ON SHAPING A NEW NORMAL
There is a big debate going on at the moment – one of those #EduTwitter debates – about returning (or not) to normal. And rightly so.
Our school systems are broken. Let’s grab this chance to remake them, Peter Hyman’s latest piece, published in last week’s Observer, encapsulates what many think we ought to focus on to reshape the education sector. His article comes as a kind of light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.
Hyman, as he spells out the beginnings of a ‘manifesto for change’ focuses on four key areas:
- Rebalancing our schools. Covid-19 has made us reflect on what makes us centred as human beings. It has become clearer to us, as parents and teachers, that academic ability is not enough.
- We need smarter assessment and intelligent accountability.
- Skilful use of technology.
- A different type of school leadership, a different kind of teacher.
I wholeheartedly sympathise with Hyman’s views and those at Big Education – I have for a long time. The need to ‘deliver a bigger and bolder vision of what education can be about’ is why I became a teacher in the first place, and then why I trained as a headteacher. By aligning myself with Big Education’s overarching aim, I therefore recognise my own bias for what I think is the purpose of education, as well as what this means in terms of what I’d want to see happening in our children’s classrooms, halls, and playgrounds.
The school I established in 2014 and which I led from its inception for over six and a half years, like School 21 and Surrey Square Primary School, was very much rooted in a ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ model, strongly arguing for an equal balance between each part.
The question I often ask myself, though, when it comes to ensuring that this expansive agenda is one which is more fully recognised – and applied – within the English education system is ‘what does/will it take for our hopes to become reality?’.
I think we can do this in three ways:
- By creating networks of support, for hope is a collective endeavour.
- By creating a more cohesive eco-system which builds relationships with more stakeholders: leaders, teachers, parents/carers and young people, and employers.
- By being political about moving our agenda forward: recommendations only ever get implemented if power is built and applied strategically.
A) ISOLATION IS THE ENEMY OF HOPE
Firstly, there’s comfort in knowing that you’re not on your own. Not only that, but being part of a team/group/network can often amplify and accelerate your work and the impact you seek to have. As many of us aim to move our schools towards a world which is more aligned with what our views and hopes are – what people at/involved with Big Education call Paradigm B – it’s vitally important that we talk to each other, work together, and support each other across our schools. Isolation often inhibits hope and often gets in the way of innovation. Programmes such as the Big Leadership Adventure create the space necessary for leaders to not only get to know each other – sharing and debating their views, hopes, and aspirations – but also enable the partnerships needed to feel braver and more courageous. By focusing on creating trust – a process itself based on appreciative and expansive practices – meaningful partnerships can be established and collaborative endeavours shaped. Through such networks, new models and new systems are being created.
As we aim to reshape the way education is delivered in our schools, and beyond the simple fact that it is useful to learn from, and support, each other, the reassurance gained from a collective voice is key. It gives us protection. It helps shape a shared vision and a shared set of strategies to move things forward. Adopting shared methodologies which enable us to train our staff in delivering meaningful sequences of learning which engage our students in working in their local neighbourhoods, for instance, or adopting shared methodologies which enable our teams to develop quality assurance systems rooted in co-construction, rather than being rooted in top-down accountability systems, helps us shape a collective agenda which gives substance to our aim to ‘deliver a bigger and bolder vision of what education can be about’.
B) STRATEGIC PLANNING: BROAD REACH AND SPECIFIC FOCUS
Secondly, let’s be strategic about broadening our reach and, thirdly, navigating our way to power.
To address my second and third points, I find it useful to reflect on the way Citizens UK Commissions have often been organised. The premise behind a citizens-run commission (notably Citizens for Sanctuary’s Independent Asylum Commission) is that:
- It needs to be focused on building power – the more people who get involved, the more power you build.
- It needs to be focused on practical changes which are rooted in pragmatism (i.e. not idealistic) – the more specific you are, the more chances you have to win.
- It needs to be focused on specific actions aimed at getting people in power to react – the clearer you are about those who can make the decisions you’re aiming to influence, the more targeted your approach will be.
Most of the issues we’re trying to influence are political ones. The way our accountability system is designed and, as a consequence, the way our most of our curricula are shaped, are the result of political decisions made by a handful of ministers – if that. Decisions are made by a selected few and then policies are shaped by officials at the Department for Education – and its regulator Ofsted. These policies result in the way we run many aspects of our schools. Whether we like it or not, this is the game we’re in.
