Why the UK Needs New School Models

Why the UK Needs New School Models

The United States has more than 100,000 schools, so it’s not surprising that it has some of the worst and the best school practices in the world.  A key point, though, is that the best are best by design.  Let’s emphasise that.  The best of the American schools are by a mile some of the most interesting in the world.  They are worth learning from – and this is not surprising, because they were designed for this purpose.

There is a recent innovation history in the States of supporting new school designs.

In 1984 the Coalition of Essential Schools was set up following publication of Ted Sizer’s book ‘Horace’s Compromise’.  It began as a network of 12 schools and as of 2016 had more than 600, connecting under the banner of ‘common principles for uncommon schools’. Basically, it represented the start of the US whole school reform or redesign movement, with each model tending to be based upon a set of shared design principles. As an example, the Coalition’s principles include:

  • 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. 

In 1991 the New American Schools initiative was launched.  Its intention was to stimulate the development and implementation of transformative whole school designs.  It was intended to break free of a paradigm that simply improves the existing model, or that bolts onto it new programmes.  It supported school design teams (educators, business people, researchers) to create potentially transformative new school designs with the scope to be scaled.  Of course, not all were successful, but some proved to be seminally influential – such as Expeditionary Learning, Co-NECT Schools, ATLAS Schools or Roots and Wings.  Even more successful was the establishment of the precedent of new school design and the practice of individual and collective evaluation of designs.

Fast forward to 2000 and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had a big idea about how to fix the problems of American education. They resolved to break up large high schools and turn them into ‘small schools’ – small learning communities of 400 or fewer students. They believed that small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because the strong relationships between students and teachers would ensure that learners were profoundly well known.

The foundation spent $2 billion promoting the dissolution of large high schools and the creation of small schools across the nation. Some 2,600 new small high schools opened in 45 states. New York City alone now has more than 200 such schools, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.  By 2005, Bill Gates had told the National Governors Association that ‘America’s high schools are obsolete’; that small schools made everything ‘relevant’, through hands-on activities and new pedagogical approaches.

Were all these schools successful?  Of course they weren’t.  However, the small-high-schools programme funded the growth of the Big Picture high schools, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor (now 65+ Big Picture high schools in 18 states and more around the world). These small, personalised high schools, started for drop-out learners, graduate 92 percent of their students on time. Amazing.

Gates also funded the EdVisions network of schools, (getting on for 50 high schools in 12 states). SAT average composite scores for EdVisions schools far exceed the composite average; and over 82% of EdVisions graduates progress to degree programs.  This speaks for itself.

New Tech Network  now has in excess of 150 schools and is a leading design partner for comprehensive school change and innovative learning environments.  They achieve 72% college enrolment and 84% college persistence – and this with a model that transforms existing schools, not just start-ups.  Truly impressive.

The foundation also funded the growth of High Tech High (HTH), now 13 high schools in the San Diego area. 98% of HTH’s graduates have been admitted to college or university, with approximately 80% admitted to four-year programs. About 35% of HTH graduates are first-generation college students, and 85% of their free school meals students complete degrees.  Astonishing.

The high schools in these four school design networks work.  Students in these schools all consistently outperform teenagers in conventionally sized, conventionally structured high schools with comparable demographics.  The system is learning to learn from them and the work has spawned other diffusion organisations – the Buck Institute supports robust models of project-based learning to spread; Bob Pearlman (formerly of NTN) curates a school reform and innovation web space.

There are also some common design features across all these models:

  • All include project-based learning, an engaging and empowering pedagogical model, which requires teachers to collaborative 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 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.

For the UK, the point of 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.  Yes, there are real schooling problems in many US States and cities, but the system is healthy and will be fine because it knows where it is heading.  It has great icons from which it can learn – as evidenced in two very current reform movements:  XQ America and Education Reimagined. They build from these iconic innovatory school designs with the intention of fostering a  transformation movement.

