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 Curriculum is irrelevant and has been superseded by the Internet where children work out of their own curriculum and syllabus, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what –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

All Our Futures: International Educational Study Visit to Liverpool in partnership with the British Council Bulgaria and Aspire-India

All Our Futures is Aspire’s annual conference for international head teachers took place in Liverpool between 11 and 14 June 2013. The event aimed to introduce pedagogical practices which are being applied at various levels in English schools by providing participants with exclusive, intense immersive experiences in schools and do generate unique, high quality insights into teaching and learning.

All Our Futures was produced in partnership with both the British Council, Bulgaria and our sister company, Aspire-India based in Bhubaneswar, Orisha: and so have welcomed Head teachers from the Indian subcontinent and introduced them to our schools in Liverpool, Wirral and Knowsley.

Further details of our programme in March with Bulgarian Head teachers and the British Council, Bulgaria are here:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151543038237812.1073741827.657337811&type=1

More on the June conference as it happened here:

https://www.facebook.com/nick.owen.3781/media_set?set=a.10151732950132028.1073741829.686222027&type=3

and here:

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.

Connecting up with yourself again: what would your older you say to your younger you?

We’ve met up for the third time in as many years, the old school class of 1968 – 75 from Rickmansworth GS, and again have come away with the usual mix of feelings – sobered that we may not all be able do this again given the place we’ve reached in our lives, cheered by the ongoing companionship, struck by the distances we’ve travelled over the last 40 years, thoughtful that we’ve kept in touch and made it back here with so many different stories to tell, overawed by it all: and struck by the main land change of the ever present M25, always there in the background, somewhere around the corner, ahead of you, up ahead, over you, a constant hum of traffic and reminder of the flow around us, in us, through us. Even on the school rugby fields you can see that ever present glistening line of traffic streaming through the countryside, something that was impossible upto 1975.

And yet paradoxically, nothing has happened in the last 40 years – change has been superficial, our bodies are temporary in any event, and the changes we marvel at are just a manifestation of the traffic, the river, the flow. Money, family, relationships: the challenges are constant, just how to keep afloat is a question that’s always been there, and always will be. We ask ourselves, what would the older you say to the younger you if you bumped into yourself 40 years ago? and the answers are surprisingly simple: be confident, don’t worry, it’ll all be alright.

So you spend some money, have some laughs, drink too much, share a few memories – and keep the planning to a tentative minimum. It doesn’t need a lot more – we’re all part of the traffic, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, but all traffic together, going in our own directions but still happy to share pit stops, caveats, advice on oncoming diversions, warnings of impending heavy weather. And advice on where to find the sunshine too.

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.

All Our Futures: International Educational Study Visit to Liverpool in partnership with the British Council Bulgaria

All Our Futures is Aspire’s annual conference for international head teachers which will take place in Liverpool between 4 and 8 March 2013. The event aims to introduce pedagogical practices which are being applied at various levels in English schools by providing participants with exclusive, intense immersive experiences in schools and do generate unique, high quality insights into teaching and learning.

We are delighted to announce that this year, All Our Futures is being produced in partnership with the British Council in Bulgaria: so we will be particularly looking forward to meeting Head teachers from Bulgaria and the wider Balkan region and introducing them to our schools in Liverpool.

Further details are here:

http://www.aspire-trust.org/all-our-futures-2013-2/

and photos of the visit here:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151543038237812.1073741827.657337811&type=1

Initial snapshots of possibility: Writers in Schools revisited

Every possible use of words should be made available to every possible person: this sounds like a good motto, with a very democratic sound. Not because everyone should be an artist, but because no one should be a slave.
(Rodari Grammatica dell Fantasia)

I’m walking down along an English corridor with the Advanced Skills Teacher in English, Chris, when a lad strolls by and Chris calls out to him Hi! You’ve grown! Stop growing! The lad acknowledges the call but continues his walk. A ridiculous command if ever there was one. This seems to be what corridors are for: the placing and issuing of ridiculous shouty instructions “Keep left! Stand up straight!! Health and Safety! Punctuation!”

There’s lots of old written material here which is out of date and irrelevant: decrepit texts with no significance any longer, speaking of old regimes, older authorities and matters of older importance. They have no current didactic value and no learning value but try their best to remain authoritative. Public places in schools – like these corridors – have their fair share of texts which have lost their power, written in a language which exerts no pull or push of influence. And whilst they might not be chronologically out of date (where they might advertise an up and coming Senior Managment meeting for example) they can be ignored through over exposure (keep left!).

