The Ideal School Exhibition

What kind of schooling will prepare young people not just to write a good exam, but to live a good life?

By Julian Astle, Director of RSA Creative Learning and Development

@JulianAstle


This paper is about a group of schools that are bucking a growing and concerning trend: that of schools narrowing their focus, and hollowing-out their teaching, in their desperation to meet the constantly shifting demands of the government’s accountability system.

This trend is understandable. The risks associated with leadership have become so high, with governors and trustees fearing for their schools and headteachers fearing for their jobs, that the task of clearing the latest threshold or hitting the next target has come to dominate almost everything many schools do — proof, if it were needed — that in high-stakes, low-trust systems, only those things that get measured tend to get done (with too few questions asked about how they get done).

But there are some school leaders who simply refuse to play this bureaucratic education-by-numbers game; leaders whose decisions are shaped, not by the government’s agenda, but by their own sense of mission — by the higher purpose to which they have dedicated themselves and their schools.

So I decided to go and meet some of these educational ‘missionaries’ to get a better understanding of what they are trying to achieve and how they are trying to achieve it. Although their schools are highly untypical, my hope was that they might nonetheless provide some lessons, and inspiration, for others — for the vast majority of headteachers who are neither ‘gamers’ nor ‘missionaries’, but hardworking pragmatists who try to do the best they can by their students in the circumstances.

In trying to describe and analyse what it is these schools do, I have had one big disadvantage and one advantage.

The disadvantage is that, by background, I am a policy analyst, not an educator or an educationalist. It is therefore entirely possible, likely even, that in discussing the merits of different school models and of how they go about their core business — the unfathomably complex task of effecting invisible changes in the hearts and minds of their students — I have occasionally tripped over my own ignorance. That is why this paper is offered up as a discussion document — it is intended to intensify, rather than settle, the debate about how we can get schools focused on education’s primary purposes, like personal fulfilment and societal progress, rather than the proxy goals of tests and targets.

The advantage of being a relative newcomer to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of teaching and learning is that, when I visited each of the schools, I arrived with few preconceptions and little ideological or professional baggage; I am not invested in any particular approach to schooling, having never argued for one model over another. So although each of our world-views is coloured to some extent by our own values and experiences, I have sought, as far as possible, to approach the task with an open mind, judging everything I saw, heard and read on its merits. Doing so has been made easier by one other important fact: that my views about what makes for an excellent school are far more tentatively held than is my belief in the importance of diversity and choice across the system.

Why? Because what parents look for when choosing a school varies depending on their values, beliefs and aspirations. And, more importantly, it varies, or should vary, according to the talents, interests and needs of their children who, after all, will have to bear the consequences of whatever choice is made.

As a liberal, I don’t believe policymakers should seek to restrict or even guide those choices — quite the opposite. Parents know better than ministers who their children are and what sort of adults they wish them to become.

That is why this paper is called the ideal school exhibition, not the ideal school competition — because there is no single model that is ideal for every child and family.

Structure

The paper is divided into three parts, which the following four quadrant matrix should help explain:

Part 1

Chapter one (‘The world beyond the school gates’) describes how, at a moment in human history when we desperately need to expand the conversation about the purposes and essential character of a school-based education, we have done the opposite: focusing on education’s narrow instrumentalist value and obsessing over tests, targets and league tables and the tactics for passing, hitting and climbing them.

Chapter two focuses on the dividing line that separates the ‘gamers’ from the ‘missionaries’ — i.e. school leaders whose priorities and practices are shaped by the demands of the accountability system and those whose priorities and practices are shaped by their own sense of mission. It asks how widespread is the problem of schools gaming the accountability system, how that problem manifests itself, and what effect it is having on the character and quality of the education England’s school children are receiving. And it argues that having a large number of schools on the left side of this dividing line is a serious problem even if they are located in the upper left, rather than lower left, quadrant.

Part 2

This part focuses on the upper right quadrant where the mission-oriented schools I describe in this report are to be found.

