Can we provide an excellent cultural education without involving schools?

As Nigel Molesworth might have said in Back in the Jug Agane ‘any fule kno’ that trying to involve schools in anything but their core business of delivering the national curriculum like milkmen used to deliver the daily pinta, teaching to the test, climbing up the league tables, providing full wrap around care 247, being the complete corporate parent, struggling to make their budgets balance, and avoiding, adapting or falling for the next policy imperative is a pointless task these days as they’re pretty busy already. Never-mind adding in things like additional sport, additional support, additional lunchtimes and additional adding up sessions. No wonder there’s no room in the school timetable for anything remotely cultural.

Most arts organisations experience schools ultra-busy business with something approaching despair which sometimes gets transformed into some ingenious ruse designed to get an artist in front of some youth come hell or high water.

But it’s no longer enough for a theatre company to promote themselves as having a riveting production of Pirandello’s 6 Characters in Search of an Author which all young people should experience before their hormones kick in. These days, any theatre director who wants to introduce young people to the work of Pirandello and simultaneously demonstrate their cultural education credentials, has to ensure their production of Six Characters in Search of an Author isn’t just a riveting theatrical experience, but that it meets many different curriculum objectives not only in literacy but also in numeracy, bio-physics and what was fondly called back in the day, domestic science aka cooking and ironing.

Not only that, but the riveting theatrical experience will probably have to accommodate a sponsored trampoline bounce half way through act one in order to generate the funds to pay the costs for the aforesaid riveting theatrical experience.

Budgets being what they are, schools can’t even begin to think about taking their charges out of school to experience riveting theatrical experiences in their natural homes i.e. theatres, let alone invest in the military logistics required to bring the outside world through the hallowed gates, hostile gatekeepers, barbed wire and booby traps that await any unsuspecting AOTs (adult other than teachers) who find themselves on school premises harbouring the delusion that a school might be delighted to have a theatre company join them for the day to help engage and shape the lives of the young people in front of them.

No, these days, the notion that a quality cultural education should be left to schools is something that has been well and truly buried by an age of austerity, academisation and neo-liberal accountability which knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The sooner our producers of Pirandello realise this and generate some other ways to engage with the cultural life of the child, the happier they and our young people will be. Schools will also be relieved to get on with their core business of implementing government policy and will be much the better for it.

Tips for teachers: It depends how you count ’em.

“It depends how you count ’em…” has been a constant refrain through the cultural education exchange visit in Finland this week. Whether it’s golf courses in Espoo (7 or 8), municipalities in Helsinki (4 or 14) or lakes in Finland (187,888 plus or minus), it all depends on how you count them. For phenomena you might think are pretty unequivocal (when is a golf course not a golf course?), it turns out that there is a lot more to a thing than meets the eye.

Walking along the coast line of the Tooivo Kuulas park this morning you can see why. One moment the lake looks like an impressively large pond; the next it stretches way off into the distance and it conjures up memories of Balaton Lake in Hungary; and soon enough you find out that it’s not a lake at all but just another link in the supply chain to the Baltic Sea.

It struck me that the same case could be said for student attainment. How can a country’s education system said to be performing well? Through its ratings on the PISA scale? Numbers of students who graduate into work on completion of their undergraduate study? Aggregated ratings on a mental health scale of well being? Like the lakes in Finland, it depends on how you count them. My top PISA rating may be nothing more than a drop in your Baltic Sea when it comes to evaluating the relevance those ratings have on students lives.

Whilst it’s temporarily startling that Espoo has a disputed number of golf courses in its territory, it is comforting to think that if we can’t count golf courses with confidence, we can confidently be a little less confident about the value of numbers when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural education on our children.

Give Us This Day: a Toast to the Children of Walney

We’re planning an archaeological dig on Walney Island in Cumbria and are about to welcome a group of thirty year 5 children to come and see the site, get their hands dirty and begin to wrestle with the skills needed to interpret the dirty old unseen history that has been buried in the sand dunes over the last 100 years.

We’re a bit worried about the exertion that’s expected of the children; their visit is going to involve a good hour-long walk along the shore and the health and safety monkeys on our backs are ringing their alarm bells loud and clear in all our ears. Will the children get tired after just a few minutes? What if they fall over? Get upset? Stop breathing? Slump in a sulk just two minutes into the walk and refuse to get up on their feet again?

Thankfully, they’re made of sterner stuff and we learn that they’ve already walked 12 mikes around Walney Island and are used to walking long distances. We breathe a sigh of relief and remember that we have forgotten the little but significant fact that children in schools all over the country are hugely equipped with knowledge, expertise and capabilities which are frequently ignored by us educators and which will frequently stand them in much better stead than we could imagine when staring at the demands that the risk assessment questionnaire makes of us.

