Blog: Education System Leaders - We need your help - RSA

Education System Leaders - We need your help

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  • Picture of Kenny McCarthy
    Kenny McCarthy
    Project Manager and Production Leader
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

The RSA has launched an interim report in partnership with the Innovation Unit on Creative Public Leadership, exploring how school systems can create the conditions for successful innovation that transform outcomes for all learners. The report was launched with our knowledge partner WISE at the WISE conference in Doha. We’re looking for your feedback and suggestions on our nine propositions for change set out below – your comments will help shape the final report out in January.

Change, not reform – The problems facing our education systems

Radical innovation is needed at all levels of our education system in order to improve performance, ensure equity and measure wider outcomes. Young people today now face an uncertain future – where they are no longer guaranteed a job, where our global resources can no longer be taken for granted and where social mobility has stalled. In the face of these challenges, the structures of the industrial schooling paradigm have remained remarkably resilient. There has been a continued emphasis on classroom-based learning, age determined grouping, standardised curricula and the privileging of certain academic subjects and ways of knowing.

We are not calling for the abandonment of all aspects of the current schooling model, but there must be a recognition that in order to raise and redefine achievement we must move beyond incremental reforms and political tinkering within our education systems. To stop education from bordering on irrelevance, it must be responsive – meeting individual and societal needs by responding to local and global conditions. We must go beyond the view of the state as a ‘deliverer’ of education and towards the dynamic ecosystems that facilitate learning and innovation.

For too long our education systems have been focused on outputs – standardised test grades and certificates. We need to develop systems which are focused on the development of deep learning. Policies have too often ignored that they are dealing with complex systems, instead looking for quick fixes by concentrating on class sizes, parental choice and the results of high-stakes testing. We need system leaders to take a broader view, creating the space for multiple approaches and the development of local curriculum design and accountability.

A new lens, a renewed purpose

If our education systems are not going to be battered mercilessly by a rapidly shifting global context, we need strong leadership from within education. We need to ensure the future of education is driven by the strong values that have always guided aspiring teachers into the profession, and are not lost in the face of market forces or at the whim of political short-termism. System leaders need to drive changes in education through radically reflecting on the mission and purpose of education. Should our education system be about instilling selection and credentialism or should it be about facilitating deep learning and unleashing a life time of curiosity?

Teaching is so often looked at through the New Public Management lens of performance indicators, confidence intervals and league tables. Where is the room to ask how any of this begins to effect teachers’ morale, school purpose and pupil engagement?  To teach is an opportunity to inspire, motivate and encourage – this is lost in the competition between departments, schools, academy trusts and global education systems through PISA and TIMSS rankings. Top firms are now abandoning New Public Management, and education too needs to develop a new lens in which to define itself.

We don’t have to start from scratch, we already have passionate teachers and inspiring leaders. What we need is a shift of power back to the profession. While teachers need more space to be creative, the state still has a role as an enabler of innovation, rather than its current de facto role as top-down reform enforcer. We need to create a community of teachers, leaders, parents, and businesses all dedicated to innovation within education. The RSA is currently building this community through our innovative education network. By focusing on how we can unleash innovation in school systems, we plan to claw back teachers’ agency, placing the purpose of education at the forefront of a new educational landscape.

Creative public leadership

To move further, faster, we believe that school systems should create intentional platforms for innovation that are future-focused, equity-centered, humanising, and teacher-powered. In doing this, leaders should reinforce the fact that the process of learning should be a humanising experience, and that profound learning and great teaching are ultimately predicated on the power of human relationships. We therefore need to aspire towards a humanising innovation, defined by Chappell as “an active process of change guided by compassion and reference to shared value”.

Creative Public Leadership positions the state as an authorising, facilitative and supportive platform for systemic innovation. Our final report will further develop the Creative Public Leadership concept. To test our emergent thinking, we have set out some first steps to re-orient the role public system leaders might play:

  1. Build the case for change
  2. Desist from waves of centrally-driven short-term reforms
  3. Develop outward as well as upward accountability, to learners and localities
  4. Create and protect genuine space for local curriculum designs
  5. Prioritise innovation in assessment and metrics
  6. Place intentional, rigorous focus on the development of teachers’ innovation capabilities, throughout their career
  7. Redirect some proportion of a jurisdiction’s education spending to an explicit incubator program, tasked with radically innovating on behalf of the system as a whole
  8. Build systems of collaborative peer learning to support the adaptive scaling of innovation
  9. Put system entrepreneurship at the heart of system leadership


We’re are looking for your opinions and suggestions on our propositions. Help shape the final report by filling in this quick survey.

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  • This has to be right. Every good school is clear about its vision and direction and has an approach focusses on how children learn most effectively. Education systems are beginning to understand that creative endeavour leads to higher levels of achievement and greater fulfilment for children and young people. There are examples of systems that promote a cultural entitlement for children taking forward creative approaches to school improvement. By motivating children and young people to do things differently there are real gains in student achievement. This does need to be encouraged through programmes that support development of creativity with children and professional educators

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