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Yesterday I attended an excellent round-table event held by the education folks at Oxfam GB.

All too often I get a pang of guilt when attending these kinds of events, thinking about what I could be doing back at the office that would be more beneficial to the RSA. That certainly didn’t apply in this case.

The substance of the meeting began with a short, sharp discussion about the policy climate, and the possible ramifications of the recent meltdown in the markets for public services and schools.

It was grim but fascinating stuff. It seems clear that the pain for public services is going to be felt for a long time. And limited cash brings with it tough choices. The centre-ground consensus of investment in public services we’ve experienced in recent years is under threat (for example, we have seen the Conservatives withdrawing from their commitment to match Labour’s public spending plans).

What follows are my thoughts from the meeting. Those of us who have sought to challenge the status quo and who have pushed for an ‘alternative’ education system, however that may be defined, have been riding the back of a (unsustainably) strong economy. As have everyone, of course. In this resource rich environment, two things were allowed to happen: in opposition to the status quo, a fragmented discourse flourished about what change was required, even amongst progressives who basically agree with each other the basic assumptions of the education system went unchallenged - there was enough in the system for schools to do interesting work based on alternative value systems

This has lead to lots of interesting innovation starting in schools but with little coherence or scale, and consequently little sense of critical mass around change. Frankly, we can’t go on this way. We need an agreement to invest what we have in an education for young people that will deliver more value for our communities, and which will ultimately develop the citizens of the future. I think this means three responses: We need a far more coherent and accessible discourse about change in education

That discourse must argue for a new settlement between those with a stake in education – that is to say, those with an alternative vision must demonstrate to young people, government, employers, parents and civil society why they should invest in an alternative vision for schools.

We need to convince practitioners, parents and students that practical change is possible today even with constrained resources. To do that we need to celebrate the practices that are a reality now in ordinary schools up and down the country, and that point the way forward. I hope the Charter for Education in the 21st Century is a start in the right direction, and that the good work of organisations like Oxfam will bear fruit.

- Ian McGimpsey


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