Of course, there is always an element of flexibility within this argument: many of the experiences we shape for our children can be based on sets of preferences and I’m not saying that school leaders don’t control the way they run their schools. What I’m arguing, though, is that there are clear limits which define what is acceptable and what isn’t. and It is those limits which many of us feel uncomfortable about: the aims set by those currently in charge don’t chime with our sense of what a meaningful education is about.
So, step one – let’s build our internal power: let’s be intentional about having those conversations and let’s broaden our reach – internally, within our schools. In the same way as some school leaders enjoy talking about what education is about, what it could look like, and what should happen in our schools, let’s turn our staffrooms, our classrooms, and our playgrounds into dialogic places which engage our school communities in bold discussions.
What the Learning from Lockdown exercise is showing us is that there is great appetite for engaging in such discussions. Therefore, let’s carry on with this process and find ways to redefine what our schools can do locally. Headteachers, staff, students, and parents/carers, as well as members of the local community could take part in series of workshops and debates, in small groups and larger groups, identifying what their hopes and aspirations are, as well as focusing on what the disabling/enabling forces are within our current systems.
Step two – let’s build our local – eco-systemic – power: this local process would enable school communities to agree what is doable at a local level. It would enable all stakeholders to also discuss what is realistic within their local context (and taking into account the limitations placed on individual schools).
Now, and with the help of a Community Organiser (whose job it is to build relationships and partnerships across civil society institutions), broaden this process and get school communities to engage in conversations within a broader alliance, say across a local authority. Not only could local partnerships be established, but you could also agree what a local agenda for change might look like. It could be that some local structures could be created or challenged to better meet the needs of schools. It could be that the local educational landscape could become more relevant and meaningful. It could be that local ecosystems, bringing together schools, creative industries (museums, galleries, libraries, etc.), as well as employers, could be created, giving rise to ‘education learning zones’, providing young people and families with thus-far untapped opportunities.
Step three – let’s build our national power: more systemically, and in terms of addressing the bigger issues which affect our system, there needs to be a way to get those local networks to connect and broaden the discussion. For issues such as assessment, accountability, the ‘rebalancing’ of the national curriculum, it will take a national effort to bring about the change we seek.
From the many local discussions carried out, you could easily imagine a set of recommendations – many of which are already being put forward in the Learning from Lockdown blogs.
C) DEMOCRACY: IT’S EITHER YOUR AT THE TABLE OR YOU’RE ON THE MENU
Ours, whether we agree or not – is a democratic society. Whilst many will argue that democracy is flawed – as evidenced in a recent global survey from the new Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge – there are ways we can influence change using some of the existing democratic structures we have at our disposal. But for this to work, we need to be tactical.
There have been many recommendations made by a number of groups, think-tanks, research groups, etc. But we often wonder why many of the suggested recommendations don’t lead to actual change. That’s because, I’d argue, change cannot happen in a vacuum.
In the same way as The Independent Asylum Commission organised local and national conversations focusing on the immigration system in the UK, and in the same way as lists of recommendations were being put forward (what came to be described as The Sanctuary Pledge), so were teams across the country being built to reach out to elected officials. And this is the key difference: if we want to shift the agenda, we have to be savvy about where we need to exert some pressure.
Local delegations of teachers, students, parents/carers, neighbours who’ve been part of the process of defining what a more expansive education system could look like need to meet with local MPs and negotiate with them. We need to be savvy enough to show elected officials that the recommendations we’ve put forward and which are of national relevance (e.g. assessment, accountability, national curriculum-related issues, etc.) should be recognised. The more powerful we are (i.e. the more people/groups we involve in this process) and the more tactical we are (thinking about marginal seats, for instance), the more chances we have to get recognised. After all – and let’s be clear about this – this is the way negotiations work in any context. They’re based on power dynamics.
Such a process, as part of The Independent Asylum Commission’s work, led to the most of the recommendations being supported by a large number of local MPs which, in turn led to key amendments being adopted by Parliament, leading to changes in national policy. Most notably, the ending of child detention for immigration purposes – one of the key recommendations – was inscribed into law thanks to the work of many local delegations negotiating with local MPs.
This works is what democracy is about: it’s about building coalitions which are broad and powerful enough to be recognised by elected officials – elected officials who, in the end, often call the shots. We need to sit at the table of power otherwise, as is often the case, we’ll simply end up on the menu…