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.

Tips for teachers: It’s the littlest things that make a difference.

We’re planning an archaeological dig this weekend on Walney Island in Cumbria and are about to welcome a group of thirty year 5 children on Monday 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.

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 not 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.

Back to school armed with weapons of mass destruction and learnings of the third kind.

It’s a new school year and memories of tests failed, repeated years and thwarted ambitions waft through the air again as the leaves start to turn, the air chills and the first signs of Christmas appear on the supermarket shelves.

What did we learn from our summer break that will see us through the darkening days? That some weapons are more righteous than others? That whilst we might hope that it’s never too late to become the tennis player we always wanted to be that in fact it is? Much too late? That our political aspirations are crumbling faster than a cup cake straight out of the oven in the Great British Bake Off?

The sound of lives cut short, the acrid smell of relationships souring, the sound of economies going pop, this is what we’re learning this summer.

It may that after the heady hazy days of summer that we cast a quizzical look at our new school pals, throw an astonished glance to the teachers in charge and run out of the school gates as fast as our little short trousered legs will carry us.

It worked for me for a while when I was about to turn five although the inevitable grip that school was to exert eventually meant I donned my cap and blazer with the best and the rest of them.

Teachers, when you’re back in that classroom, counting them in and counting them out, please save some extra time for those in front of you who are yearning to run a mile at top speed out of the classroom, down the hall and out into the road. They may have learnt far too much for their own liking over the summer and just may not be ready to soak up your phonemes and calculus.

Calling teachers interested in educational and cultural exchange in Brazil

Over the last two years, Aspire has organised international conferences for Principals and Head teachers from Bulgaria, India, Nigeria and the UAE to visit UK schools. We have also produced student exchange programmes for students from Nigeria, Serbia and Macedonia.

These events have been very powerful in establishing links between UK and overseas schools, developing educational exchanges, facilitating visits between partner schools and offering unique insights into our mutual educational cultures.

This year we are planning a similar conference in Brazil in conjunction with schools and universities there. To set up those programmes, I have been invited to visit schools in Rio de Janeiro between 20 and 28 May to participate in a trade and culture mission with schools, the University, teachers and other colleagues. More information is available at http://www.aspirecreativeenterprises.com/ACE/aof_rio.html

If you would like your school to benefit from my visit – e.g. by making links with schools, connections with head teachers and pupils, curriculum developments, CPD opportunities or other possibilities – then please get in touch to discuss how I could facilitate connections and exchanges between those schools and your own. I can be contacted at nick@aspire-trust.org.

What’s the point of school? Ask a School Ecologist.

What’s the point of school? Kids are socialites at 7, adults at 12 and doubting everything the teacher and the school stands for. Behaviour is questionable, deference is a quaint notion of a rose tinted past when teachers were head of the classroom and everyone knew and welcomed their places. Curriculum is irrelevant and has been superseded by the Internet where children work out of their own curriculum and syllabus, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what – certainly things we parents and teachers know nothing or little about.

These are desperate times when all our educational purposes, reasons and rationales have been thrown up into the air and scrutinised like never before. So what place the curriculum? The school? The teacher even?

These existential questions are common to teachers across the world; from urban comprehensives in inner city Liverpool, to rural schools across India to schools in the outback in furthest Australia. No matter where you look, the central questions are the same: how should schools respond to the rapidly changing nature of the world we live in? How can they prepare children for an uncertain today and an unknown tomorrow?

How should we envisage school change?

Changing schools is a problematic concept – some might say conceit – not least because of the hugely complex contexts that schools are part of. Changing a particular element of pedagogy, school management or children’s behaviour is not like changing a set of variables in a laboratory experiment. Schools are not slabs of complex industrial machinery which operate on the basis of ‘x’ inputs producing ‘y’ outputs in a methodological and predictable fashion. The problem, from a managerial perspective which likes control, predictability and accountability, is that people aren’t rationale, schools are not like factories and students frequently don’t necessarily behave the way the planners would like.

“There’ll no shouting in the new school!”

In the UK we saw a huge programme of building modernisation upto the most recent election in 2010. Entitled Building Schools for the Future, the programme was the largest capital investment programme for 50 years in England. Whilst there were undoubted improvements to many English schools, the changes the programme introduced had a number of startling unexpected consequences.

At the opening of a local new centre for learning near Liverpool (note how the language has changed from ‘school’ to ‘centre for learning’) the principal chastised her rowdy new pupils with the quaint notion that the new building they were about to enter would magically reduce the amount of bawdy behaviour in the corridors.