Chapter three (‘Defining and embedding the mission: values, aims, design principles’) looks at how these schools stay focused on their own aims and objectives despite the external pressures of the accountability system, and how they go about translating their high level aims into a practical project on the ground. How, in other words, they manage not to be pulled into the education-by-numbers game being played out on the left hand side of the table.

Chapter four (‘Pursuing the mission: challenges for practitioners’) sets out why these mission-oriented schools teach the way they do, and assesses the risks they face which, if not mitigated, could see them fall from the upper right quadrant to the lower right quadrant where the less successful mission-oriented schools are to be found. It explains how those risks vary according to the nature of the mission, with those mission-oriented schools that use student-led, project-based approaches facing a quite different set of challenges from those that use more traditional teacher-led, didactic methods of instruction. The fact that in most schools teachers tend to ‘do a bit of both’ doesn’t change the fact that these two approaches are rooted in two very different sets of values and beliefs (about such fundamentals as the relationship between adult and child, knowledge and skills, tradition and progress), an understanding of which helps explain the motivations and intentions of the mission-driven headteachers I met.

Part 3

Chapter five (‘Calling time on the game’) returns to the key challenge raised in Part one — that of reforming the system at every level, from the secretary of state to the classroom teacher, to ensure that schools are focused on education’s primary purposes rather than the proxy goals of tests and targets. The sign of success being a reduction in the number of schools on the left hand side of the table and an increase in the number on the right hand side. Fewer gamers, more missionaries in other words.

Only by meeting this challenge will we be able to move our national conversation on to the more important (and interesting) question of how best to prepare our children for the challenges that await them in the adult world. Chapter six (‘Education in an age of unreason’) addresses the nature and scale of this task.

Language

In dividing school leaders into two groups, gamers and missionaries, I am acutely aware that I am describing two tiny minorities — those whose decisions are heavily influenced by the demands of the accountability system, and those who pay little or no heed to those demands, no matter the professional consequences. I do so to make an important point: that although most school leaders are in neither camp, all of them are subject to the magnetic pull of these two poles — the need to meet the performance targets on which their own careers, and those of their colleagues, depend, and the instinct always to put the educational and developmental interests of their students first. In an ideal world, these two objectives would be perfectly aligned. As we shall see, in reality they often are not.

Audience

This report addresses two audiences:

First, politicians and policymakers, to persuade them that the costs of our high-stakes school accountability system now outweigh the benefits, and that, 25 years after the creation of Ofsted and the publication of the first league tables, our school system has reached a stage where it would benefit from a more supportive, less punitive approach to school improvement.

And second, all those frustrated idealists working in our schools who understand the way the system works but feel powerless to change it. I hope they feel inspired, even in advance of the policy changes I’m proposing, to make change happen in their own schools — to come together with colleagues to sharpen the definition of their shared mission and to put that mission at the centre of everything they do.

Purpose

The RSA’s mission is to help bring about a 21st Century Enlightenment. We believe the provision, to every child and young person, of a rich and broad education that instils a life-long love of learning, is a precondition for the realisation of that aim.

But before we can move towards that more enlightened future, we first need to get our school system focused on education’s primary, rather than proxy, goals. Only then can we move our school system to the next stage in its evolution.

We believe a consensus is there to be assembled behind this aim — one that recognises the need for transparency and accountability to ensure money is well spent and children are well taught, but which also recognises the price we are paying for the distortions of professional priorities and practices that our accountability system has produced.

Whether, having moved the public and professional conversation on to the substance of education, we can, or even should, reach a consensus view about what an ideal school might look like, is less clear. After all, education is goal driven. And the specification of those goals is determined by our values. For as long as we value different things, we will inevitably have different views about what makes for an ideal school. But even here we should be able to agree on some important things: on the benefits of being able to choose from, and compare, different models; of understanding the relative effectiveness of different approaches against a range of outcomes; of thinking through the trade-offs involved in pursuing one educational mission rather than another; and, crucially, of ensuring that, whatever their mission, educators work with, rather than against, the growing body of scientific evidence about how we learn and what that means for the way we teach.

There are thousands of idealistic school leaders and teachers who are desperate to break free of the logic and language of our school accountability system, and to engage in these conversations instead. They should know that these are precisely the conversations the RSA intends both to host and contribute to in the coming years. We hope that everyone with an interest or a stake in our schools will accept this invitation to join us.


