I’m delighted to join the RSA as their new director of education and to officially ‘retire’ my old, much neglected blog.
A few years ago, a friend at the think tank I worked for proclaimed that you should only work at a think tank if you are angry. My anger hasn’t gone anywhere – there is probably more to be furious about in the world now than a decade ago.
But on day four at the RSA, my overwhelming emotions are that of curiosity and confusion. After nearly twenty years of knocking around the education sector, from primary teaching to consultancy, programme leadership to policy research, I am probably less sure of my opinions about education than ever before. Both the successes and failures of recent attempts to transform schools and raise achievement for all have challenged my own views about what makes a good school and a successful learner. It’s not so much fence-sitting as partial disorientation.
I won’t last long in this job without coming to some clear, rigorous conclusions, but for the moment, I am relishing my license to doubt. It’s been a recurring theme for me, since my research for the Clore Leadership programme on ‘speaking doubt to power’ about how art might inform public policymaking. Certainty is possibly the second most overrated virtue I know of.
My sense, from a long engagement with RSAgoing back to the early days of Opening Minds, is that all RSA’s work has enquiry at its heart. This goes back to our original Charter, with its emphasis on “discoveries, inventions and improvements”. Our Fellows are a unique and flourishing part of this process, connecting disparate ideas and people, challenging any Strand-centric assumptions, and working with us to ask the right questions and solving the right problems in the most creative, effective ways. The teachers and other educators we work with on all our education projects play a similar role, both grounded and creative, even when we challenge notions of professionalism (such as in our recent paper on rethinking the importance of teaching).
One thing that appears to bind all of the RSA’s projects and publications is that we start without knowing the answer. Today’s launch of our Academies Commission is a great example of this. Just because we are fostering a Family of Academies doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned about some of the possible consequences of total academisation. Just because we have a passion for local democracy doesn’t prevent an interrogation of which institutions, if any, should be best placed to play a ‘middle tier’ challenge and support role. Just because my own daughter attends an Academy and I am helping a few Free Schools in their early development doesn’t defuse all my worries about the land grabbers out there, or my optimism about how all schools can innovate and use existing freedoms, regardless of the ties that supposedly bind them to their Local Authority.
My friends at Improbable Theatre have for years been curating the Devoted and Disgruntled Open Space meetings for theatre-makers. I know that ‘21st Century Enlightenment’ has gravitas and purpose, but how about ‘curious and confused’ as an alternative, invisible and subversive strapline?