We do not (yet) have this tradition in the UK.  And not to have it simply means that we constantly focus on striving to improve the existing school model.  This is a model that is more than 100 years old and way, way, way out of date.  At is a model that has failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic challenge, or to engage the potentially disengaged learner (or to engage most learners, for that matter).  Nor has it provided teachers with an intellectually challenging profession, or excited and involved parents around the experience of their children.  Effectively, this means that innovation becomes limited to new ways of delivering the 60 minute subject-based lesson!

Innovation Unit has worked with many of those cited above, extensively with High Tech High.  Richly, too, with Big Picture, Expeditionary Learning and New Tech Network, and has learned much from Buck Institute and Bob Pearlman.  We believe it is time to start just such a movement in the UK.  There are four ways we are striving to do this:

  1. In partnership with others (such as School 21 Trust, Eos, Hartsholme Academy, XP School and others) we will celebrate and amplify the few existing models of new practice in the UK
  2. We will seek to infuse the airways with thought-leadership material – generate energy around the ideas, the evidence and the images of practice that mark out a direction of travel.  Valerie Hannon’s recently published book, “Thrive”, provides a compelling rationale and imperative and the IU’s twitter feed, David Price’s and my own will link to relevant materials
  3. Innovation Unit has established a School Design Lab to provide tools, processes and extended support for design of new school models and redesign of existing ones
  4. Innovation Unit is establishing a multi-academy trust (Extraordinary Learning Trust) of innovative new school designs, which will mean three things:
    1. Creating a different kind of MAT – a MAT that builds on the best that is known about school-to-school collaboration (e.g. HTH as a MAT or A Different Kind of MAT Story)
    2. Recruiting a diverse group of start-up primary schools that are already exceptional in relation to a shared set set of design principles – think of the Coalition’s “common principles for uncommon schools” and who will progressively influence the design of the Trust’s new secondary schools
    3. Building a coalition of members, trustees and partners around the work who are eager to support and enable its success.

With regard to the common principles, we believe that these might be the areas around which principles should form:

Slide 1

And our first take on what exactly these principles might be is below.  However, they will be further adapted in partnership with the founding schools and trustees.  The language may change, but the essence will remain – bold and ambitious statements that can distinguish ExL Trust’s diverse school models from those of the past.

If you have journeyed this far, thanks for reading and do make contact with us if you are excited about the proposition.

Slide 2


A Different Kind of MAT Story

A Different Kind of MAT Story

This blog is extracted from a book chapter about New York’s iZone – in particular iZone360, a school redesign programme initiated in 2010.  (The book is “Sustainable school transformation”, edited by David Crossley, Bloomsbury, 2013.)  The UK’s Innovation Unit was design partner to this programme for three years. 


By Spring 2010, New York’s Chancellor Joel Klein, and his Deputy Chancellor for Innovation, John White, had come to believe that the ‘industrial model’ of schooling was exhausted and could not deliver either college and career readiness for all students, or more equitable outcomes (both key performance indicators in the States). He also recognised the energy, ingenuity and commitment that was present in some ‘renegade’ schools who broke the rules and achieved beyond expectations.  Believing that new models of practice were required from which the system could learn, the New York City Department of Education launched one of the world’s most ambitious and intentional education innovation programmes. The rationale was simple:

“New York’s schooling system perceives a need for its young people to be enabled to achieve 21st century  standards that prepare them for post-secondary success by emphasising higher-order critical thinking, real-world application, and collaboration that will necessitate developing instructional capacity that our schools do not currently have.”

The ultimate aim of the strategy was to transform learning for the 1 million students in NYC’s 1,700 public schools through replacing the ‘industrial model’.  The ambition was to build schools round the needs, interests and motivations of individual students. Students enter schools as individuals, often now tech-savvy, with a diverse set of needs, capabilities and prior learning histories. Therefore, the new logic went, schools must reorient themselves to treat students as individual learners, where every child owns a unique education plan with his or her own path to personal and academic success.