It is less than thirty years since the academic, Francis Fukayama, wrote his now famous essay ‘The End of History’ in which he announced that western liberal democracy had triumphed over its adversaries, and that a new post-ideological era of peace and progress had begun.

It is fair to say this thesis hasn’t aged well. This year’s school leavers will head out into an increasingly turbulent and dangerous world — a world of economic insecurity and domestic and geo-political upheaval. And they will have to find their place and their way in societies that are being transformed by the liberating but profoundly destabilising forces of globalisation, and which, in the wake of the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression, are now turning in on themselves over issues of culture, identity, belonging and belief.

The root causes of the West’s culture wars are many and complex. But chief among them is the fact we live on a dangerously overheating and ever more densely populated planet where conflict and persecution, flooding and drought and vast inequalities of opportunity and wealth have displaced 65 million people and created a migrant population greater than that of Brazil. Amid the backlash to this unprecedented movement of people from poorer to richer nations, liberalism is in full retreat, while nationalism, nativism and protectionism are all on the rise. And with an angry populist politics on the Right feeding off, and feeding, an intolerant and censorious strain of identity politics on the Left, our ability to transcend our hardwired instinct to tribalism — to put our shared humanity before our group loyalties — is once again being severely tested.

How best to prepare our young people for that world is the conversation we should, as a society, be having when we talk about education. Yet so focused have our schools become on achieving the proxy goals of passing tests, hitting targets and climbing league tables, that they risk losing sight of education’s higher purposes, like individual fulfilment and societal progress.

This is regrettable but understandable. With governors and trustees fearing for their schools, and headteachers fearing for their jobs, our punitive accountability system has come to dominate almost everything some schools do, distorting professional priorities and practice and narrowing and hollowing out the education our children receive.

We know that in high-stakes, low-trust systems, what gets measured tends to get done. But what about those things that don’t get measured, and therefore don’t get done? And what about the way in which things get done — the tactics some schools employ and the games they feel compelled to play to ensure performance targets are met and thresholds cleared? Well, outright cheating and the most egregious forms of gaming remain mercifully rare, though rising. But low level gaming is rife and teaching to the test endemic.

But there are some school leaders who simply refuse to play this bureaucratic education-by-numbers game; leaders whose decisions are shaped, not by the government’s agenda, but by their own sense of mission — by the higher purpose to which they have dedicated themselves and their schools.

This report is about them — about a group of ‘missionary’ headteachers and the mission-oriented schools they lead. Despite their many and important differences, they have one thing in common: they are all driven by a sense of purpose that goes well beyond meeting the demands of the government’s accountability system.

What that purpose is varies from school to school.

Michaela Community School in Brent, where visitors are greeted by a large sign declaring “Knowledge is Power”, is all about the life-changing potential of a knowledge-rich education; about giving children from deprived backgrounds the cultural literacy to compete with their more privileged peers.

XP School in Doncaster, inspired by High Tech High and the Expeditionary School movement in the US, is all about developing the skills and capabilities that are deemed most important to success in the workplace and the world, and about doing so through enquiry-based, real-world ‘expeditions’ or projects.

Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick in the West Midlands is blazing a trail for those who believe not only that the traditional school model needs to be completely reinvented for the new century, but that technology now allows us to do that in ways that make learning more personalised, assessment more useful, the curriculum more dynamic and parent and community engagement more meaningful.

Reach Academy in Feltham is all about building a culture of high expectations and even higher aspirations in the belief that any child, no matter how disadvantaged, can achieve remarkable things with the right support in place. That support, however, goes well beyond teaching. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, Reach’s founders are committed not just to running a great school, but to building a strong and resilient community, with plans in place for an on-site hub, out of which a range of social programmes will be delivered.

School 21 in Stratford is designed not only to prepare children for the future but to teach them that “today matters”; that they don’t need to wait for adulthood to produce beautiful work of real value to authentic audiences. The same spirit — that education shouldn’t all be about sacrifice and suffering now in the hope of some future return — also underpins the school’s emphasis on child wellbeing and the development of pupils’ speaking skills, the means by which they help them find their voice, literally and metaphorically.

