All Our Futures: International Education Conference at Hull University Welcoming Speech

Hull has been the City which helped me makes send of the turbulent times that had been going on in the English education system since 1997.

I was a relative newcomer to working in schools in 2002 when I joined the Aspire Trust. My memories of primary and secondary statutory education were mixed – a disrupted primary education, marred by parental disputes and continued house moving was followed by a secondary phase which was altogether more stable and safe and provided a context which allowed me and many of my school friends to look back in pleasure at those halcyon school days. Not quite ‘the best days of our lives’ but not far off it we all agreed when we met some weeks ago on a school reunion which took us back to the site where we had met some 40 years back.

But my friends and I were in one sense a privileged few. We had the benefit of having passed the state’s 11+ exam which allowed us then to be accepted at the local grammar school. Others though in our class were not so fortunate. Whether this was due to their being less academically inclined, less prepared to comply with the demands that primary schools made in those days, or just had a bad day when it came to sitting the test, their failure to pass that exam at such a young age meant that they were parcelled off to the local comprehensive school.

Whilst they too may look back at their time in secondary school as being the best days of their lives, we shall never know; that splitting of us at 11 years old made sure that we followed different educational paths, established different social networks and altogether had vastly different expectations of us. It was expected of us that we would be prepared for university; other our friends (who our parents talked about in hushed tones as somehow having ‘failed’ something) were prepared for the world of work – which in those days meant some kind of vocational training in retail, industry or perhaps even the armed forces.

In those days there was a definite split in the English education system – the academically capable went to grammar schools, those who weren’t, didn’t. Those who went to grammar school were prepared for university and careers in the professions; those who didn’t, weren’t. Those who went to university and the professions were prepared to run the country; those who weren’t, didn’t.

This split at 11 year old was – and to a large extent, still is – a reflection of the bipartheid nature of the English education system. This system still perpetuates today the polarity of the academic versus the vocational education in this country.

There are many other awkward and contestable polarities in our education system which you will no doubt encounter this week in your visits to our schools in Hull. The pressure for children to achieves versus the desire for them to enjoy their education; the need to behave within a certain type of socially acceptable behaviours versus the desire to ensure every child’s education should be about recognising them as unique individuals complete with their own dreams and desires; the pressure to train children for the work place and to gain employment in a real job versus the pressure to prepare children for life long learning and the vagaries of the future; the pressure to educate children in order to maintain social norms and to protect cultural values versus the pressure to educate to change the social norms.

These polarities are no doubt echoed in your own schools – and this is why we have called this conference, All Our Futures. It is clear to us that the challenges and joys we face in education here are the same challenges and joys that you face; whether this be dealing with the impact that a dysfunctional family can have on a five year old boys dreams, or witnessing the eureka moment when a 15 year old girl can play Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata all the way through for the first time.

Of course, our contexts are vastly different, our languages and cultural practices sometimes hard to fathom. No amount of conferencing will ever be able – nor should it ever endeavour to be able – to wipe away those differences and pretend that we can easily transport one set of educational tips and tricks to a far off land. Providing education is not like selling burgers at MacDonald’s.

Sometimes we may look at each other this week and realise that there are huge oceans of difference between us which can never be bridged. But we hope that our similarities and our common concerns will eventually bind us together this week in search for some solutions for the common good of all our children.

I hope that in our second All Our Futures conference that our mutual work, our shared conversations and our mutual presence will enable us to see ourselves as part of larger human jigsaw picture in which we all, like smaller jigsaw pieces need each other to fit together to provide a reflection of the human race as a whole.

I hope that we can paint a picture for our future generation of children and learners and that they can say that their futures started with All Our Futures here, today.

Frozen is the new fresh, horse is the new beef and I am the Count of Monte Cristo.

The MD of Unilever enthused 5 years ago to a conference of school teachers and chlldren that creativity is essential for business success. He suggested that creativity should be at all levels of the business, “not just the top”.  He referred to various examples – Virgin Airlines  (apparently an airline which makes you feel special every time you travel on it), Top Shop  (“many of you go to top shop and can now buy high fashion at affordable prices” and the café chain Patisserie Valerie (which makes you feel like you’re in France allegedly).

He said that Unilever needs to recruit people who think differently, people who can work with you, not for you, and leaders at all levels of the organisation whose task was to ‘clarify what was wanted, be a voice from the front, encourage risk taking and awaken peoples passion.’  An example of what he meant by passion followed on film –  a 5 minute advert for Findus foods which was to indicate how his employees were having their passion awakened by the generation of new products and ideas: frozen vegetables.

He finished his sequence with questions from the conference panel: ‘are schools doing enough to generate creative ideas for business’ and ‘how could you make sprouts more appealing to children?’  His final comment, in some joking aside about the issue of school dinners… ‘our frozen food is fresher than fresh food… Frozen is the New Fresh’: now makes a lot more sense 5 years later with the recent horse meat scandal.

Now we know that ‘creativity’ is often an excuse for all sorts of linguistic shenanigens and that teachers at conferences on creativity and education often have to swallow a lot of frogs when it comes to assessing what is ‘good practice’.  But in the era when  Frozen can be the New Fresh and Horse can be the New Beef then I can clearly become the Count of Monte Cristo.

The porkie pies that Findus have been unashamedly peddling for years are at least out in the open although you might reasonably wonder whether there is something else other than pork in those pies.  Over-enthusiastic marketing is built upon a lot more than reconstituted delusional seaweed.

7 gifts from artists to teachers

Whilst lots of artists in schools work naturally focuses on what the kids get out of the experience, the benefits to teachers can get overlooked and undervalued. Here’s a starter list to be going on. Thanks to Rachel Phelps for the prompt!
Artists allow teachers:
1. How to write beyond the habit of writing in bullet points and cut and pasting comments onto students report cards. How to role model creative writing to students and develop voice, style and expressivity and go beyond secretarial niceties.
2. How to read for pleasure, as opposed to reading for assessment, policy keepie-uppie, and duty. How to share, discuss and think about literature in ways which aren’t linked to syllabus assessment or exam grades.
They also:
3. Remind them that teachers are creative individuals, that teaching and learning is fundamentally a creative process and that artistry and creativity isn’t the sole preserve of artists or ‘creatives’.
4. Offer a lateral view of the world, different emphases, views of the other.
5. Catalyse discomfort and shakiness in ‘natural’ and ‘common sense’ orthodoxies and working out of their comfort zones.
6. Open up the classroom to the wider world of other cultural sites, practices, habits, languages
7. Offer different ways of thinking.
More to follow!

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning shows teachers of key stages 2 and 3 how to introduce creativity into what is often seen as a prescriptive and stifling curriculum, and addresses the tensions that can exist between the requirement to follow the curriculum and the desire to employ innovative pedagogies. It offers readers a range of practical and realistic ways that curriculum changing ideas can be applied to individual projects, classrooms and even entire schools.

This book tracks the imaginative initiatives undertaken by six schools as they have worked to change their curriculum and teaching in order to put student experiences at the core of the learning process. Stating its observations and suggestions in a refreshingly straightforward and practicable manner, this book explores:

  • Why a new creative curriculum is needed for the 21st century
  • How to encourage teachers and pupils to ‘own’ the curriculum
  • The role that pupil voice plays in a creative curriculum
  • The environment needed to creatively manipulate the curriculum
  • How to introduce innovation to teaching practice
  • What actually works – considering the limits and possibilities of creative pedagogy

Providing case studies and examples of the ways in which teachers have delivered the curriculum in a creative way, Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning is an invaluably beneficial guide for all those involved in engaging and teaching young people in key stages 2 and 3.