Wednesday, 22 July 2009

back to broken basics

Is there a better name for a blog than The Bleeding Heart Show? Neil Robertson's self-confessed 'liberal-left' blog takes the challenge that all of us should face - thinking like a Tory.

Neil compares Cameron's 'broken society' rhetoric with the pronouncements, and occasional policies of John Major's Back to Basics era. Wary of the way in which Major set standards that members of his Cabinet failed to meet, Cameron is being far more specific about a set of societal ills that afflict only a small part of the population.

How broken is society? What has caused those ills, to what extent are we all responsible? Who was Number One in the Charts when Major gave that speech? Amidst the laughable hypocrisy of Back to Basics and cones hotlines, I remember one speech from Major that resonated with me then, and continues to appeal.

In the middle of a speech full of eulogies for nuns on bicycles and warm beer (remember that one?) Major called for a gentler society. He never expanded on this, but, strip away the nostalgia for an age that was far more violent than golden, he may have been onto something.

Could gentleness become an all-encompassing political philosophy? In a faster, frantic modern world, what does gentleness look like? The Young Foundation's latest report on Civility may well provide some fresh, gentle thinking on this issue. For now, the only answer I have is that, in September 1993, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince was Number One, with 'Boom Boom Shake The Room.'

Friday, 17 July 2009

stick to your blogging

As of today, I am a proud member of a new bloggers' circle. Set up by Matthew Cain with the support of the RSA, the idea is that a group of amateur bloggers commit to reading, reviewing and publicising each others' blogs. We all aim to create at least one post a week, and comment on at least two posts from other blogs every month. At the moment, it feels like a warm supportive space. Maybe that's because the process hasn't yet begun.

There are lots of Circles out there, but I have immediate visions of knitting circles. From there, the phrase 'stick to your knitting' comes to mind. The phrase was apparently created by Tom Peters (that business guru whose book 'In Search of Excellence' identified a number of excellent companies whose fortunes nosedived post-publication). It means carry on doing what you are familiar with and what you do best. If your company is good at knitting, don't diversify into something new.

The act of blogging is in a sense a direct denial of this daft principle. Great blogs play with the unfamiliar, create connections between different areas of knowledge, none of which the authors might know much about. They acknowledge the value of genuine expertise, but challenge and probe information, teasing out new insights and taking risks with half-formed opinions.

Let's hope everyone in the bloggers circle and beyond sticks to our blogging and keeps ranting way beyond our authority.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ends and Means

This post isn't really about education. It just begins that way.

A couple of weeks ago, Conservative Education spokesman Michael Gove gave an important speech to the RSA. The speech revealed the contradiction at the heart of his thinking, and probably that of all parties.

The first half of his speech covered his personal views on the purpose of education. A return to the liberal tradition; a focus on thea subject-based canon of content; a retreat from the pursuit of wider skills and outcomes, as exemplified by 'Every Child Matters'. His views were interesting, coherent, and genuinely guided by a passion for social justice. Matthew Taylor's blog gives a good summary, and will soon challenge Michael to clarify a few points.

The second half focused on Tory plans to free up schools to run schools as they wish, driven by the demands of their parental community. If Michael really believes this, it renders the first half of his speech irrelevant. His opinions are no less interesting, but they become merely opinions, ones which schools and parents could adopt, adapt or ignore as they see fit.

The key 'localism test' for any politician should be this: If you are serious about devolving power, you will have to be prepared not only to devolve methods, but to devolve outcomes too. Every child will still matter, but in very different ways to very different communities.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Raising and Redefining Achievement

I have always had respect for Michael Barber's approach to education, and his ability to make genuine change happen. However his piece on How the school system should respond to a shrinking budget shows that he might have hung round politicians too long. He uses two political devices.

Device 1: Invent extreme-viewed enemies that don't really exist

Tony Blair used to do this all the time; I doubt he was the first. Here are three of Michael's examples:

"Many still cling to the demonstrably false view that creativity consists of each teacher making it up in the classroom. This is not creativity, it is betrayal."

"the widely held but absurd view that because some things can't be measured, we should measure nothing."

"There are many educators and leaders who simply don't believe that successful change is possible."

Where are these people? I have weaved my way round the education world for years, and never seem to meet them. Yes, there are those of us who, backed by evidence, believe that we focus insufficiently on the creative development of our children; that our assessment system is no longer fit for purpose; that change is rendered difficult by societal factors beyond the school walls. But nobody I have met ever takes these views to the extremes that Michael claims. By turning them into extremists he denies the validity of these concerns and closes down debate.

Device 2: Make it sound too simple

His 'systemic solutions' are faultless: train and develop great teachers and leaders; ensure teachers develop their pedagogy with regular opportunities for collaboration and feedback; devolve power and budgets to schools; ensure that data about school and student performance is rich, accurate and transparent. As an education system, we have made progress on all of these solutions.

Here is my additional solution, more messy and complex, but one which could move us on at a time when 'performance' appears to plateauing. Talk about the outomes. As an education system, we need a robust discussion, a new consensus, and finally (and most challenging) a degree of local flexibility about the outcomes we want for our children and young people. Despite the tinkering from government, and braver moves from others, including the RSA's Education Charter, politicians tend to close down discussions about outcomes before they have really begun.

I once claimed that the aim of Creative Partnerships was to raise and redefine achievement. Raising proved much easier than redefining. I hope that the new 21st Century Learning Alliance has more joy. Standards Are Not Enough (worked out the acronym?)

Monday, 6 July 2009

tecchie shit, hippy shit, do shit?

I've always wanted the superhero power to be able to tell if people weren't listening to me. Like those glasses which can tell when people pee in a swimming pool, it's not a really a power that would save the world. But it might help me to adjust my tactics in all sorts of situations. Scientists somewhere are probably onto it.

Today I was at a brilliant conference, surrounded by people who weren't really listening. Reboot Britain asked the question ' how can the promise of our new digital age tackle the challenges we face as a country?' I still don't know the answer, but it's clear that there are more than enough people trying.

All around me, people were twittering, blackberrying, blogging, and even doing that 20th century email thing. On a closer look, most of this activity was entirely unrelated to the purpose of the day, and unconnected with the content of that session. Maybe they were listening to the speakers, but if so, they were taking multi-tasking to new heights.

At one point, the journalist Yvonne Roberts expressed a concern that too many people were trying to solve problems online that could only really be addressed through making something happen on the ground. Tim Smit's rail against hippy shit came from a similar concerned place.

And if I wanted my Luddite intuitions about the digital age confirming, during an imaginative, reflective speech from Jeremy Hunt, up on screen beamed this tweet from OP1UM1. "Line bankers and politicians against my garden fence and shoot them in their faces".