West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne is focused on character development; on providing pupils with unforgettable outdoor experiences (from firing a shotgun to herding water buffalo) designed to teach them discipline, responsibility and self-control, the pre-conditions for a life of freedom and discovery.

The Plymouth School of Creative Arts is committed to developing its students’ creative capacities and providing them with an aesthetic education that showcases the beauty, utility and satisfaction to be found in great art, clever design and true craftsmanship. It is a place for making and creating.

Broadlands and Ashgrove are two apparently ordinary primary schools in deprived neighbourhoods on opposite sides of the country that are showing the extraordinary things teachers can achieve when they devote themselves completely to the children in their care, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to dismantle the many barriers to learning those children face.

Bealings Primary School in rural Suffolk is committed to building a child-centred, child-sized, experiential learning environment and to a pedagogical model known as Mantle of the Expert in which children are taught, or more accurately, helped to learn, through role-play, drama and discovery.

Bedales, a fee paying school in Hampshire, defines itself by its humanity (the school was established to provide a humane alternative to the regimented austerity of Victorian schooling) and through its holistic educational philosophy, summed up by its motto “to educate the Head, Hand and Heart”. It strives to introduce its students to what is true (academics), what is beautiful (creativity and making) and what is right (morals and ethics).

The West London Free School is committed to delivering — for free and to all — the type of classical liberal education normally reserved for those who attend grammar or private schools. Its stated purpose is:

“not primarily to prepare pupils for a job or career [but to] transform their minds so that they are able to make reasonable and informed judgments and engage fruitfully in conversation and debate — not just about contemporary issues but also about the universal questions that have been troubling mankind throughout history.”

All these schools share a key defining characteristic: an unshakeable sense of their own identity and values, and a clear vision, rooted in those values. To turn that high-level vision into a practical reality on the ground, each of them has thought deeply about what it is they do — about the design principles that underpin their model, and about how, through the use of carefully selected rituals and routines, those principles can imbue the day-to-day life of the school.

But clarity about one’s values and aims, and attentiveness to the question of how they might be made manifest in everyday school life, are not the only pre-conditions for success. Mission-oriented schools must also think hard about their practice — about what they teach (curriculum), how they teach it (pedagogy) and how they know if they’re succeeding (assessment) — and about how to mitigate the risks associated with their chosen approach.

A key dividing line running through this group of mission-oriented schools separates those that seek to develop skills, competencies and capabilities through student-led, project-based learning, from those that seek to teach knowledge, explicitly and didactically, with the teacher very much in the lead.

As the schools in this report are demonstrating, both approaches can be made to work and to work brilliantly. But understanding how they can go wrong is vital to ensuring they don’t.

The leaders of School 21, XP School and Shireland Collegiate Academy argue passionately and persuasively that student-led project-based learning provides for richer and more meaningful learning experiences that support deeper understanding; that by transferring a significant amount of control over the project to students, it provides them with the sense of ownership and responsibility that are the hallmarks of self-motivated, independent learners. They point out that by forcing students to work in groups, as well as individually, projects teach them the social and emotional skills needed to collaborate and to lead; that by culminating in some kind of product or production, they teach them the value of drafting and redrafting, of learning from their mistakes, of persevering in the face of difficulty and of taking real pride in the quality of their work; and that by creating a systematic process for documenting and reflecting on learning, they help students ‘learn how to learn’, with teacher feedback and self- and peer-assessment a central feature.

But those hoping to achieve the success these schools are achieving need to beware the risks associated with this model. In particular, they need to heed three key warnings from cognitive science:

First, they need to ensure they don’t fall for the ‘active learning fallacy’ — mistaking physical activity for cognitive activity, and allowing the former to displace the latter. They need to be alert to the danger that an activity-packed project might not lead to the expected learning if lots of those activities are disconnected from, or only tangentially linked to, the content at the heart of the project. In other words, they need to keep their primary focus on the learning, not the project.