The children of Walney, we are soon reminded, know how to walk long distances. They can deal with wet, cold, heat and sun as that’s what they live in daily. An hourly stroll up in the beach in inclement weather is something they do for breakfast. Their forebears spent their working lives outdoors here so it’s not surprising that an appetite for the outdoors has found its way into their genetic make up.

Whether it be walking, swimming, hunting, shooting or fishing, children’s capacities which are borne from engaging with their locality is something to celebrate and breath a deep sigh of relief about. It makes for one less box to worry about on the health and safety audit and reminds us of their innate competences in times which often stress their ignorance, their neediness and their incompetences.

My Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen and Members of the Jury, please raise a toast to the children of Walney.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Toast: read all about toasting here.

Questions for teachers: what’s your Galileo moment?

Jumping out of our archive today was the “Galileo – and still it moves” project. This involved working with a group of year 5 children to explore the planets and in doing so, develop their literacy skills: particularly their speaking, listening and writing skills.

We started off by exploring Galileo and what he went through when he challenged the orthodoxy of the day ie the sun revolving around the earth, rather than the other way around. Of course, many of the adults in the room explained to the children about how terribly he was treated and what a genius he was and how he suffered for his knowledge. All of which is no doubt true.

Although perhaps it’s not. One of interesting moments was when a young boy, when being told by a teacher that Pluto was a planet, challenged the teacher with the recent finding that Pluto was no longer deemed a planet but a dwarf planet, or a rock cluster of minor significance or just a large ice pack or something to that effect (who knows?!) Mr Teacher then responded to the challenge that as far as he was concerned, Pluto had been a planet when he was at school, still was a planet, and would be for the rest of his days.

The irony of Mr Teachers response was of course not lost on the Year 5 boy who sat through the rest of the lesson with a slightly bemused look on his face. What we deem as knowledge is as uncertain and as flaky as it was in Galileo’s day.

So, what’s been your Galileo moment?

More details about the Galileo project here.

Calling all schools: Aspire to present at Advantage Oman Competitiveness Forum in Muscat, Oman.

His Highness Sayyid Faisal Al Said, Chairperson, Advantage Oman has recently invited our director, Dr. Nick Owen MBE to present at the Advantage Oman Competitiveness Forum to be held between 30 November and 5 December 2013 in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.

‘Advantage Oman’ an international competitiveness forum to discuss the critical importance of identity and vision, good governance, enterprise, education, sustainability and technology in creating a stronger, more robust, competitive Oman. Nick will be presenting on Aspire’s work in Life Long Learning and Enterprise and is looking forward to building new relationships and business opportunities in the Middle East and further afield.

Other colleagues from Australia, Singapore and the USA will also be contributing to the programme – as well as our very own Liverpool Chamber of Commerce with whom Aspire has been working with closely recently in the fields of international trade and business start up programmes. For further details about the programme please contact us at

I will be taking the opportunity whilst I am out there to establish links with local schools – so if you would like to connect your school with schools in Oman, please get in touch!

Latest press information here.

Answering the questions of your 10 year old self: 500+ Reasons to be Cheerful at All Our Futures, Rio De Janeiro, October 2013

Reasons 53 –  83: Answering the questions of your 10 year old self

We go back to school and invariably revisit our youth and think why do we do what we do?  What would we do differently?  And what would we say to ourselves if we met ourselves in the playground?

If we’re working in education, we have the added questions of what does this practice tell us, are there ideas or approaches I can adapt? What would happen if?  What might happen if not?  We might alter our practice and question our stance – quite subtly though, and not necessarily in a way which would merit the attention of head teachers, inspectors or distant academics – but which might be noticed by the young lad sat in front of you, day on day, week on week.  He might notice a slight change of emphasis in your tone; the girl next to him may notice a slight momentary doubt creep into your voice when asserting something you think you have known true for years.  She will spot your Galileo moment when all that was constant is no longer so and the certainties you had before, are no longer quite as certain.

These are all useful, productive forms of educational transformation. Frequently off the authorities’ radar, their effects bring about life changing moments for your students, about which neither you nor them will know anything of for at least 30 years.

And what would you say to yourself if you met yourself in the playground 30 years ago? “Don’t worry.”  Would be a good start; although you may not listen to yourself.

More here on how you can bring about major educational transformation in the microscopic of ways here:

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Finding Faith: 500+ Reasons to be Cheerful at All Our Futures, Rio De Janeiro, October 2013

Reason 51 – 52: finding faith.

The significance of faith schools in Brazil demands you take a closer look at the very notion of faith itself than you might feel comfortable with in the confines of the familiar secular set up we have in the UK. But whether you agree with the principle of faith schools or not, there’s no getting away from it: education demands that the educator starts from a position of faith in the first place.