The goal was to make personalisation the central approach to educating students, where learning would be about each student mastering skills and capabilities in her own way, at her own pace – much as is habitually modelled in music learning or with gaming technologies. Personalised approaches and mastery based assessment were the new foundation stones. In iZone360 schools, it would no longer be about advancing students through grade levels and tests based on age and time spent in class, but about supporting them to build the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to be successful in the world:

“We are committed to engage every child in a personalized, rigorous, and engaging learning plan that develops the skills they will need to succeed in the complex real-world situations they will face in college and career. It will motivate them by connecting their learning to real-world contexts and empowering them to define and manage their own academic progress.”

There was also a belief that this transition couldn’t happen without an incubation strategy for pioneer schools such as that provided by iZone – as shown in the diagram below.


During the 2010-11 school year this high-level vision for ‘personalised mastery learning’ was articulated one level further, identifying four pillars or principles:

  1. Personalised learning plans and progress
  2. Flexible and real world learning environments (multiple learning modalities, learning anytime, anywhere, on- and off-line, project-based)
  3. What was called ‘next generation’ curriculum and assessment
  4. New student and staff roles (advisor, tutor, mentor, designer, facilitator, peer-tutor).

The ambition for iZone – which already had a history and body of work in technology innovation (iLearn) and school component innovation (Innovate NYC) – was expanded to include a third component, iZone360, with the following brief:

iZone 360 – a community of practice of schools committed to whole school redesign through the integration of components and practices into whole new schooling models of highly successful 21st Century personalised learning – on behalf of the whole system.

It is this emphasis on whole school redesign and its wider system implications that offers interesting possibilities for the UK system. 

iZone360 – a system transformation strategy

From its outset two things created energy for this bold work. The first was an utterly irrefutable case for change supported by a strong mandate, an impatience for innovation, from the Chancellor, Joel Klein.  He was convinced by his own life-experience as a poor New Yorker, profoundly believing that education could, and should, do the same for the current generation’s poor – those who have consistently been failed by the schooling system – as it did for him.

The second was a compelling vision of an alternative pedagogical paradigm and the re-design principles around which new school models should emerge.  This was well-defined in theory, but also intentionally open to multiple interpretations in practice. (New York has never set out to create a definitive new model. Pluralism, multiple models, choice possibilities all better describe the case. The consistency lies in fidelity to the design principles.)  The five point theory of action was straightforward enough:

  1. identify principals of ambitious and potentially ‘renegade’ schools willing to engage in radical school re-design within a strong community of practice (think a MAT arrangement), working on behalf of the entire system
  2. build the design around a clear diffusion strategy – animate that wider system around the work and connect it such that the foundations of a diffusion strategy are present from the outset
  3. create new forums wherein the emergent strategy and implementation challenges can be collectively shared and problem-solved by all key actors
  4. incubate the schools by utilising resources flexibly, including service design expertise, multiple professional learning approaches, support from expert ‘model design partners’, use of innovation disciplines, provision of innovation coaches and a range of other supports – including relevant deregulation
  5. learn from the work, codifying practices in ways that support diffusion and scale across the system.

In addition, the ambition was always to co-design the evolution of this strategy with participant principals, such that the DOE personnel and school leaders could learn the way forward together – much in the spirit of a ‘systemic action enquiry strategy’. The significance of this (in theory) is obvious: on the one hand, in the short-term creating radically new school models requires de-regulation and safe space – systemically enabling conditions; new policy and practice enablers. Longer-term, scaling of these models would involve all system actors learning alongside one another how to adapt expectations, supports and accountabilities to new schooling and learning approaches.

