steeped in education),one senior Doncaster LA official and I (an Innovation Unit Senior Associate supporting implementation) headed off to Providence near Boston for our week’s facilitated immersion experience.  Elliot Washor hosted us, Dennis Littky engaged with us, all their staff opened up their practice to us, every classroom was open to us and, above all, to be truthful, each and every student we engaged with articulated their individual narratives, their personal learning plans, their exhibitions and their aspirations for the future.

Enough preamble.  You can find out more about BPL here: https://www.bigpicture.org/.  This post is about what we learned.

10 things I think we learned

1. Engagement precedes content learning – it doesn’t happen the other way around

Who might ever imagine it being other than this?  The deferred gratification model of engagement – “You will need good results to get a good job in the real world” – has never worked for most of those from socio-economically challenging backgrounds, or those without strong support systems, or those without a successful family educational history, or those without a sense of who they might become.  Why might we think that it would?  Schools consistently say that a key problem is low aspirations – from students and/or parents.  Well, let’s guess whose role it might be to help every student to have meaningful personal goals and aspirations!  Might it be the school?  That is exactly where BPL starts.

2. Relationships, relationships, relationships

Truth: in UK secondary schools, young people are not well known.  They have perhaps 12 or more teachers a week, none of whom have more than three hours contact in a class of 25+ (and these are teachers who will teach 200+ students a week).  Students are not well known.  At The Met there are two key relationships: the Teacher Advisor (up to 21 hours a week) and the Internship mentor (up to 15 hours).  There may be a number of mentors over time, but only one Teacher Advisor for the time in school.  What was profoundly evident at The Met is that these deep and responsible relationships really, really matter.

3. The conventional paradigm of schooling constrains student engagement,          initiative and learning.  Not so The Met.

Most people working in the school system instinctively know this.  All the research on student engagement says that it declines significantly as young people travel through the system.  Engagement in learning at secondary level is low and even amongst those who appear engaged, passive disengagement is endemic.  Ask young people to name one word that characterises their experience of school and most will say ‘boring’.  Not, though, at The Met.  None would say that.  Why?  Because their whole study programme derives from their passions.  Their entire personal learning plan is shaped by and generates purposeful engagement.

4. Schools don’t have to be configured around subjects and lessons and timetables

It sometimes seems that we know no other way (although not in primary schools).  In fact, the historical classification of knowledge into ‘subjects’ is an anachronism. It is perpetuated by the UK exam structure and by the university tradition of preparing subject specialists. And the ubiquitous ‘one hour lesson’ is a design to fit in all the 10 or more subjects and teachers that a young person will see each week.  In primary school this pattern doesn’t exist to the same extent and it doesn’t need to in secondary.  At The Met students have whole day ‘learning designs’ – advisory sessions designed by their Teacher Adviser and shaped by their personal learning plan.

5. There are better ways to assess students’ learning and skills than tests and exams

This is such a truism that we hardly needed to travel to Providence to learn it.  However, seeing the combination of exhibition, portfolio, presentation and artefact generation to represent and demonstrate learning and skills was like entering a world of tranquil sanity. In a PBL phrase, exhibition rocks.

6. Culture – and students owning the school’s culture – really, really matters

Every school has a culture.  In BPL it is explicit, pervasive, articulated in multiple words and deeds and is self-consciously owned and espoused by the students.  A trivial but potent example is that in September, when litter starts appearing on The Met site from the new freshmen they just get the juniors and seniors together and ask them to sort it out – and it happens.  Any tough question from us that had a cultural dimension, they just let the students answer for them.

7. It’s a religion, and belief matters. It’s a cult

BPL schools tend to be populated by staff who profoundly believe in the humanity of the approach and its power to transform.  It is a form of collective belief system.  Faced with scepticism they will say: “Everyone thinks it won’t work.  You have to believe that it will – and it does.”  That belief includes students, too.  It is so pervasive that The Met (like High Tech High when we visited) comes across on day one of the visit as cultish – it can feel esoteric, everyone using the same vocabulary.  They talk it up together and you feel on the outside, critiquing.  By day three you understand that the cultishness is just a verbal and behavioural manifestation of everyone’s shared belief in the approach – the symbols and rituals of a tight-loose environment.

8. Parents are embraced as primary educators and significant partners

Every school I know would talk up its commitment to parents.  For most schools that I know it is an arms’ length, occasional, patronising relationship held on the school’s terms.  In BPL schools parents are active, co-creating, engaged and involved partners. The belief is that BPL doesn’t recruit students to the school, it recruits families.

9. Growing the number of meaningful adult relationships creates opportunity, engagement and learning pathways

One of the abiding successes of the UK’s public (i.e. private, privileged) schooling system has been the strength of its old boys’ network (gender, unfortunately, apt). Put more generically, people frequently succeed because of their social capital – the number of people that they know who can help them.  BPL recognises this and builds relational capital into the design.  One of the intentional features of the internship mentor element is “to increase the number of significant adult relationships in each young person’s life”.  That level of purposefulness is built into the explicit social contract with mentors.  In turn they get to be meaningfully involved in the work of the school and they get to contribute to real world success in the lives of students.  They change lives.

