The RSA uses cookies on this website. By using this website you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more read our cookie policy and privacy policy. More Info

What me, progressive? Six beliefs about schools and learning

Blog 8 Comments

  • Education

After more than twenty years of working in and with schools, this week I’ve moved on in to become interim Director of RSA global. Whilst I’ll still retain a global education remit, building on our recent reports for WISE, the Roosevelt Institute, and the European Council for International Schools, I’ll be taking a welcome and possibly permanent break from Ofsted, SATs, and all those other acronyms that were being invented when I joined the teaching profession in 1992, and look unlikely to disappear any time soon.

My final task in my old role was to write 500 words on RSA’s views about schools and learning that might inform our future work. Boiling our musings into six core beliefs was both torturous and fun. The education world is full – too full – of people who are too sure of their views. If I could ask for one thing for education policy in England, it would be for it to become a more reflective process, where doubt and uncertainty were valued, rather than hidden. So, while retaining the right to change my mind and for my successor to change RSA’s mind, I thought I’d share our thinking, in the hope that it might make a useful contribution to the raging (on Twitter, at least) debates about defining progressive education, and the important launch today of the Fair Education Alliance’s report card.

The RSA believes that everyone should have the freedom and power to turn their ideas into reality – we call this the Power to Create. Through our ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship, we seek to realise a society where creative power is distributed, where concentrations of power are confronted, and where creative values are nurtured.

The power to create is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. Across the education system, we see creativity gaps widening amongst learners, educators and institutions.  The RSA believes that closing these gaps is fundamental to building a fair education system. We must empower all young people with the capacities, opportunities and motivations to become the authors of their own lives and make a unique and valuable contribution to society.


Key outcomes for learners

To develop the power to create in learners, RSA believes that, in addition to achieving well in ways currently valued by our school system, schools should focus on three key outcomes:

  • Creativity, defined as the capabilities and dispositions needed to generate new ideas and turn them into action
  • Agency, defined as the capacity of an individual to act independently and to make wise choices about life, everyday decisions and relationships
  • Wellbeing, defined as a sustainable state of positive attitude, resilience, and satisfaction with self, relationships and experiences

Importantly, all of these outcomes have a collective as well as an individual dimension. They also apply to the development of school staff, and to the school as a creative institution. 


Core beliefs

We believe that a focus on these outcomes requires schools to subscribe to six beliefs:

  1. Learning should, wherever possible, connect with real-world problems, projects and people that provide sustained opportunities to develop and demonstrate pupils’ creativity, and develop their skills and networks for the future.

  2. All pupils should access high quality learning opportunities across all arts and design subjects, and for practical learning beyond these subjects, throughout their school careers, regardless of the qualification choices they make. This connects to RSA’s historical focus on arts, manufacturing and commerce.

  3. Pupils should be progressively empowered to make informed choices about their learning (and their qualifications) that are aligned to and expand their interests, aptitudes, and ambitions.

  4. Strong pupil voice and leadership should be nurtured in all pupils at all ages, both as intrinsically valuable and as fundamental foundations for high standards of behaviour.

  5. Schools should foster deep relationships with the local communities they serve, engaging parents, local employers, voluntary organisations and others education institutions as equal partners. Through these relationships, pupils need their social context and home lives understood, respected and attended to, whilst never used as an excuse for underachievement.

  6. Teachers and other school staff should develop as disciplined innovators, whose own creativity, agency and wellbeing are consistently nurtured through collaborative, enquiry-based opportunities to develop new practices and pedagogies.


As I step onto RSA’s global veranda, gin and tonic in hand, I’d welcome any thoughts about these beliefs. They are deliberately designed to be contestable; not every school, parent or policymakers will agree with them. Whilst RSA and others must continue to understand and build the evidence base around these beliefs, we also accept that they are partly values-based, so will never be entirely ‘provable’. So whether your comments are ‘yes but’, ‘yes and’ or ‘no way!’, please bring them on. 

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • 1. why ? is astro-physics a real world problem? the algorithms for data compression and search criteria are real world aren’t they ? crate and Zeno grappled with real world paradox didn’t they? schools should at the very least seek to eradicate repetition, hesitation and also, deviation from the english and also language, to make it more betterer. 

    2. that is awfully poor sentence structure. you should have gone to the local grammar school instead. 

    3. You mean they shouldn’t be forced to do subjects they don’t like or aren’t any good at? i wanted to drop history at o’level to do latin with music, but I couldn’t because the extra latin et was scrapped - is that what you mean, something like that ?

    4. isn’t that what team sports are for ?

    5. aren’t teachers to blame for under achievement ? a parent friend of mine was apoplectic at the level of maths education in a primary school at New end in hampstead. another used to return her child’s school reports (kentish town) with the spelling mistakes corrected. that didn’t go down well. How many teachers have left, or worse because of the politics of achievement - so called idiotic SATs?

    6. all this reinventing the wheel is a smokescreen for shabby practice. just get the basics right Reduce Re-use Re-cycle.

  • What a great focus on beliefs and outcomes for education. I particularly like the focus on staff's well-being being nurtured, as this has cascades down to learners and the community as a whole, and resonates in this current climate of discontent. 

  • A great summary.  However it does not stress the necessity of ensuring the full development of all of a young person's abilities, of giving the basic knowledge of the facts needed in adult living in our society, and of making the young person excited by the wonderful world in which they live and in which they are needed to actively influence its future.

  • Really enjoying this more each time I read it, especially as the WISE report and your recent Journal piece sink in and clarify. Now that I am free of the shackles of formal governorship, I'm exploring how our school community - parents, employers, et al - can actually take a *lead* in engaging with the school on equal terms, rather than expecting (and waiting for) the school to do it. As this thinking emerges, I suspect it will be of interest to the RSA, and will keep you updated.

  • This piece is a most important distillation of the essence of education and learning and I would support and welcome the principles expressed being at the heart of RSA's educational drive.   Happy to be linked with work in this area if I can be of any help in drawing upon my own experience as a head teacher working with the defined principles at the  foundation of leadership aims..