Second, they need to beware the risk of ‘cognitive overload’, recognising that novices are highly reliant on their limited working memories and therefore likely to become overwhelmed when taught complex things in complex ways with minimal guidance. And they need to be mindful of the fact that the most deprived students are particularly vulnerable to this risk, as many of them do not possess the cultural capital — a store of prior knowledge — without which all learning, but discovery-based learning in particular, becomes more challenging. Since activity-filled projects provide the confused student with easy hiding places, the risk is they end up, to quote American educationalist Gilbert Sewall, “lost in action”, their disorientation obscured by a “whirlwind of doing and doing.”

Finally, any school that puts the acquisition of skills at the centre of its mission, and that seeks to teach or assess those skills directly, needs to satisfy itself that they are indeed as generic and transferrable as that approach assumes; that they can be cultivated and applied with equal effect across different knowledge domains. A simple thought experiment — asking yourself whether you can communicate with equal authority, or think equally critically, about a subject of which you know little, as you can on a subject you know well — reveals how domain-specific these skills are, and how limited are their transferrable elements. Few argue that skills are not critically important. The issue at stake is how to develop them; within traditional subjects and disciplines, within cross-curricular or interdisciplinary projects, or as ‘subjects’ in their own right.

Schools like Michaela Community School, Reach Academy and the West London Free School would no doubt recognise Sewall’s description of a brilliant knowledge-rich education:

“At the core, always, is serious content approached seriously. Knowledge builds on knowledge. Thirteen years of carefully sequenced content and jealously guarded classroom time allow students to build an enormous storehouse of knowledge and skills and the ability to use them. And since knowledge and success are the best breeding ground for interest to take root and expand, the more students know, the more they will want to know. Under the leadership of their teacher, students work to unearth meaning; to evaluate, interpret, compare, extend, and apply; to analyse their errors, present their findings, defend their solutions; to attend carefully to what others say; to get their thoughts down clearly on paper; to understand. This is not boring and it is not passive. This is real action learning. This is the mind at work.”

But anyone looking to emulate the success of these schools needs to understand the risks associated with their model, a model first developed by some of the highest performing American Charter schools like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme), which combine fast-paced didactic instruction with strict discipline.

The first risk is that the teacher fails to get beyond the ‘grammar’ of a subject; the knowledge, facts, structures and rules that are the essential foundation — but no more than a foundation — of a great education. The danger is that, in their rush to introduce their students to “the best that has been thought and said”, they resort to one-way ‘monologic’ teaching rather than the genuine exchange of ‘dialogic’ teaching. And, in so doing, leave too little time for ‘dialectics’ — for questioning, analysing, challenging and debating — with the result that they teach children what to think, but not how to think.

The second related risk is that, in their determination to teach as much knowledge as can be packed into the timetable, they lose sight of the importance of ‘rhetoric’ — the arts of communication, self-expression and creativity that allow us to explore the subjective as well as the objective; what we feel as well as what we know. Speaking, singing, making, drawing, dancing, acting, designing, reciting, playing, presenting; all are part of a rich and rounded education — an education of the heart and hand as well as the head — but can easily be pushed to the margins of a knowledge-based education that privileges the core academic subjects.

Finally, they need to ensure their combination of high-intensity didactic instruction and an elaborate programme of attitude and behaviour modification isn’t so supportive and restrictive that it prevents students not only from falling down but learning how to get back up. The high college drop-out rate among KIPP’s first students showed how difficult the transition from school to university can be if students haven’t first acquired the self-discipline, perseverance and resilience needed to study, work and live independently. Critics of these ‘high expectations, no excuses’ schools claim they are likely to produce young adults who are too reliant and compliant — simultaneously dependant on, and acquiescent towards, authority.

All the schools described in this report are able to explain, cogently and persuasively, either why they believe these concerns are misplaced, or what they are doing to address them. In doing the latter, they tend to reinforce a key lesson from scientific and educational research which adds some important nuance to what can be a rather binary discussion: that the way in which students are best helped to learn (and indeed, behave) should change as they get older and as they progress from novices to experts. At the start of that journey, when students have little relevant knowledge committed to long-term memory, clear, explicit, didactic instruction and some structure and constraint have an important role to play. But getting a student ready for post-compulsory study or work requires a school progressively to transfer responsibility and control over the learning process, and over behaviour, to the student. The ultimate goal being independent learners, capable of independent thought.