10. Peer-to-peer support is a massive multiplier

Advisory is family.  Students spend most of their three days in school together in advisory.  Teacher advisers stay with their crew year on year.  It is 15 students and 1 adviser.  It is 16 learners and 16 teachers; 16 people who look out for one another and support each other to success.  What’s not to like?


There are, of course, great and not-so-good BPL schools.  There is a danger of over-hyping, over-glorifying The Met and other BPL schools.  Dennis Littky is the first to say that there are exemplar BPL schools and there are those just not so good.  There is a spectrum, just as with all schools.  But the best are very, very good and those less good are still doing a fine job and striving to do it better.  The same is true within any BPL school.  There are astonishing teachers and there are those still struggling to acquire the craft knowledge.  Of course there are; they are human systems.

That having been said, it is hard to spend a week at The Met and not to come back to the UK changed.  It offers a paradigm shift in how to do school, which is transformative enough.  It also, though, demonstrates a visible and tangible and inspiring step change in what students are able to achieve within such a context when given agency and supported with rigour.



Why we’re opening a Big Picture Learning school in the UK

Why we’re opening a Big Picture Learning school in the UK

The UK system has a problem

It isn’t very much discussed, but the UK schooling system has a big problem.

There is a huge amount of talk about raising attainment levels and improving schools; about better teacher recruitment and retention, or richer preparation and induction; about wellbeing and resilience programmes for those with mental health challenges or the disaffected and disenfranchised; about tougher tests (more tests, too) and better test preparation.  And that’s the problem. Right there.

What we don’t talk about is the fact that our model of schooling and learning is now more than a hundred years old and way out of date.  It is inappropriate for our times in that it doesn’t prepare young people well for their future life and work and citizenship roles. It is also, particularly in secondary schools, extremely  dull – research statistics on student disengagement tell a stark tale. But most of all, it is profoundly wasteful. The model doesn’t optimise achievement and it is now obvious that it never will.  Put more bluntly, it has had more than a hundred years to stake its claim that it can succeed with all students and it has failed miserably for all those hundred plus years. (Yet it took the Open University, by the way, about a decade to demonstrate that all engaged learners could succeed at degree level study – most of whom had been written off by their schooling experience.)

It didn’t so much matter when we thought it was a part of social destiny that most of the well-off succeeded and most of the poor failed.  When the schooling system fed our class system and we had public (private) schools, grammar schools and secondary modern schools, just in case anybody had missed the point.  But now it does matter, and it matters hugely. Partly because the world needs all our educated young to become economically and socially contributing citizens; partly because equality of opportunity and socially just outcomes are now seen as a human right.  Mostly, though, because there is now evidence and there are examples that show success for all can be achieved.

So that’s the big problem.  We are hell-bent on trying to squeeze a bit more performance out of a model that is inappropriate to the times and inappropriate to the task we have set it – to achieve success with all students; to tackle the equity issue; to generate socially aware and contributing citizens; to save the planet, even.  Instead, we need mindful and intentional endeavours to redesign the model of schooling and learning.

Believe it or not, the US is better

This should be interesting to American readers, because in many ways our systems share similar problems.  However, since the late 1980s, academics, policy-makers, corporate entities and philanthropists have all – with varied levels of alignment and success, it is true – combined in an effort to do something about it.   Put another way, there is an innovation history in the US of supporting new school designs.

The first stake in the ground was arguably the  Coalition of Essential Schools, set up in the wake of Ted Sizer’s book ‘Horace’s Compromise’.  It was an initiative led by academics and educationalists, a genuinely groundswell movement.  CES grew to be a steady-state voice for change, still functioning with more than 600 schools identifying and connecting under the banner of ‘common principles for uncommon schools’.

The coalition’s core principles haven’t changed much.  They still hold up, and they still don’t feature very prominently in most of our schools!  However, in one form or another they have informed the design principles of most new school models.  For example, take these four:

  • Less is more – depth over coverage
  • Personalisation – built on profound knowledge of learners
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Assessment based on demonstration of mastery and real tasks (not tests).

The genesis for the New American Schools initiative in the early 1990s was different.  Informed by policy it was taken up by corporate finance. In response to President Bush’s major education initiative, CEOs from a number of large corporations established New American Schools, or NAS, as a privately funded, non-profit organization devoted to supporting the design and dissemination of “whole school reform” models. The New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC) founders envisioned a complete overhaul of American education stimulated by the spread of these innovative designs.  It was intended to break free of that mindset mentioned earlier of simply improving the existing model, or bolting onto it new programmes, or of innovation being merely seen as new ways of delivering subject-based one hour lessons!  NAS supported school design teams (educators, business people, researchers) to create potentially transformative new school designs with the potential to be scaled. Were all of them successful? Of course not. But the best have proved to be powerfully influential.  

