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Anyone who was moved watching student Musharaf Asghar overcome his stammer to deliver his moving school-leaving speech on Channel 4’s ‘Educating Yorkshire’ will understand instinctively how the measure of a school’s success is about much more than simple academic achievement. Headteacher Jonny Mitchell continually reinforced this message during the series. For him, the purpose of the school was to develop ‘decent human beings’ as well as secure the qualifications each student needed.

However, government proposals, such as the recent suggestion to allocate every 11 year-old child into 10% ability bands, suggest a very different view. This particular proposal was justified by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg: “for children to achieve their potential we need to raise the bar; in terms of tests, pass marks and minimum standards”.

At the recent RSA launch of Schools of Tomorrow (SoTo), Professor John West-Burnham persuasively argued that if we really want to create the outstanding school of tomorrow, transforming outcomes for all learners, we cannot continue trying to incrementally improve the school of today. But re-conceptualising what is required, building the shared commitment to establish a vision that is possibly beyond much current understanding and debate, and creating the future in schools that can deal with the demands of today, is a significant challenge.

The founding principle of SoTo is that truly outstanding schools offer much more than consistently high levels of achievement. As an organisation founded by and for school leaders, it is gathering evidence of how this is being achieved by school leaders in practice and beginning to define how this can be validated rigorously. Importantly it has also looked for ways to involve students in this work, with eight schools acting as learner hubs for student-led research and development.

The emerging SoTo Framework identifies four fundamentals of equal importance for the outstanding school of tomorrow: the highest levels of achievement and progress for all; the highest levels of wellbeing for all; highly effective preparation for adult and working life and finally, highly effective family and community engagement.

If this Framework can provide a basis for redefining outstanding, it is essential to think about these four fundamentals as inter-connected, not as parts, but as constituent elements that demonstrate themselves in different ways, at different times and in different contexts. Outstanding in one community context may appear very different to another, but the outcomes for all children and young people will be defined in terms of preparation for the future, not a limited measure of some things they have achieved (or not achieved) at points of time in the past.

Schools of Tomorrow - Towards a new understanding of outstanding schools is the first publication of SoTo. John West-Burnham offers a summary of the evidence and moral arguments that support this approach and three school leaders provide cameos of change showing how they have been able to create change today that helps to build tomorrow. West- Burnham sets out four key propositions.

First, that the outstanding school of tomorrow will be one in which every child is entitled to a holistic educational experience which is rooted in personal well-being, delivered on the basis of equity and responsive to the personal needs of every learner.

Second, to secure equity the school of tomorrow has to engage with the factors that are most significant and influential in determining educational success and enhanced life chances. This means that it is actively engaged in securing positive outcomes in terms of family life, community, poverty and social class according to its context.

Third, the need to approach learning is a social experience rooted in family, community and school that is outstanding in the extent to which it is both personalised and rooted in authentic social relationships.

And fourth, for leadership to be seen in terms of collective capacity not personal, hierarchical status. Leadership is a resource to be developed as and when needed irrespective of age, status, or formal role. It is seen in terms of a community rather than an organization, and in terms of collaborative relationships.

From these key components it is possible to envisage a design brief for the school of tomorrow that might look something like this:

  • Achievement defined and measured as progress in a range of skills, qualities and capabilities to use, gather and apply a wide range and different forms of knowledge in different context;
  • Learning that is personalised, independent and collaborative, whilst also rooted in a range of social experiences in the family, communities and school;
  • The development of personal and collective identity within the context of diverse and global communities;
  • The use of digital technology and social media to enhance learning, collaboration and communication;
  • Access to a range of holistic learning experiences that form the basis for lifelong learning and that are not constrained by time or place;
  • An ethos and provision that promotes all aspects of wellbeing and positively addresses factors of equity in family life, social class and poverty;
  • The development of collaborative leadership skills and relationships at all ages and in all contexts;
  • Development of the social, emotional and critical thinking skills required to be a happy, effective and successful global citizen in a rapidly changing world; and
  • Democratic processes and procedures at all levels that engage all: students, families, communities, staff and partners.
  • These design criteria are suggested as an initial brief for others to add to or amend as part of the debate. SoTo’s work for the next year will add detail to these criteria as a contribution towards redefining outstanding in ways that will help schools of today move to become outstanding schools of tomorrow. Future publications and events will focus on: family and community engagement and identity and learning, while working groups are addressing wellbeing, leadership, and validation of quality.

    We would welcome contact from those interested in shaping these ideas, and from school leaders who want to join in that task. For more information click Schools of Tomorrow, a community interest company established in October 2013 with membership open to all school leaders and others who share its aspirations. Its first AGM will be on February 6 at Thomas Deacon Academy, Peterborough.

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