It would be a mistake to think that strict sequencing — knowledge then skills, didactic instruction then independent learning — is the way to resolve this dispute or to organise a school, however. As teacher turned author Martin Robinson explains, the historic Trivium — the collective title for the three arts of ‘grammar’ (knowledge and rules), ‘dialectics’ (analysis and questioning) and ‘rhetoric’ (presentation and performance) — provides a useful framework for ensuring that all three are present and appropriately balanced throughout a child’s educational journey. Only by achieving an evolving equilibrium between these three arts, Robinson argues, will we resolve the conflict between knowledge and skills, freedom and constraint, and tradition and progress that sits at the centre of the education debate. And only then will we be able to provide what the poet and polemicist John Milton described as “a complete and generous education.”

But the Trivium stems from an age when education was for the elite. And its ideas have traditionally provided a foundation for the type of liberal arts education that is often still only available to an elite.

The task the state-funded, non-selective, mission-oriented schools in this report have taken on is to provide a complete and generous education to every child — a quite different challenge.

Here, they also provide some valuable lessons: about how to create a culture that promotes good behaviour and supports learning; about how to get every child to succeed no matter their starting point; about how to overcome the barriers to learning thrown up by deprivation and by the growing problem of child and adolescent mental ill health; about how to prepare young people for the opportunities and challenges of adulthood by making your school porous to the outside world; and about how to turn your school into a ‘deliberately developmental organisation’ where professional development is constant, rather than continuing, and where teachers help each other to be the best they can be.

Although research and evidence are, rightly, playing an ever bigger role in education, ultimately, the debate about the ideal school isn’t technical or scientific. It is a values-based debate about what kind of adults we are trying to produce, and what kind of society we are trying to build.

For anyone who values living in an open and democratic society, it is a debate, first and foremost, about how to educate for freedom; about the sort of schooling that will enable a young adult to fully grasp freedom’s value, understand its vulnerabilities, recognise its enemies and commit to its defence.

It is a debate about how to give our young people the shared language of reason — the means by which, in our multi-cultural, multi-faith societies, we can transcend the divisive politics of identity and make common cause with other rational people from beyond our own group.

It is a debate about how to give our young people not only the knowledge, but the wisdom and courage to make judgements, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic, and the wherewithal to join what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott referred to as “the great conversation of mankind.”

In short, it is a debate about what kind of education will prepare them, not just to write a good exam, but to live a good life.

That is the debate these mission-oriented school leaders are engaged in. And that is the debate the RSA intends to host, and contribute to, in the years ahead as we work to create the ‘21st Century Enlightenment’ that is the RSA’s stated mission.

But to do this, we must first ensure that all those who work in our schools are able to focus on education’s primary goals, rather than the proxy goals of tests, targets and league tables. This cannot be achieved by turning back the clock and dismantling the entire accountability system, however. Children only get one go at schooling, and the idea of leaving any of them in schools we know are seriously and chronically underperforming is unconscionable.

Instead, we need considered reform cautiously applied. Reform involving changes to policy, practice and culture at every level, involving ministers, officials, inspectors, examiners, trustees and governors, school leaders and teachers.

The aim of those changes is to free headteachers from having to choose between their own interests and those of their pupils; to get classroom teachers teaching to the curriculum, not the test; to get examiners to reward genuine quality rather than coached responses; to get Ofsted to look at how, as well as whether, a school has met its performance targets; to get government and the inspectorate out of the business of defining excellence and focused solely on identifying failure; and, in everything they do, to ensure the actions of policymakers and regulators are more supportive and less punitive.

And behind all these aims is one over-riding objective: to help those who lead and teach in our schools reclaim ownership of their institutions, their profession and their practice. As the vice-like grip of the accountability system is loosened — as schools are given more space and more freedom — so the profession must take greater responsibility for driving standards, with research and evidence playing an ever more prominent role.

