A celebration of the RSA Academies
Academies, originally introduced in England in the early 2000s to address educational underperformance, became a more common feature of the education landscape after the Academies Act 2010. This extended opportunities for good and outstanding schools to convert to academy status with the aim of increasing innovation and raising standards.
Quickly spotting this new world of opportunity, the RSA sought to become an academy sponsor early on, aiming to provide a truly distinctive educational experience for pupils, one mediated through formal curriculum and enrichment activities that reflected the RSA’s history and dedication to the arts, manufacturing and commerce. The golden thread of the RSA’s ambition in sponsoring academies was to “further social justice by improving schools and the life chances of hundreds of young people”.
The guiding principles of the project aimed to address social inequality, creating a sense of ‘family’ through real collaboration between schools and a genuine commitment to creativity in the classroom. Instead of the widely adopted centralised model of academy-trust organisation, the RSA chose a more democratic approach, developing a commonwealth of autonomous institutions in which strong and weak schools both gave and received support.
The RSA’s involvement with the academies programme began in 2008 when it sponsored the RSA Academy, Tipton. This work embodied the RSA’s dedication to educational innovation in the form of its Opening Minds framework, whose three hour-long lessons combined the transmission of knowledge with the development of life skills or ‘competencies’ through a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. Students also enjoyed enrichment activities such as Chinese for beginners, gardening, digital photography and sport.
Following the early promise of the Tipton project, the RSA extended its influence in education. It founded RSA Academies in 2011, aiming to establish a community of practice with the vision and values of the RSA acting as the guiding lights for pupil experience and school improvement.
RSA Academies began its contribution in a modest way, working with one ‘outstanding’ school in the West Midlands (Whitley Academy, Coventry) and supporting two schools in Worcestershire – Arrow Vale RSA Academy and Ipsley Church of England RSA Academy – both in the Redditch three-tier system and in need of improvement at that time. Arrow Vale and Ipsley originally formed the Redditch RSA Academies Trust. Now comprising 11 academies, the renamed Central Region Academies Trust (“founded by the RSA”) personifies the vision and values of RSA Academies by pledging “social justice through exceptional schools”.
The academies’ initial adherence to the Opening Minds philosophy was later replaced by a more conventional approach to the curriculum (driven in part by the government’s educational priorities). In other respects, much of the RSA’s vision for developing a distinctive experience of education has been carried through to fruition. Over time, many academy-based projects provided the context and opportunity for pupils and staff to connect and network with like-minded peers. Inspirational events such as Artsfest, Takeover Day (at RSA House) and access to the Pupil Design Awards (originally an RSA Academies project) all provided pupils with an experience of being part of the RSA community, raising awareness of the Society’s mission and fostering a sense of belonging.
RSA Academies’ early priorities included strengthening arts provision and careers education, the latter requiring the adoption of the ‘Gatsby Benchmarks’ (a framework developed in 2013 on behalf of the Gatsby Foundation by Sir John Holman, comprising eight benchmarks intended to highlight the features of “good careers work”) long before they became statutory. RSA Academies’ proactive, forward-thinking mindset is further exemplified by its encouragement of large-scale research projects such as A whole-school approach to mental health (2017–18) funded by the Pears Foundation, now a priority for all involved in education following the pandemic.
The various academy-based projects led by RSA Fellows and Royal Designers for Industry (RDIs) gave pupils unique access to the cultural and intellectual capital epitomised by the RSA. A long-standing partnership with the University of Warwick aimed to raise aspirations, while the ambition of promoting teacher creativity found expression in the establishment of the RSA Academies’ Teaching School Alliance, which offered high-quality teacher training and professional-development opportunities for staff.
Over time, as RSA Academies’ activities increased, they coalesced into three broad themes or ‘Commitments’: Arts, Culture and Creativity; World beyond School; and Wellbeing and Mental Health. Further work was carried out to define the unique qualities of an RSA school as inclusive, networked, ‘green’ and mission-led, with a detailed framework setting out the nature of the relationship between the RSA and the academies and a methodology for evaluating the impact of the RSA’s ethos on each school.
The first ‘distinctiveness review’ took place in one of the academies just before the pandemic disrupted RSA Academies’ programme of work. The ensuing limitation on school-based activities (when many children were required to learn at home or pupils were confined to ‘bubbles’ or closed groups) created a substantial challenge, since many of these activities brought pupils and colleagues across the family of schools together in a common pursuit. Projects like RSA4 (a social-action project for Year 4 pupils) and the Contemporary Art Space initiative had to be re-imagined, re-designed and delivered in virtual format.
The decision to close the RSA Academies project at the end of its planned funding review on 31 March 2022 reflected various structural challenges in relation to finance and governance, but also recognised the fact that the academies had matured and become strong enough to find their own way, building creatively on the heritage of which they have been part.
Over the lifespan of its work with academies, the RSA has been brought into contact – to a greater or lesser extent – with some 15,000 students. The Society offered an anchor for purpose and values, a compelling narrative as an organising principle, and its own pantheon of heroes as role models. It gave the communities in the West Midlands and Worcestershire in which it operated the sense of recognition that comes from belonging to a larger enterprise that has a history and a presence.
Over time, the RSA has invested at least £2.5m into the academies project, as well as a huge injection of time and effort by RSA and academy staff, Fellows, RDIs, trustees and advisers. Through its commitment to this initiative, spanning the period from 2008–22, the RSA has demonstrated that it is not simply an organisation for generating ideas, but also one that is prepared to turn ideas into action. RSA Academies has been one of the most substantial initiatives undertaken by the Society in recent years. This was no abstract research project, but a hands-on, practical contribution to developing new approaches to education.
From its early vision, and through the experience of managing its various projects, RSA Academies was able to evolve an entire ethos derived from the culture and values of the Society. Few academy chains would have the cultural and intellectual capital to make such a bold and imaginative contribution to developing a truly 21st-century educational ethos. It is unique and should be celebrated. Everyone involved in this ambitious programme of work understood themselves to be part of a common purpose: to improve the life chances of young people.
The soul of the RSA is its enduring commitment to the progress of human knowledge and culture and its mission to unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time. The academies project embodied these aims. It was a unifying force binding the RSA community into the task of opening worlds of opportunity for young people in their own communities.
There is now a strong foundation on which to evolve the RSA’s plans for creating a wider network of schools and educators. This network hopes to build a movement of practitioners, young people, researchers and entrepreneurs aligned to education’s threefold purpose: to develop broad learner capabilities; to encourage individual agency; and to strengthen communities. As schools look to the future following the disruption of the last two years, the RSA’s commitment to promoting social justice and its experience, through the academies’ project, of developing a complete, distinctive and generous approach to education, will illuminate the way for more schools to benefit from a close association with the mission and values of the RSA.
Colin Hopkins was Executive Director of RSA Academies from 2019–21. He is currently a trustee of St. Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust and a member of the John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust and the Staffordshire Schools Multi-Academy Trust, all in the West Midlands
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2022.
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