Being Brave

SpaceWriting in 1924 in A Tract on Monetary Reform John Maynard Keynes noted that ‘worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputations to fail conventionally than succeed unconventionally.’   Keynes’ aphorism was rooted in an observation about bankers and how they all seem to fail in remarkably similar ways.  But the comment applies equally to many other walks of life.

Consider schools. Despite the rhetoric of change and the impact of technology new schools tend to look remarkably like the schools they are replacing.  There may be the odd larger space or two, wider corridors but essentially the design reflects the idea that work will be undertaken in a variety of different spaces.  As a consequence children still continue to move after their hour lesson and the teachers for the most part remain static.  Spaces are in very real senses ‘owned’ by adults.  And against this backdrop children are nomads carting their belongings around in a variety of bags as nomads do everywhere.

Once this standard design is fixed everything else slots into place.  The curriculum is broken up into slabs of time at the end of which the children move along.  It is a batch production process in all but name and still reflects its industrial factory heritage.

This approach of the factory school as a preparation for the factory life operated quite well. In its classic form fifty or sixty years ago relationships were indifferent or buttoned up at best.  There was a sense that the life of the individual mattered little as children spoken to by their last name could be routinely punished and beaten for infringement of the rules.

Of course this isn’t the case today and schools are friendlier places – or at least they try to be. Yet few schools experiment very much with space and time.  Consequently the alignment between the school as an institution and the wider world that students will one day experience remains wide and growing.  The reasons for this are probably rooted in Keynes’ comments and also the extraordinary degree to which, state run enterprises, they appear shielded from market mechanisms of cost and efficiency.

Behind the schools lie the architecture of state educational bureaucracies.  These institutions provide the funding and exercise various degrees of control over individual schools.  Although they often profess an interest in efficiency and cost reduction the reality is that they recognise the short term political cycles that they operate within and often simply ride these out. There are many conferences nationally and internationally talking about system redesign and the like but the truth is it never happens.  Bureaucracies have an inherent interest in protecting their own bailiwicks and resisting significant change whilst at the same time professing themselves as being significant modernisers.  But bureaucracies are staffed by human beings and who would risk his or her career on a new-fangled idea that may not work?  Failure is seldom rewarded, but the consequence of this is that change is so limited because everyone plays safe.

What might more modern approaches look like? Larger spaces for children is one component with more use of on-line materials and, indeed, courses. This would mean a very different conception of time arrangements within school and the end of large numbers of children moving endlessly with all their possessions.  Instead teachers might move and the configuration of lessons would look somewhat different with some on-line approaches augmented by tutorials.  In fact, in this model pupil grouping could vary from the lecture hall size, through to the seminar and tutorial.  Intelligent metrics would guide the whole process and the pupil could track their work and how well they were progressing on line.

This model would replicate the world that young people will eventually work in where skills of self-management, and resilience are to the fore as is the nature of a modern open environment.  There is also the possibility within this approach of having students learn elsewhere during the week with work placements possible and on-line learning taking place at home for some of the time.  Efficiencies here would further reduce the size and cost of the school.  A multi track model of having students start in a staggered fashion within the timings of 8-30 to 5-30 would further reduce demand for space and hence reduce cost.

To achieve any of this we need school leaders to be brave and take risks in planning new approaches.  If we simply wait we could be waiting a very long time before we see significant change.  Instead governments need to be bold in advocating modernity if they are truly committed to more efficient and progressive approaches to education.  Too often we see these things as something for the long run, but as Keynes also noted:

“Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead”

The Way We Live Now

QualificationI came out of the Old Street Tube on my way to a meeting when I was stopped by a young girl asking for money. Something in the look of despair in her eyes made me stop.  ‘I’ve only got a fiver.  Have you got a couple of quid change?’  She had and handed it over.  So, curious, I asked her what brought her to pan-handling outside a tube station in London.

Over two minutes I got the story. She was 21 and had left home because her mother was impossible in some unspecified way.  Her sister was in care and her brother had run off.  So she, — Annie was her name – had got on a train without a ticket and fled to London a week ago.  Since then she had been trying to get a job doing anything and had been living in a grave yard at night.  The problem was that without a residence Annie could not get a job very easily and nor could she get any benefits to enable her to get somewhere to live.

The people at a London Job Centre had told Annie that because she was homeless she was deemed to have no living costs so therefore was not entitled to any payments.  It was a classic Catch 22.  She now was trying to raise £22-50 to buy a week’s accommodation in a London shelter.  It didn’t seem a lot of money.

‘What can you do?’ I asked.  She replied that she could do horse training and riding although we both agreed there wasn’t a lot of demand for that in London. Annie was prepared to do any menial job and GCSEs I asked?  Yes eight all A*-Cs but she couldn’t stay in school because of her family circumstances.

After all this I gave her some money.  Maybe she was not what she seemed and I had been conned.  But she had seemed genuine and not an addict.  It was I reflected the face of England in 2013 where nearly a million 16 to 24 year olds are unemployed.  Many of them are doubtless complex cases like Annie’s.  And like Annie they have qualifications and want to work.  Yet either there are no jobs or where there are we prefer to make their lives difficult by withholding small amounts of money that would actually help them gain work.

More significantly Annie’s case speaks to the broader shape of the educational landscape.  How does it prepare young people for their complex lives?  A focus on skills of self-management and grit would help as would the possibility of job creation for the young in order that they might experience work and not end up on the streets.  More generally is it not time to reassess our Victorian attitudes to schooling?  What we teach should reflect the realities of modern life.  Instead we are still hanging on to notional subjects that have vastly changed since Victorian times.  Where are the new subjects reflecting areas of research at university?  Only computer science has made it onto the curriculum in recent years, whilst practical vocational subjects have been elbowed out as being too easy.  Yet for many thousands of our students these areas of study relate directly to work.  Once again the academic has triumphed in England over the vocational.

Why not have a curriculum divided into units or credits that could be earned and might reflect individual student interest and choice?  Out would go the terminal assessment and in would come the need for a number of credits to graduate from high school at the age of eighteen.  Those seeking to go to university might study advanced courses in their area of interest and undertake additional examinations and course work.

Within this model we would see English schools begin to shift away from the factory model of production as at present and move towards greater individualisation and choice.  It would see a thousand flowers bloom.  But perhaps too much for today’s politicians whatever their persuasion.

Whether such a model might have helped Annie is a moot point given the complexities of her home situation, but it might have provided a richer set of skills on which to build.