To achieve these aims we need to:

1. Create a new culture in educational assessment by:

  • Making tests harder to teach to. This involves attending to the arcane details of test design to increase unpredictability without reducing reliability and validity; using more closed-question and multiple choice tests where appropriate; and supporting the effort to refine and promote the use of comparative judgement, which better captures genuine quality, for the marking of essay based exams;
  • Teaching teachers about the dangers of teaching to the test such that they develop a proper understanding of the difference between the sample and the domain and a true appreciation of the centrality of the curriculum to a great education. This could usefully begin by making Ofsted’s assessment training (developed for its own inspectors) available to all senior leaders;
  • Helping teachers embrace genuine formative assessment by embedding regular, highly specific, low-stakes testing in their practice for purely diagnostic purposes, with the emphasis on providing useful feedback and identifying helpful next steps.

2. Reform the accountability system by:

  • Making explicit Ofsted’s emerging role as the guardian of a broad and balanced curriculum; a counterbalance to the pressures of the Department of Education’s (DfE) numbers-based accountability system; the body mandated and expected to ‘referee the game’, looking not only at what schools achieve, but how they achieve it;
  • Making the DfE’s representation of school performance more nuanced and balanced by providing more data about the school, its students and its alumni (so-called ‘destinations data’);
  • Reweighting league tables to stop the practice of ‘off-rolling’ low performing pupils. In future, league tables should include the GCSE results of pupils who, for whatever reason, leave between the start of the secondary school and the time they sit their GCSEs 15 terms later. The DfE should allocate these pupils’ results to the institutions where they have spent time on-roll in proportion to the amount of time they spent there;
  • Withdrawing the ‘right’ for schools to act as their own admissions authority, and establishing a Commission on School Admissions, convened by the RSA, to look at how best to permanently close the ‘low road to school improvement’ (manipulating the admissions system rather than improving teaching);
  • Ensuring all schools receive the effective and timely external challenge and support they need by creating a comprehensive but contestable ‘middle tier’ of MATs, local authorities and others, all of whom will be held accountable for their performance. Middle tier bodies will effectively operate on licence, with those that cannot demonstrate an ability to raise standards replaced by new ones. Thus, the weight of accountability will be shared between schools and those charged with supporting them, with an inbuilt incentive to ensure that support is of the highest quality.

3. Encourage a teacher-led professional renaissance by:

  • Returning the definition of educational excellence to the profession by abolishing the Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ category and getting the inspectorate focused solely on identifying those schools that are either struggling to meet their students’ needs or putting those needs second to their own institutional interests by gaming the system. Schools that are doing neither should be allowed to set their own priorities in line with their own values and vision;
  • Supporting and celebrating all grass-roots initiatives designed to improve the quality of teaching and to support the wider contribution schools make to their local communities and society. Initiatives like the National Baccalaureate are of particular importance in the effort to incentivise the provision of a richer, more rounded education.

England’s school accountability system has performed a vital function over the last 25 years, exposing underperformance and driving improvement, particularly in the basics of numeracy and literacy. And in some important ways — not least the increased emphasis on progress rather than attainment — the system has become less crude over time.

But the bigger trend has been a ratchet-like strengthening of the system’s grip on our schools, which have now completely internalised its logic and language. Gaming has become more common and teaching to the test so standard it is confused for good practice. Innovation and collaboration meanwhile are powerfully disincentivised. By any objective measure, the costs of the system now outweigh the benefits.

The headteachers in this report have shown, through their heroic efforts, what can be achieved, even within this environment. Our task is to build a system where far more schools are able to do what these mission-oriented schools are doing, but crucially, where success doesn’t depend on heroism.

At the RSA, we believe we have now reached that critical point where change becomes possible: where the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of reform. And we believe there is a broad coalition for change waiting to be assembled. That coalition, like the group of schools in this report, spans the ideological spectrum from progressive to traditionalist and all points in between. It is a coalition of missionaries, visionaries and idealists, whether fulfilled or frustrated, whether fighting the good fight or itching to join it.

They should know they have an ally, and a meeting place, in the RSA.

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