By the early 2000s it was to be philanthropic funding driving the agenda.  Most notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation resolved to break up large high schools and turn them into ‘small schools’ – small learning communities of around 350 students – frequently incorporating design principles inherited from the Coalition and designs from NAS.  Improved graduation-rates and achievement levels, especially among minority students, would be achieved through learners being profoundly well known. Relationships mattered.

More than 2,500 small schools were created across the US.  New York City alone has more than 200, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.  Bill Gates believed that small schools could also make everything more ‘relevant’, through hands-on activities and new pedagogical approaches.

Were all these successful?  Of course they weren’t. However, the small high schools programme funded the growth of Expeditionary Learning, where Ron Berger is the CEO, and Big Picture high schools, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  These small, personalised high schools, for example, started for school drop-outs, graduate 92 percent of their students on time.

The high schools in these two design networks – and others – have evidenced that they work.  Students in these schools consistently outperform teenagers in conventionally sized, conventionally structured high schools with comparable demographics.  And the system is learning to learn from them. The networks create their own scaling energy (note the ELC National Conference and The Big Bang), and diffusion organisations are growing around the work.

Circling back for a moment to where it all started – the Coalition of Essential Schools – there are some common design features across all these models which echo the founding beliefs:

  • All include project-based or real-world learning approaches, an engaging and empowering pedagogical model requiring teachers to collaborate as designers of learning
  • All focus on the centrality of relationships – have ‘advisory’ (where advisory is the soul of the school, symbolising support of students before teaching curriculum)
  • All have powerful and sustained collegial adult learning norms
  • All have pervasive cultural identity and school-level ownership of what matters, including what is assessed and how and by whom it is assessed.

So, we have a strategy!

For the UK, the point of fixing on this range of US examples is simple.  Healthy systems have to have innovation capacity – a self-conscious attempt to design, implement and evaluate potentially paradigm-shifting new models of practice. It’s either that or we stagnate – or (it seems) instead policy-makers focus on disruptive and energy-sapping structural changes that shake up the administration and governance of the system whilst leaving the educational core substantially unchanged.

A few years ago, Innovation Unit supported the iZone 360 initiative in New York, led at that time by John White.  It was a privilege. There we worked alongside some great schools with inspirational leaders – City As School, NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, iSchool, Hudson High, Young Women’s Leadership School, Bronx Compass and many more.  Each was seeking to redesign school on behalf of the system (or, as Joel Klein put it: “What might happen if we allowed our most renegade school leaders – those who normally keep their heads below the parapet, break all our regulations, and get the best outcomes – to come out in the open and to innovate on behalf of the system?”).  Each 360 school also had a design partner – New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, Apple, CSSR etc. There we experienced – worked alongside – the power and potential and liberating energy of new school designs.

So, we plan to introduce one of those designs into the UK system.  XP Trust in Doncaster has already created XP School (and opened a second this year) based on Expeditionary Learning design principles.  We propose to open (in January 2019) the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in Doncaster. Big Picture Learning UK has been established through a partnership with Innovation Unit and, over time, we hope there will be many schools across the UK adopting the Big Picture Learning approach.

…and there is a burning platform

It is not as though we don’t know that things need to change.  Increasingly in the UK patterns of disengagement and disaffection are not well hidden. This summer has seen something of an awakening to the problem of exclusion from school in England, with story after story revealing the vast difference in fixed term and permanent exclusions between different localities and different education providers. The number of permanent exclusions nationally rose by 1,000 between 2016 and 2017, now equating to 40 young people expelled from school each day.  You don’t have to be a Foucauldian to recognize that poor behaviour in schools is just the most visible manifestation of disengagement and an unwillingness or inability to conform to the embedded norms of schooling. Many of these students end up in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs): locally run institutions for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools. One PRU told us that 100% of the children coming to them from local schools had an undiagnosed learning or speech and language or mental health need – most had a combination.  It seems they have to behave poorly in order to qualify for a personalised education.

That is one trend.  Another is that homeschooling numbers have risen 40% in the last three years. This is not because vast numbers of parents have caught the home-schooling bug. It is because they are despairing about their children’s experience in schools. Many more, of course, don’t present in exclusion or opt-out statistics.  They endure. Many more still, the passively disengaged, comply. And all the while the learning outcomes from our schooling system continue to under-serve those, the historically under-served, for whom we should most want to succeed.

So, we have a choice: we can fund intensive treatment centres for poorly behaved kids, or we can provide a real alternative: schools in which knowing young people deeply is core to the professional roles of staff, in which the interests, aspirations and dreams of young people are the building blocks of curriculum, where learning and the application of that learning has tangible relevance to the real world, and where assessment recognises the knowledge, skills and capabilities that our modern world (and education) should value.

Those are the hallmarks of the school designs we have mentioned in this post, and it is why we will be opening the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in January.