Whether this be the acts of faith that presupposes that young people will benefit from the actions of well meaning adults; that the teaching of knowledge, skills and wisdom can be learnt in a predictable way within the confines of a regulated and structured system of activities; or the belief that education has to be a force for the greater good all the time: these are all acts of faith that we as educators subscribe to in any educational venture.

We feel this regularly and intensely on the first day of any course or intake of new students: the day is marked with a surge of optimism, of possibility and of great things about to be achieved. Without these faith symbols, the actions of the educator are merely empty vessels of meaning; habits devoid of substance, intent or purpose.

And Brazil – with its social, economic and ecological challenges – is arguably one of the best places in the world to come and see how faith in education is being played out in the streets, the favelas and the mountains.

We’re especially looking forward to working with Colegio Santa Marcelina in October and seeing how they marry their world of faith, the world of the streets in their educational acts of faith. More at

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Forgetting new words in surprisingly old ways: 500+ Reasons to be Cheerful at All Our Futures, Rio De Janeiro, October 2013

Reasons 38.5 – 50: Forgetting new words in surprisingly old ways.

Clearly, coming to Brazil is going to involve your engagement with the Portuguese language and over the last few days I have managed to up my vocabulary from a big fat zero words to a massive 12. These are, unsurprisingly, the words for school, fantastic, thanks, goodbye, congratulations, children, teacher, street, hotel, good morning and beer. One of these only counts as half a word as I keep forgetting it.

Whilst there are plenty of apps you can download on your phone to help you memorise key phrases, at All Our Futures you will have the benefit of dedicated translators who will be with you all the time so your vocabulary will no doubt increase at the rate of knots. By the end of this week I aim to have increased my word bank to at least 62.

The even better news is that one of our host schools – Colegio Notre Dame Ipanema – is highly skilled at teaching both Portuguese and English to its students and visitors. And yes – you did read ‘Ipanema’ in the title – so once the visit to the school is over, you will be easily able to hotfoot it down to the beach and imagine yourself singing that old favourite by Antônio Carlos Jobim with Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. But I bet Victor didn’t have problems forgetting his words.

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Enlightening students by enlightened teachers: 500+ Reasons to be Cheerful at All Our Futures, Rio De Janeiro, October 2013

Reasons 11 – 38.5: Enlightening students by enlightened teachers

Some might say, what’s the point of travelling over 5000 miles to go and see schools? They’re all the same everywhere aren’t they? Well, yes, in as much they are populated by people and invariably are housed in something resembling a building: so yes, they’re all the same. Much like the flora and fauna across the planet are all the same in the way they have thing in common: they’re alive.

But what the reductionist misses is the fact that schools and those who inhabit them – teachers, young people, parents, school rabbits – make complex ecologies in their own rights, complete with their own characteristics, flavours and behaviours. Whilst their commonalities are gratifying – the vast majority of them want the best for their young people – their differences and diversity are reasons to celebrate the spirit of the endeavour to prepare for their – for our – futures.

So far this week, our visit to Escola Nova in the suburb of Gavea, has shown a school with huge spirit of internationalism; walls, doors and school furniture remind the pupil and the teacher of their ongoing connection to their neighbours across South America as well as further afield. A classroom named Israel sits next door to a classroom called Palestine. The UK classroom sits upstairs above the theatre-gym space and promises pupils insights to Manchester, Cornwall and Norfolk. The Science lab has an ingenious way of connecting pupils to the physical world we inhabit by using the natural rock of the hillside the school is built on as the fourth wall of the classroom. When it rains, the rain streams down the rock into a channel which takes the water away: possibly the only classroom in the world where rain inside in the school is embraced. More at

Equally intriguing is the Instituto de Aplicacao Fernando Rodrigues da Silveira CAP-UERJ, a school we visit later that day. Occupying some very unprepossessing building space, we hear that this is one of only two schools where research is a fundamental aspect of the teachers role: so much so that over 38% of teaching staff have PhDs. And this isn’t a result of unemployed doctoral students looking for work but a conscious policy by the school to keep offering their staff high quality on the job development. As a result, staff are infused with the importance of research and connecting this research to the work of the classroom. And given they teach both at the university and the school, they see themselves as both school teachers and university lecturers simultaneously: with the consequence that their pupils become both school pupils and university students – albeit from the age of 6 upwards. And the results of this enlightened policy of staff development is that the school is one of the highest achieving schools in Brazil – in an area which has huge levels of poverty and social exclusions to boot. More at

So yes, all schools are the same in one way: but their differences are something to inspire and to teach us all, wherever we work.

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