Monday, 5 December 2011

Opting into PISA’s 2012 problem solving test

Here's a virtual contribution to today's Whole Education conference.

The idea is straightforward; putting it into practice would probably involve overcoming torturous bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles.

It concerns next year’s PISA new problem solving test which will be run alongside the usual literacy and numeracy assessments, and is being taken by 43 out of 66 OECD countries. The Department for Education has decided to opt out, as it does not wish to ‘overburden schools.’ There are obvious ideological reasons behind this, although Michael Gove’s thoughtful speech to the Schools Network Conference last week did suggest a broader philosophy of education, acknowledging the need to bring teaching and learning up to date with the demands of current society and workplaces.

The OECD is initiating these tests since “we need to assess problem-solving abilities as governments around the world seek to equip young people with the skills they need for life and employment.” The DfE may have been put off by some of the baggage which the OECD has attached to the problem solving framework around “progressive teaching methods”. The test “aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient. “ This is not the language to attract sceptics within and beyond DfE. However, this is not about a battle between so-called traditional and modern pedagogies; it’s simply after a robust assessment of outcomes, regardless of methods.

Can a group of UK organisations work with OECD to ‘opt in’ to this test? We would find a representative sample of schools, using all the appropriate OECD methodologies, (to avoid tainting our sample with too many skills-serious schools).

Assessing skills is difficult; The QCDA came close with a strong, jargon-free analysis of personal learning and thinking skills, but this never gained traction in enough schools, or developed into a common assessment framework. Our refusal to grasp the skills assessment challenge is part of the reason why the daft and destructive knowledge vs. skills battle that overshadows too much education debate never goes away.

Although we might have concerns about a computer-based problem solving assessment, the OECD and Pearson’s combined approach is likely to be very high quality and as evidence-based as possible. Taking these tests in 2012 would provide England with a benchmark for improvement over time and in comparison with other nations. Who knows? We might even come in the top three, and benefit from a boom in educational tourism, as foreign educators come pleading ‘why can’t we be like the English?’

... or Scottish, or Welsh, for that matter. I can’t find out whether they are participating – can anyone help? I am aiming to build a broad coalition of organisations who could help us work with OECD to ensure that as many nations in the UK as possible participate in this test in 2012. We will need organisations that can mobilise thousands of school leaders – the NAHT and ACSL maybe but Whole Education might also play a role. 

There may be an obvious flaw in my proposal. And it might be better for us all to lobby for the DfE to change its mind. But until told otherwise, we will keep pursuing this idea. If information is power, information gathering could be empowering. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

From an EBacc to a MeBacc

The briefest of blog plugs for a terrific collection of short articles on Creativity Money and Love: Learning for the 21st Century, commissioned by Creative and Cultural Skills and A New Direction.

My chapter describes a proposal for a MeBacc. The idea is better than the name, I promise.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Leading Cultural Learning part two: dazed and confused

So, where did all those stories leave me? I used to think and say, frequently and stridently, that cultural organisations needed to put learning at the core of their mission and operation. Now I'm not so sure. All I can offer are a few maybes.

Maybe we need to recognise the tension between cultural and educational 'pedagogies'. As Susan Sontag once wrote, the role of the artist is to make things more complex. Generally, the role of the teacher is to explain, simplify, ensure understanding. In learning through culture, how can we make sure that the arts aren't serving a more reductive learning agenda that they probably won't serve that well anyway.

Maybe learning is best left as an unintended or unplanned outcome of the artistic opportunities that artists and organisations provide through making and showing work - creating spaces where learning can happen, but might not.

Maybe the most effective educational strategy is for artists and organisations to focus on the quality of their products, and make sure that as many different kinds of people as possible engage. This requires serious, sustained targeting at 'not yet reached' audiences, rather than random acts of cultural kindness, and needs a reclamation of the concept of audience engagement from marketeers.

Is this cultural learning heresy? One person thought my views were straight from the 19th Century. I made it clear that I wasn't arguing for the abandonment of education officers, departments and programmes. Too much great work and progress has been made, and England's cultural learning infrastructure is the envy of much of the world. I also wasn't arguing against those whose mission is largely or entirely focused on learning. Their work adds huge value to our artistic and educational landscape.

I also suggested that there might be some fascinating work to do in terms of the learning offer of the arts-producing SMEs - the small producing or touring companies, festivals and other venue-free ventures, who might be able to offer much more to children and young people with some minor tweaking and regearing.

