From the outset of the RSA Academy project, our chair of governors, Sir Mike Tomlinson, set some challenging targets (‘Will academies make the grade?’, RSA Journal June 2006). He identified a range of measures by which we should be judged, including:
• improved staying-on rates at 16 and 17
• more students going on to higher education or training
• the Academy being seen as a focal point by the community and the provider of lifelong learning
• a rise in students’ and parents’ expectations and ambitions.
We’ve already made good progress towards academic success and we anticipate that our 2010 results will outstrip last year’s headline figure of 73% of Academy students gaining five GCSEs at A* to C level. This year, more than half of our 43 Year 13 students have applied for university courses and most have already received offers (as of mid-February). Other recent highlights include one of our post-16 students being offered a position with leading accountants Grant Thornton. Nathan Breckell faced worldwide competition to secure one of only 10 training and employment contracts offered this year. This is the first cohort of students to reach Year 13, so these achievements give us a solid base on which to build.
These successes are vital given that the post-16 students are role models for the rest of the students; younger pupils’ aspirations will be higher if they see people like themselves being accepted onto university courses and entering the professions. This is also why our Student Bursary Fund is important – we want to be able to provide funding for students who are offered work experience placements nationally and even internationally.
Learning begins at home
Our most important partners on this transformational journey are the students’ parents. Research clearly shows that children do better when parents are involved in their education and in school decision-making. However, many parents are not used to being valued as genuine partners, so the process is neither quick nor easy. We are trying to create a culture in which parents understand that we want and need to work collaboratively with them and that their contributions will not only be valued but will also have a positive impact on their children’s education.
The creation of a Parent Council has enabled parents to take part in an ongoing dialogue with the Academy. This dialogue is wide-ranging, covering issues that affect the children, the Academy and the local community. Parents have already made valuable contributions to discussions and decisions about the curriculum, internet safety, how we report to parents and how to address the issue of teenage pregnancy. It’s a good start and there’s more to be done. It’s rewarding to see parents becoming ever more enthusiastic when they find that their views are being listened to and are influencing Academy policy and actions.
We are dissolving the Academy’s boundaries so that we become a resource for people of all ages, using the RSA’s ‘Schools Without Boundaries’ programme as a blueprint for how we can take this work forward. We hope to be able to feed in our own experiences and successes, which might, in turn, help other schools to extend their community work. Parents are a key link into the community, so we are asking them what they want rather than providing what we think they want – a significant change from the norm. We are also part of a local cluster of schools, working collaboratively to respond to the community’s needs. This cluster includes our local primary schools, which is important given that primary schools generally find it easier to involve parents in their children’s education than do secondary schools. Joint membership of the same cluster means that we can foster parental involvement before the children come to the Academy. Currently, our community work is based around four main areas: the environment, the arts and sport, health and information and communication technologies (ICT).
Beyond the classroom
Firstly, the environment provides us with an enormous agenda and an abundance of opportunities. A group of environmental economists called EQ2 is working with our Environmental Action Group – students with a particular interest in environmental issues. EQ2 helped them to calculate their average daily carbon footprint and then to devise strategies to reduce it. Again, there are opportunities to expand this work outside of the Academy to homes and local businesses. We are exploring how to make Tipton a ‘transition town’ – one that works to reduce its collective dependency on oil and to become more self-reliant. Our ‘Grow your Own’ group has kicked off this work by harvesting a crop of vegetables, which were then cooked and served to students at lunchtime. Several Fellows have already volunteered their expertise to help achieve our ambitious target and we hope to tap into the knowledge that exists within the community. Gardening is an activity that can bring generations together in a common cause.
Secondly, the outstanding performing arts facilities in the new building will be an invaluable community resource, and one that is not linked to traditional academic ability. People can find fulfilment, increase their self-esteem and learn new skills through the arts. Plans are already afoot to hold a dance festival that would involve local primary schools and introduce a range of international dance styles to students, adults and younger children.
The third of the Academy’s specialisms is health, which we are tackling in various ways. Our catering team provides a range of healthy options at lunchtime, all of which are cooked on site. Some students bring packed lunches and we are advising parents to make sure that these include fruit instead of the usual chocolate bars and crisps. Our cookery classes, which take place in the evening and during the holidays, have proved to be very popular with groups of parents and students, who work together to cook a range of healthy supper dishes to enjoy at home. It is especially important to encourage healthy eating and home cooking in an area such as Tipton, whose residents suffer from high rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Finally, ICT courses are on offer for parents and members of the local community, helping to tackle the skills gap that exists in the area and making local people more employable. Our ‘Computers for Beginners’ sessions have attracted parents, other relatives and former students, as well as Academy staff keen to learn new skills. We are now a Microsoft Academy, meaning that we can offer industry-standard courses and qualifications – something that is likely to be of interest and value to local businesses looking to improve their employees’ skills. Six students have already enrolled, with the cost subsidised by the Academy, and in return will help to train other people, thereby spreading the expertise.
