Three steps to ... well, somewhere better than this - RSA

Three steps to ... well, somewhere better than this


I'm on my way to speak at the impressive-looking Scottish Learning Festival. When making a speech I try always to combine ideas I have developed over some time with new elements written for the specific event. It's more risky but also more interesting and - when it works - more rewarding than sticking to a wholly prepared script. This is a long post but readers can comfort themselves with the fact that it will tame 4 minutes to read but 35 minutes to hear.

The aim today is to connect the analysis of my annual lecture to broad questions about the future of schooling. For those who haven't yet watched my annual lecture (shame on you) key elements of the argument are:

There are three fundamental ways of thinking about and exercising social power: hierarchical authority, solidarity and individual aspiration. To solve difficult problems we need to call on all three sources, being aware that there is a fourth way of thinking about change: fatalism.

All three sources have benign and malign potentialities (for example, hierarchy can be strategic, expert and inspiring but can also be self serving or bureaucratic). The best way to address the downsides of each source is the presence of the other sources. The problems of individualism in modern society are partly a reflection of its frailties as a way of seeing the world but also a consequence of the relative weakness of authority and solidarity.

Effective organisations and solutions combine the three power sources.  However, they also have to manage the tensions between them.  Indeed, to some extent, each way of thinking about power justifies itself through a critique of the others.

Today I will offer this framework as a way of thinking about schooling at three levels: the national system, the school as an institution and the content of children's learning.

For nearly forty years the English system has seen a concerted effort to challenge the domination of schooling by expectations and norms determined by the professionals within the system. This inward looking system of producer solidarity - famously characterised in 1975 by then Prime Minister James Callaghan as 'a secret garden' - has since been subject to a major programme of hierarchical (inspection and intervention) and individualistic (autonomy, diversity and competition) reform.

On the surface of things this has created a system better able to call on the different power sources. However, the undermining of solidarity within the system (partly as a result of being excluded and partly as a result of a failure to organise) has led to hierarchical overshoot and irresponsibility. The political needs of ministers and the tendency to lay at the doors of schools the problems of wider society has led to a demoralising and destructive discourse of decline combined with constant and often dysfunctional reform.

In contrast the Scottish system continues to place the views and interests of the educational establishment at the centre of decision making. This leads to a calmer, more positive and more consistent approach (see, for example, the decade long implementing of the consensually agreed Curriculum for Excellence). However, the relative weakness of hierarchical oversight and an absence of performance incentives and sanctions mean that there must be a danger of the system being run more for the benefit of the producers than for wider society or individual services users. For example, the Scottish system is likely to be much more tolerant of poor performance.

This leaves the big question of whether it is possible to combine the best of both systems. Finding an answer is less likely given the apparent lack of interest in Scotland and England in each other's systems  (overheard recently from a Scottish Executive member at a policy seminar in London - 'I am interested in any new idea as long as it's not English').

At the level of the school the type of leadership needed combines 1) a strong and clear mission but openness about how best to achieve this 2) promoting accountability by being accountable 3) focussing on the span of the mission, not just the span of control (so, for example, if parents are vital to raising pupil expectation they should be engaged even though school leaders can't tell them what to do).

In relation to solidarity, the most important element is that shared values should be focussed not on inward looking protection but outward facing ambition. In particular, the core shared value of learning aspiration should be exemplified by all members of the school community: 'we are all learners, together'.

Finally, in terms of individualis, for both staff and pupils there should there right balance of support and challenge based on a robust system to interrogate the performance and ability of each individual. The uber finding of research into what works in the classroom is the importance of feedback (children understanding what they are learning, why they are learning, and how they are progressing). The best feedback must be personalised.

Finally, in terms of the content of children's learning, the hierarchical component lies in instilling an understanding of, and respect for, the hierarchy of knowledge and skills. This may be particularly important now the internet allows people to access (although not to understand or assess) knowledge (both reliable and unreliable) at any level. The solidaristic component refers to the wider preparation of young people to be good citizens in a world which is not only diverse and fast changing but one which will probably require of them higher levels of individual and collective resilience and responsibility. The release of individual aspiration involves attending to young people's sense of agency, enthusiasm and ambition. Interesting in this regard is evidence (of which there was more last week) that children with concrete and stretching  ambitions are not only more likely to succeed but also exhibit higher levels of resilience and wellbeing.

The danger is that this is no more than a wish list. So it is important to underscore that the three ways of seeing and doing are in tension. Providing children with knowledge and skills, preparing them to be good citizens and personalising their education is a tall order - not just because of the work involved. There are also genuine pinch points and dilemmas in seeking to achieve all three. But in defence of this approach, unlike other more contrived frameworks, it goes intuitively with the task of living. We all have to wrestle with the voices in our heads (sometimes benign, sometimes less so) saying 'do what you're told', 'do what the group expects/needs' and 'do what you want for yourself'. As my colleague Matthew Mezey has argued, the pursuit of clumsiness (the name given by cultural theorists to approaches which combine the three power sources, while always being aware of the ubiquity of fatalism) is also the pursuit of mental complexity, and that - arguably - is the most important 21st century competence of all.

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