Simple examples of what is implied by this might be that in new school designs the State’s ‘seat-time’ (school attendance) regulations may become anachronistic; teachers’ working conditions might need to change; universal assessment dates (grade-level testing) may become counter-productive; age-cohorting students might be redundant; attendance in learning may be more valuable than attendance in school; the regulation school calendar may be inhibiting. The shared learning ambitions were designed in part to wrestle with such emergent issues of experimentation, unlearning and abandonment.

This co-design intent and its underpinning trust-based commitment, the community of practice approach, the ‘on behalf of the system’ moral purpose of the work – and the total belief that professionals have it within their power to be the school and system redesigners given appropriate license and supports, made iZone360 an archetypically progressive policy strategy.  Jurisdictions can learn from this alone – it isn’t policy-makers best equipped to effect change; it is practice leaders.

iZone 360 – a whole school redesign story

iZone360 was initially a cohort of 26 schools (later 50 schools) deliberately drawn from across the geography of New York City.  Some were the most highly developed schools such as City As School, iSchool, NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies or WHEELS. Others were ‘regular schools’ wanting to become profoundly less regular. Yet another group were new schools still at the design stage (think Free Schools).  What this diverse group had in common was the desire to redesign around the core principles below – and to help one another with that ambition.


Each school chose an external school design partner to work with them (such as Big Picture, Apple or New Tech Network).  The idea was not for the schools to adopt the design partner’s model, but to draw from their expertise in creating a distinctive ‘next generation’ NYC model. Beyond this, ‘component partners’ were also commissioned to bring expertise in key elements of the work, which could be anything from technology systems to advisories; simulations to project-based learning; scheduling to community mobilisation.  They meant business.

Each school also established their own Design Team – guided by protocols – which was to include the principal, a team leader and a cohort of staff who together had the potency to transform the school. As a community, the schools committed to a six-day design process spread across the year, together with school-based support in-between.  This approach involved the progressive introduction of robust and disciplined methods to design, prototype, evaluate, and support the scaling of new school models – a component led by the Innovation Unit.

In addition, affinity groups were established around common themes and issues; school-to-school peer support and challenge figured prominently; and the principals formed a leadership council to take ownership of the ambition together with senior DOEn personnel.

What has all this to do with UK MATs?

It may be a surprise that his blog is not about New York, nor about the iZone.  It is about an innovation strategy with the ambition and the power to begin to effect system transformation.  It is about the potency and variety of school-to-school collaboration designs.  An earlier blog post featured High Tech High – viewed through the lens of a MAT. This post attempts to do the same for iZone360, by viewing it as a MAT specifically designed to build a body of practice of value to the system.

Put another way, what this post says is this:

  • It would be distinctly possible to establish a MAT of schools committed to designing and creating new school models, as iZone 360 did
  • It would be equally possible to agree the set of ambitious design principles around which each school would then express its own radical purposes and originality.  iZone360’s are above; try these as a UK starting point:



  • Such a MAT could also agree and monitor the most rigorous success indicators and ambitions for student learning – far beyond the limited range of test results that currently constrain educational imagination – and evaluate its collective and component success against these measures
  • Such a MAT would function also as both a collaborative community and a community of practice (COP) – a group of schools committed to each other’s success and to building a collective body of knowledge to inform new practices – like iZone360
  • As a group of, say, 20 schools striving towards ambitious new designs, the COP would be well placed to utilise international links with groups of schools like Big Picture Learning, ConnectEd California, Edvision Schools, Envision Education, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High, New Tech Network and others, as well as with some of the major pedagogical developments such as the Deeper Learning movement – just as iZone 360 was able to do
  • A MAT of innovative schools could generate energy in the system – much as Eos is beginning to do for primary schools across the UK and as iZone360 did in the States. It could use its people, its practice and its connections to build associates and progressively a movement around the work
  • The MAT might include some existing established schools wishing to further redesign and reinvent themselves.  It could also incorporate Free Schools wanting to use the capacity of the schools within the MAT to create and implement new school designs – just as iZone360 did
  • It is hard to imagine, too, that it wouldn’t be possible to draw into this compelling vision some significant system players who might act as supporters and advocates – individuals, organisations, philanthropic entities.

