The Royal Society for Agency? 5 reflections from 5 years - RSA

The Royal Society for Agency? 5 reflections from 5 years

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  • Education

The morbid romantic in me has always wanted to quit at least one job in shame; carrying a brown box of possessions, ideally accompanied by a security guard on each shoulder. My departure from the RSA tomorrow will, unless I really screw up in the next 24 hours, be more pleasant and less dramatic.

My five years here have been 95% inspiration and 5% exasperation, but I’ll miss it all 100%. As director of education, getting traction on a more singular aim - to close creativity gaps in learning - was challenging, especially in an England context where schools seem more constrained than at any time since I joined the teaching profession in 1993. My successor Julian Astle has done a brilliant, job in the last year in reshaping our education programme to be fitter for times like these. The beauty of the RSA model is that, when it proves impossible to speak truth to the noise-cancelled ears of power, we can take the wider road to engaging directly with practitioners and local policymakers. Take, for example, our work on teachers.  Building on the Suffolk Commission on Raising the Bar and our Inquiry with BERA into teacher education and research, our essay collection introduced the idea of ‘teacher as designer’. Two years later, having supported the Teachers’ Guild in a design challenge around ‘rethinking the parents evening’ we’re working with RSA Academies to create the first ever module in design thinking for student teachers, and are working with primary schools across the West Midlands on our Performing Pedagogy project.  

I’m still as in love with the place, staff and fellows as I was when I joined, and believe we are poised for even greater impact in the years ahead. So, at risk of accusations of indulgence or instrospection, and without any grand underpinning organisational theory, here are five reflections on how we might be able to narrow the gap between what the RSA is and what it could become.

1) From ‘RSA UK and elsewhere’ to RSA Global

Education was the first of the three RSA Change Aims to take a more global approach to our work. Building on our report on creativity for the Roosevelt Institute, our thinkpiece on international schools is now influencing our investigation into refugee education in Athens. Amongst other projects, I’ll now be taking forward our report on global school systems with the Innovation Unit, working to apply practically our ‘nine next steps’ with education systems around the world.

However, from my 9 months as interim global director, it feels like we are at the foothills of our global potential. Whilst my assertion that ‘perhaps our work in England is done now’ was just a wind-up (sorry Nina), I genuinely believe that the RSA will best honour our history, meet our charitable objectives, and maximise our impact and productivity through focusing on issues that go beyond the UK.  

I am especially curious about whether our organisational model (combining fellowship engagement, research and innovation, events and on-line content) has the potential to contribute to the building of civil society, strengthening of democracy, and nurturing of creativity in more fragile democracies. I’m hopeful that our programme in Thailand can become a test case to explore this hypothesis, with rigour and care.

2) From one House to many homes

One of the best things about working here has been my frequent walk through the myriad of Fellows on the ground floor, slaloming their coffee cups whilst eavesdropping on their meetings. Our building is more than special. Go the Vaults, and the walls feel marinated in centuries of conversations, plotting ideas for social good.

Although it always seems so busy, the recent Fellows’ survey shows a small decline in the percentage of Fellows using the House. Connected to this, Fellows’ most frequent suggestion for improving RSA was ‘more local events’. IN response to this welcome demand, and a post-Brexit (anti-London?) landscape, I hope that over the next few years the RSA can focus as much energy and investment on supporting Fellows with non-London events and actions as it does on any improvements to John Adam Street. Although another RSA House might not be needed, there is real potential to explore partnerships with existing buildings and institutions so that our non-London Fellows have many alternative ‘homes from homes’. Again, our partnership with Creative Migration to create a civic and cultural hub in Thailand will test this model.

3) From theories of change to Theories of Inquiry

Theories of change without doubt have value. As a founder trustee for the Ministry of Stories, our early theory of change work drove us to a far more robust, higher quality evaluation process. Similar to social design methodologies, they force you to ask difficult questions from the start about the nature of the problem to be solved. Some of our practical projects, for instance the pupil design awards, are built around a clear theory of change.

However, their omnipresence across public policy and social innovation can feel like a ‘tyranny of theories of change’. In meetings around the world, if people want to sound clever without having done any thinking, they ask ‘what’s your theory of change?’ The risk is that they are imposed too prematurely or rigidly, leaving project instigators feel like victims of precision engineering. Perhaps the RSA, with its unique model and mission, and new focus on ‘thinking like a system, acting like an entrepreneur’ has the potential to develop a different kind of ‘theory of inquiry’. This would care deeply about impact and productivity, but deliberately be more exploratory and emergent; integrate the best elements of design thinking and avoid the nonsense; and not just plan for unpredictability, but aim for it. Our RSA Investigate-ED model, used for projects on in-year admissions, supplementary schools and Schools with Soul, is partly built around these principles. 

4) From the Arts to Agency…

Our history is an asset, but our name can be a liability. The further away you are from London, the more difficult it is to shake off the ‘arts’ label. The A-word is the first people hear, and it can obfuscate all other messages about our aims and projects (or even the subsequent words ‘manufactures and commerce)’. In a world of shortening attention spans, this is a communications problem, one that should be solved not by knee-jerk rebranding, but through RSA’S natural and appropriate caution and conservatism. At the risk of doing the former, I’m going to pitch for a renaming of the RSA as the ‘Royal Society for Agency’. I’m aware that the word ‘agency’ could be even more problematic, but, if defined as ‘the capacity of an individual to act independently and to make wise choices about life, everyday decisions and relationships’ this feels much closer to the RSA’s vision, aims and methods.

5) And back again to the Arts…

Ironically, changing our name could support a genuine re-evaluation of the role of the arts and culture at the RSA. When I got here, I was surprised that, beyond the Great Room mural and our borrowed paintings, so few of our events or projects included the arts as a key issue or tool for deliberation. This is changing, especially through our education programme. All of our RSA Academies now have an arts-related enrichment guarantee, and we are about to lead the world’s first set of randomized controlled trials to understand the impact of arts learning interventions on education outcomes. I’m hopeful that, as our work on cities thinks further about a broader vision of inclusive growth, and we consider new definitions of good work for all, the arts, as a set of practices and evidence-building tools, can once again become central to the RSA’s way of working. In Thailand yet again, the arts and artists are at the centre of our plans, and we hope that our approach may inform the way things are done here in London.  

I see those security guards coming for me….Thanks to all the Fellows out there who have kept me optimistic, inspired and not too grumpy – especially Ben Gibb, Philippa Cordingley, Susannah Tantemsapya, and Tony Breslin. My own next steps are too octopus-like to bore people with here, but please keep talking to me @joehallg, and at [email protected]

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  • Thank you for your visible and tangible contributions, and for your initiative! Your support and responsiveness during the 9 months as interim global director was most appreciated and will be remembered. Best of luck!

  • Thanks Joe for everything you have done to put creative education on the local and global map. Your new role at the Innovation Unit sounds exciting too. I am really interested in your proposed programme focused on arts learning in an international development context, definitely where my heart is! Keep in touch, all best wishes, Penny

  • Thanks for all your hard work Joe! Best of luck in your future endeavours.

  • I'm honoured to have been of some use to you in your great work there, Joe, and share your sentiments about the enormous potential of the RSA's work to stimulate real and positive change. It's been a fab forum in which to get to know you, and I look forward to staying in touch and collaborating again soon!