But I am not sure what I am arguing for... and maybe that reflects the problem and potential of art's relationship with public policy and public services.  The education sector and wider policy world are crammed with people who are more certain of their position than their position deserves... who put doubts aside to exaggerate the strength or their argument. How can art compete in this environment? As Wayne MacGregor once said, 'the job of the artist is to not know'.

I also know that we're dealing with an education sector that, more than ever, is systematically wired to neglect the arts, and relies on cultural partners to cover up for their deficiencies. And we are also facing a cultural sector that, despite the Arts Council goals, strategies and occasional words, is also subtly being offered the option to 'stick to their knitting' (and maybe my 'maybes' above are guilty of this too). With the  Henley Review about to offer recommendations to government, those passionate about cultural learning need to lobby collectively and coherently - rumours are that there's money to be released. But as we coalesce and create ever more stunning evidence for the power of cultural learning, let's nurture rather than neglect our doubts about the whole enterprise - ultimately, doubt may be our most valuable currency.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Leading Cultural Learning part one: six stories, no ending

I was asked to speak to this year’s cohort of Clore Fellows. Ten minutes as an interlocutor (I had to look it up) on ‘leading cultural learning’. I thought I’d risk a new riff, moving far from my standard creative learning patter to reveal my inner confusion. I started with six stories, told in chronological order.

Story One: 1997
As a teacher, I had no real affinity with the arts. To my shame, I didn’t teach one dance lesson in five years, and the visual art I attempted was too rare and too shoddy. I did however play around with drama, especially for assemblies. I remember creating a lavish assembly for an OFSTED inspection. Oblivious to those men with clipboards at the back of the hall, my Year Five Class performed a rousing history of the Jarrow crusade, complete with a couple of historically misplaced Woodie Guthrie songs. OFSTED failed the assembly, as it did not include an act of collective worship.

Story Two: 2002
As a parent, I remember visiting Tate Britain with my two toddlers to see Michael Landy’s childhood home, rebuilt in painstaking detail in the centre of the main hall. It was a powerful experience, provoking emotions around identity, memory, and family. Whilst recovering from this art thunderbolt, I wondered what my children were making of this. Before I had the chance to find out, I had been dragged into a nearby room, and forced to make cardboard box homes with my kids. The Tate’s family learning programme had destroyed any chance of engagement with its art.

Story Three: 2009
On my Clore placement to the Theatre Royal Stratford East, I met one of their young Associate Directors. A few years before, as part of the youth theatre, he had, with friends, devised a dance piece based on the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. It had rapidly moved onto the theatre’s main stage, and two years on was now the Barbican’s Christmas show. He was now CEO of his own company, Blue Boy Entertainment.

Story Four: 2010
At a think tank seminar, the artistic director of a large venue talked about how education was now at the centre of his organisation. He claimed that his own programming decisions were now more informed by the education department’s views than by anybody else. I thought ‘you’re lying, and I don’t know why you’re lying.’

Story Five : 2011
In one of my final visits to a Creative Partnerships school, I visited a secondary school which had done some wonderful programmes over five years, most recently working with a visual artist on ‘museum of love’ to explore concepts of love in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The creative agent at the school, who was managing the programme, talked about how she had tried to ban the word art and artist from discussions with pupils and teachers.

Story Six: 2011 again
Last month, I was talking to someone in the arts education world. I was telling her about some schools which were thinking of starting ‘look clubs’, after school clubs where pupils would visit museums, galleries, buildings and landscapes, with an emphasis on looking and contemplation, rather than drawing or doing. She scoffed at me: ‘that’s not very participatory!’

Conclusions to be drawn… in next blog.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Beetroot Boris to bring back ILEA?

Over a lunch with journalists, Boris Johnson yesterday suggested what Ken wouldn't dare - that maybe the mayor needs some influence over London's schools.

His logic is good. So much of the rest of his agenda for London depends on improving educational outcomes, especially for the poorest families. And the GLA has the potential to do so much more. Although many local authority support services are excellent, and the move towards self-financing principles of 'buy-back' are sharpening up or closing down many others, the oft-expressed assertion that London councils are too small to do the big things well and too big to do the small things well might be true for several aspects of education - special needs or school transport, for example.

One of Boris' aides Munira Mirza has been doing some excellent work banging heads together and provoking people and organisations to provide a better cultural education for all young people in London. This shows what is strategically possible. The mayor's sponsoring of two academies is a stranger move, but is probably symptomatic of his frustration about having no direct routes into influencing London's schools.

