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we don’t talk about is the fact that our model of schooling and learning is now more than a hundred years old and way out of date.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.

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2 thoughts on “Why we’re opening a Big Picture Learning school in the UK

  1. Great initiative but why are academic results and entry rates to HE the yardsticks by which the quality of the innovative schools you refer to is assessed? Is that not symptomatic of the ‘inappropriate ‘ system?

  2. Totally agree. These are not the way that they judge themselves,but extrapolated statistics that help the world to understand that something special is happening. BPL would judge itself on relationships (subjective), work contributions (less so, but both exhibitions of learning, and community internship success is hard to translate) and progression pathways (about which they don’t have a view regarding whether College, university or work is more virtuous). So, they publicise ‘graduation rate’ – which in the US means finishing school and progressing – because that allows comparison with the wider system. High Tech High defined ‘college qualified’ as their single success criteria, because they believed that every young person (a) has the potential to progress and (b) has an entitlement to choices. Whether students choose to progress to College is not the issue – the HTH school(s) equip 97% of a comprehensive intake of learners with that choice – using personalised and project-based pedagogies.

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