So that is the pitch.  Two blog posts, each describing the kind of MAT that could act as icons for a new kind of schooling and learning.

Interested?  Feel free to comment.


Making Virtue Out Of A Crisis

Making Virtue Out Of A Crisis

Sometimes, especially in the notoriously risk-averse world of education, a looming crisis can turn out to be a very good thing.

A while ago, I presented at a conference in Leeds for Bradford’s headteachers. A week later I was involved in conversations with early years providers in Corby.

They were completely different sectors of the service, but they had something in common. Both were considering radically new local arrangements stimulated by the precipitous feeling of standing on a burning platform. In such situations you can dig in and retrench (put your head in the sand, or fight the cuts) or you can turn and face the danger – see it as an energy source and imperative for change, and design new sets of possibilities.

The latter is what, in different ways, each of these were doing.  In Bradford, secondary heads had been working together to create a shared vision statement and agreed values (supported by the still visionary Tim Brighouse) with a view to creating a formal coalition across all the schools. The thinking, which was before the world of Academy Trusts and MATs, was that they might form a Trust or a Collegiate or Co-operative Academy. At the time we met, there was a journey still to be travelled. However, the intention was to design together a trust which could:

  • agree aspects of policy and strategy
  • deploy expertise across the schools
  • differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need
  • enable practice to transfer more readily between schools.

In a phrase, heads would commit together to taking collective responsibility for the success of all students, and they would provide educational leadership across the city (rather than ‘institutional leadership’, which had often been as much competitive as collegiate).

Even then, there was nothing much new in pursuing school-to-school collaboration. What was different was its formalization at such a scale. A Trust (or an Academy Collegiate) represented a breakthrough for two reasons. One was the sustainability of the arrangements – governance endures beyond the more ephemeral influence or will of leaders passionate about the idea. Leaders move on; governance endures. The other is that a Trust provides a single voice to engage with external partners – whether they are Trust partners, school improvement agencies, community groups, or the Local Authority. The schools were able to speak together, with one voice – and to have that voice be a significant voice.

In Corby there were four Children’s Centres, all facing huge budget cuts. Early years work in Corby was well developed, and professionals were confident enough to know that they had done some great work in a town desperately in need of the regenerative contribution of early years.  But that wasn’t seen as being nearly good enough. They were still not reaching most of those most in need. Cuts to the existing service would set Corby back years.

Their proposal (an outcome of the Innovation Unit’s Radical Efficiency programme) was to create a fifth ‘virtual Children’s Centre’, owned and run by parents. This would be town-wide, so spanning the four existing centres, embracing them, incorporating them. It would have no formal home, but would use community-based facilities (municipal, private and domestic) and would use trained parent (and grandparent) volunteers as a field force to mobilise involvement and to design provision: “to enhance intelligence gathering and provision of appropriate support in areas where disengaged and disillusioned families ‘hang out’”.

The idea was that power to commission and decommission services could be placed in the hands of parents by devolving some of the combined early years budget to this parent-led cooperative or mutual (the virtual ‘fifth’ children’s centre) to support and empower both the parent-led service model and its commissioning from existing centres.

I’ll be honest.  I have my doubts about whether these ambitious ideas will by now have come to full realisation.  The volatilities that impede system change like this are multiple and, at that time, the ‘burning platform’ may not have seemed life threatening enough. However, both were virtuous and ambitious and public spirited – and should have happened.  Yet neither would have occurred, never mind happened, without the threat of cuts and the disruptive instability that national policies were creating in the Local Authorities.

Both had the potential to be radically different, much lower cost and significantly better. That’s radically efficient public sector innovation.  And the reason it seems so relevant today is because all the background issues, the imperatives for change, are even more obvious and pressing – and that is an opportunity to reimagine together.