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raising attainment

Whatever happened to “joined up thinking”?

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It’s strange how a random sequence of events come together to trigger a flood of thoughts and, in this instance, a cataract of anger and incomprehension.

Especially Random?

Scottish Attainment Challenge screenshotMy sequence may seem especially random. It includes the White Paper on education – although I feel that I am overly dignifying the recent White Paper by maintaining the link with education as it manages, at the same time to be about much more and much less than that. It also includes the ongoing announcements about the Scottish Attainment Challenge, a visit to Raploch in Stirling, the 20th anniversary of the Dunblane Massacre, Uncle Ernest’s speech at his 90th birthday party and a google search on Professor Stewart Asquith. If you’ve managed to make the connection already, a prize is on its way!

The White Paper set out the commitment to forced academisation for all schools by 2020. The argument was supported in some shockingly stumbling interviews – stand up Nick Gibb, your Newsnight performance was the prime example – and a series of inept presentations. The rationale for this sweeping move appeared to be that some academies had done well and therefore all schools should follow their lead. Interestingly Nick Gibb added a new twist – schools that were improving and weren’t academies should be forced into multi-academy trusts so that they could play their full part in improving other schools.

There is so much to argue about here, but the issue that I will focus on is the isolation of academies, be they part of Multi-academy trusts or not. Schools can make a difference through raising young people’s attainment beyond that which might be predicted for them on the basis of their personal circumstances and prior performance, but there is very little evidence that they can make all the difference.

Uncle Ernest’s speech

This is where Uncle Ernest’s speech comes in. He and his sister came from a background of rural poverty brought up by a single parent. Both benefitted from the good schools. He became particularly successful, a first in Chemistry, a PHD, an impressive career and a number of patents to his name. He is the epitome of the social mobility that the government seeks, but he would never have been able to go to University without free tuition and the provision of grants. His mother could not have contemplated the sort of debt that so many students now face. Even if, by some miracle, she had, she would never have been able to support his sister who became a teacher. For them attainment would not have been enough. They needed that element of joined up thinking, that it was once so fashionable to refer to.

The reality is that we are not generating many, if any, more stories like Ernest’s through either academisation or school improvement. That is the thinking behind the Scottish Attainment Challenge – we need to raise the bar and close the attainment gap. It inevitably makes teachers the shock troops in the war on inequality as if they could suddenly do what they have been trying to do for years without significant success. There is some evidence of joined up thinking. Scottish Government have  received a report on widening access to higher and further education and there is central support through an Attainment Hub and there are some new diagrams and infographics, but is that enough?

Stewart Asquith’s story

That is where Stewart Asquith’s story came in. The son of a cinema usherette, also a single parent, he also attained remarkable academic success before devoting his life to making a difference for children. That difference came through children’s rights alongside a focus on child care and family support. He knew the importance of that for children unsure of their identity and their place in the world. He understood the need for support beyond schools. One wonders if our politicians as have the same clarity about how we confound destiny for children whose lives are blighted.

I hesitate to introduce reference to the Dunblane massacre because the events involved were so extreme, traumatic and tragic, but reading Gordon Jeyes’ article in the Times Educational Supplement overcomes that hesitation. Reacting to the events, dealing with the welter of issues raised by them, trying to support those most affected and to recover some form of normality was a huge challenge. Gordon’s article is very clear that the response required services to be drawn together not pulled apart. It was collaboration, cooperation and “joined up thinking” that achieved the progress that was made. How would that be achieved in the fragmented world of academisation?

We appear to be moving way from “getting it right for every child”, an approach based on integration recognising the contribution of all agencies, to one where schools and attainment are seen as the keys to equity.

The grace note is the visit to Raploch, an area of Stirling where the Council mobilised its resources and formed wider partnerships to regenerate schools, Further Education provision, housing, health facilities, employment prospects, the wider environment and culture to enhance life chances for the whole community. I need to go back again to look at the impact, but watching the Big Noise Orchestra from Raploch launch the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 gave me considerable grounds for hope. I believe it would now be more difficult to make that sort of intervention in Scotland now and impossible to do so in England. That defies my understanding and makes me angry.


Originally appeared on the Independent Thinking website

Redefining Potential – getting beyond the walls

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Outdoor learning offers unique opportunities to extend the potential of children through learning in context and through experience and place.  How to devise different a challenging experiences to support learning.

By David Cameron, (chk title: Chair of the Outdoor Connections Advisory Group)

I imagine that there are many other people involved in education who are becoming heartily sick of being challenged to raise attainment. For some reason, it is always a “challenge” and never an “encouragement’ as if, left to our own devices, it would never occur to us to attempt to improve children’s life chances.

The reality is that most of us have been working to raise achievement for all, but particularly for those currently getting least from our education system, for the duration of our careers and it is difficult and demanding.

Fulfilling potential

Outdoor LearningMany of us also recognise that ensuring children fulfil their potential is not always a helpful concept. Much of the evidence that we have suggests that some young people only have the potential to fail. The reality is that for these young people we need to do more than add value, we need to write new narratives and create new possibilities. In my view, we won’t do that with more of the same or more of the same only better or more of something remarkably similar to the same repackaged with a new label and accompanying book and motivating professional development package.

We need to offer young people richer experiences which are more likely to engage them. We need to give them opportunities to find meaning. I see the value of phonics and other decoding techniques and have been closely involved with phonics schemes in Scotland, but if we can’t find understanding and sense in what we read we will never be fully literate. Gaining understanding involves challenge investigation and tasks. It has to involve young people in the active quest for meaning. More than that, it has to involve the development of a sense of identity in learners. From that, comes resilience and the willingness to take the risks that lead to leaps in learning.

One wonders how anyone can belief that we can accomplish that entirely in classrooms. I was working recently with teachers committed to outdoor learning and found myself saying –

“Nature has designed spaces for learning, in schools we have designed spaces for teaching”

There are myriads of challenges that we can create outside. Juliet Robertson’s book “Dirty teaching” is one of the best for identifying these and providing examples for teachers. There are other excellent resources available online and lots of helpful advice and support available from organisations like Learning through Landscapes or Eco-schools. I am not going to summarise or cherry pick from these here.

My intention is simply to make the case that young people can learn formally and informally in a range of different environments and our chances of them learning successfully are enhanced when we offer variety in these environments. Evidence from the OECD is clear that young people whose parents have benefitted from education will buy in to schooling regardless of how dull it might be. Young people from different circumstances need to be engaged, they need to be interested and we need to find ways to unleash that interest. There may be an argument that we can achieve this through strong discipline and traditional didactic approaches, but I cannot accept that this will build the resilience, adaptability and creativity that a complex world demands.

We know that conventional approaches can work well in improving measured attainment. In my oft-used cliché, they can be effective in getting young people over an immediate assessment hurdle, but are much less effective in helping them to complete the race. Moving outdoors can offer exploration and application. It can tax us physically and intellectually and connect us to a world that we need to understand and value.

Why would you ever close the door on that?