Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Henley 2: This time it’s cultural

So finally the cultural education review has arrived. Like a difficult second album, this one has taken far longer than Darren Henley’s excellent music education review (although not quite as long as Kevin Rowland’s notorious second solo album – my friend Jon was working for the record company that waited twelve years for that gem to arrive).

The delay might have been caused by Darren’s creative angst, but my guess is that it was probably down to torturous back and forths between the DfE, DCMS and possibly the Arts Council. As a member of the Cultural Learning Alliance’s steering group, the process was frustrating. Despite being promised consultation and early sight on recommendations, yesterday’s news was genuinely news to most of us.

The report has hardly been eagerly awaited – that’s part of the problem. Cultural learning is generally somewhere on everyone’s list of priorities, but despite the fantastic efforts of the CLA, it generally scrapes along the bottom of people’s ‘to worry about’ lists, especially in these meaner, more blinkered times. We all knew that key decisions on the future of cultural learning lay outside the boundaries of this review: in the now-delayed national curriculum review, and the space it leaves or doesn’t leave for schools to develop a whole curriculum; in the changes to the accountability system so that not every subject matters; and in the budget decisions made, relatively autonomously, by thousands of schools, youth centres, local authorities and cultural institutions.

So, has the review been worth waiting for? Plans for a £3m BFI Film Academy, or the £2.7M going to English Heritage to pay for brokers to foster links between schools and historic sites, made reasonable Tuesday headlines. But if you know your history (as Michael Gove might say), they don’t really cover up the financial holes created by Arts Council and Government decisions. Nor do they answer the bigger questions about quality, access, the role of schools, colleges and HEIs as cultural institutions, and how we target, target, target resources at those most risk of missing out culturally, often through lack of demand rather than supply. I still worry that in a few decades this government may be remembered for precipitating the UK’s creative and cultural decline.

Henley’s focus on newly qualified teachers feels like the right pressure point in the system – the Teaching Outside the Classroom programme I established always found it difficult to compete for space in a student teacher’s calendar, With money attached, this idea could fit well into a teacher’s first or second year, when they are just looking beyond the exhausting parapet of behaviour management, and might link to Masters’ qualifications.My thoughts on Gove’s thoughts about ‘data not being the plural of evidence’ (borrowed from Dylan William) will have to wait for another post.

The Review also makes a good effort to define cultural learning. When leading Find Your Talent (a programme which appears to have made a depressingly minimal impact on the future of cultural education) I stepped on the shoulders of Raymond Williams and other giants to define culture as 'the means through which we understand and create our identities'. This film by Billy Pols, shown at the Turner Contemporary exhibition on youth culture, fits with my definition. Would it make the Henley cut?

Although the national plan for cultural education will be important, bigger news for cultural learning may well have come the week before. According to Arts Industry, thanks to a big rise in National Lottery ticket sales, The Arts Council can expect an extra £1.25 billion in extra income over the next five years. I know it’s not all about the money, but even if a proportionate amount was spent on children and young people, that would give an additional £50 Million per year to play with. Now, where did I put that proposal I wrote for a redesigned Creative Partnerships 3.0?

Monday, 5 December 2011

Opting into PISA’s 2012 problem solving test

Here's a virtual contribution to today's Whole Education conference.

The idea is straightforward; putting it into practice would probably involve overcoming torturous bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles.

It concerns next year’s PISA new problem solving test which will be run alongside the usual literacy and numeracy assessments, and is being taken by 43 out of 66 OECD countries. The Department for Education has decided to opt out, as it does not wish to ‘overburden schools.’ There are obvious ideological reasons behind this, although Michael Gove’s thoughtful speech to the Schools Network Conference last week did suggest a broader philosophy of education, acknowledging the need to bring teaching and learning up to date with the demands of current society and workplaces.

The OECD is initiating these tests since “we need to assess problem-solving abilities as governments around the world seek to equip young people with the skills they need for life and employment.” The DfE may have been put off by some of the baggage which the OECD has attached to the problem solving framework around “progressive teaching methods”. The test “aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient. “ This is not the language to attract sceptics within and beyond DfE. However, this is not about a battle between so-called traditional and modern pedagogies; it’s simply after a robust assessment of outcomes, regardless of methods.

Can a group of UK organisations work with OECD to ‘opt in’ to this test? We would find a representative sample of schools, using all the appropriate OECD methodologies, (to avoid tainting our sample with too many skills-serious schools).

Assessing skills is difficult; The QCDA came close with a strong, jargon-free analysis of personal learning and thinking skills, but this never gained traction in enough schools, or developed into a common assessment framework. Our refusal to grasp the skills assessment challenge is part of the reason why the daft and destructive knowledge vs. skills battle that overshadows too much education debate never goes away.

Although we might have concerns about a computer-based problem solving assessment, the OECD and Pearson’s combined approach is likely to be very high quality and as evidence-based as possible. Taking these tests in 2012 would provide England with a benchmark for improvement over time and in comparison with other nations. Who knows? We might even come in the top three, and benefit from a boom in educational tourism, as foreign educators come pleading ‘why can’t we be like the English?’

... or Scottish, or Welsh, for that matter. I can’t find out whether they are participating – can anyone help? I am aiming to build a broad coalition of organisations who could help us work with OECD to ensure that as many nations in the UK as possible participate in this test in 2012. We will need organisations that can mobilise thousands of school leaders – the NAHT and ACSL maybe but Whole Education might also play a role. 

There may be an obvious flaw in my proposal. And it might be better for us all to lobby for the DfE to change its mind. But until told otherwise, we will keep pursuing this idea. If information is power, information gathering could be empowering. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

From an EBacc to a MeBacc

The briefest of blog plugs for a terrific collection of short articles on Creativity Money and Love: Learning for the 21st Century, commissioned by Creative and Cultural Skills and A New Direction.

My chapter describes a proposal for a MeBacc. The idea is better than the name, I promise.