Her desire to ignore some uncomfortable realities about what it is to be a young person, teacher or indeed even human being meant that whatever the rhetoric of modernisation, there would always be “shouting down corridors” Whatever the architectural vision of the shiny new learning spaces, there will still be a desire of young women and young men to occupy different spaces when it comes to their ablutions, picking off of acne scabs and throwing cigarettes down the latrines. Whatever the politics of corridor decoration, posters will become magnets for other posters and there will always a school wag who has to make their mark on the pristine wall hanging.

Schools just don’t function like well oiled machines in factories but behave like organisms in cultural ecologies. They don’t exist in isolation from the wider world they inhabit, they are fundamentally uncontrollable and trying to change their ecological properties can often be a frustrating and challenging process.

Schools are ecological systems: not industrial plant

Teachers, parents and children tend their patch in their own specific and unique way. They may be more or less successful at this tending, but whether they identify themselves as Centres for Learning, Big Picture Schools, Round Square schools, Faith Schools or plain old fashioned chalk and talk classrooms, schools’ different pedagogical models can coexist within the same social or geographical context. Schools demonstrate a form of ecological diversity which mirrors the biological diversity of the lands they inhabit.

Seeing schools as complex ecologies allows us to assess school improvement agendas ina completely different light.

Complexity theory would suggest for example that the emergence of school league table winners causes the emergence of school league table losers. When schools are engaged in competitions for pupil numbers, or for positions on a league table, it is not as if they are running on an Olympic race track with competing athletes to see who can run 100m the fastest: this competition means that the ‘front runners’ are partially responsible for disrupting the state of the race track of those lagging ‘behind’. They may have started at the same starting gate (which is unlikely) – but the high achieving schools then manage to dig up the race track for those who are slightly behind them; leading to the winners winning by an even bigger margin than they demonstrated at the start of ‘the race’.

On the horizon…. Global School Ecologists

We think the time is right to develop models of change which acknowledge the ecological nature of schools and the education contexts they are part of: particularly in countries who have been looking to the West to provide models of school improvement and who may be seduced by the attraction of the schools as industrial plant metaphor.

We are developing training programmes which develop ‘school ecologists’: members of the school community who can describe and explain the myriad of different pedagogical characteristics which their schools demonstrate – and then help construct a future which is of benefit to the whole school community. ‘School Ecologists’ would learn to understand the signature ecological pedagogy of their school and the consequences of interactions between children, teachers, parents and culture. This may well provide us with new insights of what the point of school is in rapidly changing international times.

If you would like to be part of our Global School Ecology programme, please contact us at nick@aspire-trust.org

Aspire up the Amazon: calling teachers interested in outdoor education in the Amazon and French Guyana

Over the last few years, Aspire has been involved in adult learning programmes which have focused on outdoor and forest education. These programmes have been very powerful in establishing links between UK and overseas schools, developing educational exchanges and facilitating visits by UK based artists to partners across Europe.

I will be visiting French Guyana in February to participate in the outdoor education programme, Environmental Education On : Amazonia In French Guiana, run by ICOFOR, the French Guyana based training organisation, Intermédiaire de Commerce et Formateur. The aims of the training programme are to:

* help the development of innovative practices in the adult education and their transfer between participanting countries;
* gain knowledge about Amazonia;
* learn methods for teaching different subjects “out of the classroom”;
* encourage international exchanges as well as future co-operation between participants.

On the north-­east coast of South America, between Surinam and Brazil, French Guyana is a fascinating and wild country: a green paradise par excellence. It is almost entirely covered by thick Amazonian forest and criss-­crossed by wide rivers. Almost half of its eight million hectares of French Amazonian are a protected environment, 90% covered by forest.

If you would like your school to benefit from my visit – e.g. by making links with schools, connections with head teachers and pupils, curriculum developments, CPD opportunities or other possibilities – then please get in touch to discuss how I could facilitate connections and exchanges between those schools and your own. I can be contacted at nick@aspire-trust.org.

Poetry on the Hoof: Feeding frenzy (How Schools Devour Each Other)

The feeder primary school feeds
the secondary school which feeds
the universities or the workforce.

The feeder primary school is fed by nursery schools
who, in turn, are fed by child minders, nannies or parents and finally
the cradle or the grave.

Such is the feeding chain:
Each school is fed by or feeds another.
Each school is but a source, or consumer, of food, of pupils.

The feeding frenzy of schools upon other schools and upon each other
is the ecology of winners and losers,
victors and collateral damage.

Whilst no-one wants to be fed upon,
we’re happy to muscle into the feeding trough:
slake our appetite on lesser mortals.