The Daily Telegraph wrote back in 2006 that 'power in education in everywhere and nowhere'. The ongoing fragmentation of the school system means this is more true now than ever. How would another tier of authority play into this landscape? Does Boris want to take power from schools, Local Authorities, academy chains, or even the Department for Education?

Rather than 'seeking input' to a random mix of education issues, Boris needs to go back to first principles: What in education could the GLA be accountable for, and why?  And once we've answered these questions, two others follow:

  • What should the GLA do to support schools?
  • What should the GLA do to challenge schools?

Boris should also recognise the strengths and successes he could build on. London's schools are now outperforming most of the rest of the country, and  improvements in certain inner London boroughs are staggering. The percentages attending private schools has plateaued and may even be falling. Rising school populations has been partly caused by a decline in middle class family flight to the suburbs or beyond. The  'apartheid' of racial and social segregation in London schools that the head teacher of City of London School claimed we were 'sleepwalking towards' just isn't happening, especially compared to many Northern cities. Stephen Gorard's statistical work is especially useful here. Urban school systems around the world are dealing with similar issues around poverty, diversifying populations and other urban stress points, and may have much to learn from London as a case study.  

London's schools certainly don't have all the answers, and many of them are still in need of transformation. But before proposing new policy prescriptions, structures or funding streams for London's schools, it might be worth a deeper analysis of the last decade. Schooling in London: What went right?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Free Schools: pioneers or land grabbers

I have no ideological problem with Free Schools. My decade-old book on parent school relationships recommended that government experiment with parent-led provision. Free Schools could form an important R and D arm of our education system, providing they are properly researched and evaluated – everything this government says about Free Schools and Academies smells of optimism bias, and opponents have the opposite problem. As for Academies, my daughter goes to one, I have mentored Teach First teachers in a couple, and at Creative Partnerships I saw outstanding practice in many of them.

My problem is with Academy-speak, and what the rhetoric about free schools and Academies implies about the other few thousand schools out there. Government never claims that all local authority schools are failing – the evidence is too contrary, and GCSE successes in schools such as Bethnal Green Technology College (in a borough with no Academies) prevent any brash assertions. However, there are constant hints that those institutions and individuals which choose not to extract themselves from Local Authority so-called ‘control’ are somehow dull, stubborn or both. In this week’s DfE announcement about the creation of 79 new Free Schools, Michael Gove argued that “the people who are driving Free Schools and UTCs are true pioneers. They are leading a revolution in the education system.”

A bit like the PM’s call for real excellence, it’s hard to know what he means by true pioneers. Many of these schools are taking interesting approaches, from prioritising foreign languages  to linking with independent schools. But every innovation happening in free schools could take place, and probably is taking place, in local authority schools.

The Schools White Paper also gave the same impression about Academies, as if any school not taking the Academy route had some kind of deficiency in capacity or ambition. At a recent academies event, one principal allegedly claimed that ‘only academies have true moral purpose’.

The decision made by hundreds of outstanding schools not to become Academies is not necessarily down to lethargy or timidity. It may be a positive choice around wanting to remain part of a family of schools, an understanding about what extra funding might not buy, or even a quaint love of local democratic accountability. Moreover, conversion is a bureaucratic process, and its consequences can create added bureaucracy. Many heads are simply choosing to focus on learning and leadership – standards, not structures.

For Free School and Academy leaders are in a sense bureaucratic pioneers. Their central freedoms, around admissions, assets and staffing, are mainly bureaucratic, not educational. Their liberty to veer from the national curriculum lies largely untaken.

Many academy heads are fantastic leaders, and there does appear to be an ‘academy state of mind’ of bullish passion, attention to detail and entreprenuialism that some Heads could learn from. But pioneers are everywhere in England’s education system, from small scale classroom tinkerers to revolutionary heads. The most intelligent leaders, whether teachers, Heads, politicians or policymakers, will look everywhere for inspiration, rather than confine themselves to one type of school.

A few Free Schools, especially Bristol Free School, look like land grabs on behalf of the affluent. No need for swords or ploughshares when you’ve got sharp elbows. But the vast majority do appear to have social justice aims at their heart. And their founders, leaders and teachers will be working crazy, passionate hours to make sure their pupils succeed. Welcome to the world and politics of schooling in England, and good luck. There’s a lot we can learn from each other.

One final thought. The words ‘true’ and ‘real’ appear to have gone straight from playground banter to Tory speeches. True pioneers. Real Excellence. It’s being used like the star on exam A grades. Stop this True/Real madness.