The new ICT courses also count towards the three weekly hours of community service that students must complete as part of the International Baccalaureate (IB). The IB Diploma is an internationally recognised qualification that has more breadth than A Levels and includes a ‘Theory of Knowledge’ component. This requires students to show an awareness of themselves as learners, apply their knowledge and demonstrate critical analysis skills. Our Opening Minds curriculum helps students to develop these skills, making the IB an ideal qualification for them.
Opening Minds is at the core of the Academy – from the design of the new building, with its large, flexible spaces, to the structure of the Academy day, with its three-hour teaching sessions. These longer sessions encourage investigation and exploration of the RSA competences, together with high-level subject learning. Devised by the RSA in 1999 and piloted in 2000-03, Opening Minds has an impressive track record and is now a nationally recognised framework, used by more than 200 schools.
The Academy and the RSA are working in concert to put structures in place that will significantly strengthen the Opening Minds curriculum framework. These include an Opening Minds National Centre, competence assessment and an accreditation system for Opening Minds schools.
The Opening Minds National Centre, based at the Academy, will become a hub of expertise, offering training and development for schools introducing Opening Minds. Supported by expert staff (from the Academy and other Opening Minds schools), events and a suite of online and paper resources, it will offer initial and ongoing support to schools as they plan and introduce their competence-based curriculum. Together with our partner, the University of Warwick, we are putting together a programme of research that will be channelled through the Comino Centre, also based at the Academy. This research will inform both the Opening Minds National Centre and other Opening Minds schools. The Academy will be offering ‘further development placements’ for a small number of Postgraduate Certificate in Education students from the University of Reading this summer. These students will help us clarify and develop the ‘Opening Minds pedagogy’ – an ideal way of getting the National Centre up and running.
Many schools have asked for a means of recognising their students’ achievements within Opening Minds. Academy staff have therefore worked quickly to draft an Opening Minds ‘Short Course’. This will soon have external recognition as half of the curriculum requirements for the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network’s (ASDAN) Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, which has GCSE equivalence at Levels One and Two. We are also taking the logical next step of moving towards an Opening Minds qualification at Levels One and Two. The next few months will be busy ones, as we draft the qualification’s framework and then seek approval from the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. We are working hand in hand with ASDAN on this initiative and are benefiting substantially from their experience. If all goes well, the Short Course should be available later this year and the qualification in 2011-12.
An initiative that should prove to be equally influential is the Opening Minds ‘Quality Mark’. This would be optional but would give schools national recognition for the quality of their Opening Minds work. A central tenet of Opening Minds is that each school develops a competence-based curriculum that is appropriate for both it and its pupils. This has resulted in a number of different methods of implementation. Rather than reducing Opening Minds to a ‘one size fits all’ curriculum, the Quality Mark would be flexible enough to recognise these different methods. The RSA has always celebrated its close working relationship with Opening Minds schools, which will become ‘hubs’ at the core of a wider network. These hubs will create a regional structure, providing training and support for schools that want to implement Opening Minds and/or want to apply for the Quality Mark, with the whole process coordinated by the National Centre. This accreditation would mean that, in future, there will be clear criteria against which the curriculum of an Opening Minds school can be judged and approved – a huge step forward for us.
Sir Mike Tomlinson’s 2006 challenge has helped shape our priorities for the first couple of years and will continue to do so as we move forward. This is going to be a long journey, not a short haul. I know that I am setting a challenging pace, but I am determined that we will succeed. Our young people and their families deserve the best and that is what the Academy is about – nothing less will do. We’re creating a new blueprint for education that extends outside of the Academy’s building and into Tipton. Our motto, ‘Transforming learning, transforming lives’, must become a reality. I believe that we can do it by working with parents and the community, and let’s not forget the huge potential of the RSA Fellowship – a truly unique asset.
Michael Gernon is principal of the RSA Academy in Tipton
[pull quote] We’re creating a new blueprint for education that extends outside of the Academy’s building and into Tipton