We talk about whether anyone reads these notices and figure probably not; and so see how writing in this school offers some dreary role model examples to work from. No wonder that, according to Chris, reading is sometime seen as a chore; writing is limited with little spark; there’s little ‘natural’ interest.

Chris wants children ‘to fall in love with writing’ and wanted them to care about how they express themselves; especially those who he thought didn’t have that culture at home. Not that the school doesn’t focus on writing at all. Chris feels that it was the kind of writing that was the issue here: there is sometimes a habit of concentrating on writing with style as opposed to content.

Not that this means that the project has to become overly serious or academic : we want to inject fun and enthusiasm into literacy, he added as we continued our tour of the school. He also was intent on exploring the possibilities of new, original writing through this process, and thought that by dedicating future CPD sessions to the theme of original writing, the project’s possibilities could be communicated and extended to a wider staff grouping. According to Chris, schools are sources of certainty and not so much of possibility:

Schools are very much about what is certain, you know, about passing exams, about repeating facts and knowing that you can jump through those hoops – in some respects. What we need to do more is explore creativity, possibility. What you’ve been doing is discovering what is possible; you’ve come out with knowledge that you didn’t go in expecting, you’ve suddenly learnt things that you didn’t know you were going to learn in terms of the creative process.

The importance of heightening possibility, as opposed to the desire for probable, pre-determined outcomes is an important contributing factor to the work of the writer in residence at this school: and the stories of the writers working here are stories of the tension between the worlds of the possible and the worlds of the pragmatic.

Do you like my claw hand? Writers in Schools revisited

Roy, front of the class, is demonstrating through a simple walking exercise five things which are involved in writing: the children recognise these as the five senses – smelling, tasting, touching, listening, looking and Roy says you need all five in order to write a story. He elaborates by suggesting that it’s the senses that make characters and places of stories come alive and also help you get ideas and help you describe situations.

It’s a large class – the whole of KS2 and year 2 : there must be at least 50+ kids in the room together with 3 staff who are sat at the back, watching. He stands front on to the class; behind him is a data projector and 2 school benches upon which are placed, stood up, a selection of about 20 of his books. These help draw the gaze to him and give him a status: another form of disguise perhaps.

The attention of the group wanders: a small group of girls look at each others socks, a small group of boys natter quietly to each other. We’re in the afternoon, feeling a bit post lunch lethargic and we’re post serious education of the morning. He moves on to the ‘shed in the heads’ concept – ‘where all the things you’ve sensed go, you can see what’s lurking around’. He points to a red bag he’s previously planted in the hall – an example of something which is in his shed in the head…. He brings out a box of fish fingers and points to one of the books on the bench as including a box of fish fingers. “This book by Roy Apps…” he refers to himself in the third person.

He starts to read out from one of Roy Apps’ books and offers the group a chance to join by calling out ‘Cheerios’ as he reads out sentences in the book which have the ‘c’ word missing. He points to a magic word in the paragraph which suggests something is about to happen: SUDDENLY.

Suddenly, he points to another bag which he’s planted in the hall earlier. He collects stuff out of the bags – ketchup bottle, garlic, blood stained stake, capes – the competition in the book is a device to get rid of mum and dad so that lead character, Jonathon, can go and stay with granddad who’s a vampire. He reads out and splits the group so that they can listen for things that Jonathon senses. He calls out for a gold bag – kid pulls out blank piece of paper (scary! He explains the fear of the blank piece of paper to a writer) and goes onto suggest that the five senses aren’t everything…. The magic of stories needs imagination too (which he describes as a word with a silent letter c – imagi©nation…

Imagi©nation causes a shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary. How? He hands out sheets of paper to kids who line up.. which spell out ‘I wonder what would happen if’ when aligned properly. He relates his own background to the family story – his Uncle Watte, the cook in the navy who would scare people and had teeth which looked like vampire fangs: ‘Do you like my claw hand?” Uncle Watte would ask when playing with a piece of chicken tendon. Years later, Uncle Watte’s claw hand has metamorphosed into the hand of the story teller.

Calling teachers interested in educational and cultural exchange in the Caribbean

Over the last two years, Aspire has organised international  conferences for Principals and Head teachers from 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 by UK Head teachers to India and offering unique insights into our mutual educational cultures.

Next year we are planning a similar programme of conferences in the Caribbean in conjunction with schools and universities there. To set up those programmes, I have been invited to visit Barbados, Trinidad and St Lucia in the first week of February to participate in a trade and culture mission with schools, the University, teachers and other colleagues.

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.