As this is the SSAT’s first conference under its new name - The Schools Network - I thought it might be apposite to say a bit about networks and learning.
Life in the 21st century - and education in the 21st century - relies on us having systems that are flexible and adaptable. So I want to talk to you today about two of the flexible, adaptable networks we’re working on.
First, a flexible, adaptable education system, where schools have the freedom to innovate and collaborate in order to drive improvement.
And second, flexible, adaptable learning within schools, taking advantage of the way technology is transforming education.
A Schools Network
Underpinning our reforms is the principle - backed by the best international evidence - that autonomy drives improvement. In addition to having rigorous accountability mechanisms and a commitment to creating an outstanding teaching workforce, the highest-performing education systems are those where government knows when to take a step back. Rigorous research from the OECD and others has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps raise standards. In its most recent international survey of education, the OECD found that ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.’ As the OECD points out, two of the most successful countries in PISA - Hong Kong and Singapore - are amongst those with the highest levels of school competition. And from autonomous schools in Alberta, Canada, to the Charter Schools of New York and Chicago, freedom is proving an unstoppable driver of success.
So we’ve been working hard to increase freedom for all our schools.
A big part of this has involved reducing central government prescription for all schools to make heads’ and teachers’ lives easier and give them the space to focus on what really matters.
The reams of FMSIS forms: gone.
The vast Ofsted Self-Evaluation Form: gone.
Fortnightly departmental emails: gone.
Performance Management guidance: cut by three quarters.
Capability procedures: simplified.
Ofsted framework: slimmed down.
Behaviour and bullying guidance: cut from 600 pages to 50.
There’s more to come. In total, departmental guidance will be more than halved. And our Curriculum Review will result in a clearer, slimmer core entitlement, which will free teachers up to get on with teaching.
Beyond these changes - which we’ve implemented for the benefit of all schools - we’ve gone further: we’ve given every school the opportunity to take complete control of its budget, curriculum and staffing by applying to be an academy.
There are now 1463 academies across England. More than 40 per cent of all secondary schools are now either academies already, or in the process of becoming academies. 1144 primary and secondary schools have converted since the general election. 319 are sponsored academies, of which 116 have opened since May 2010. 44 more sponsored academies are expected to open later this academic year.
Over 1.2 million pupils now attend academies - this means around one in seven pupils in maintained state schools are now attending academies and one in three pupils in secondary schools.
This million-strong group will benefit from the changes academy freedom can bring, like longer school days; better paid teachers; more personalised learning; improved discipline; and higher standards all round. Individual academies are using their new freedoms in a variety of different ways.
Like Seaton Academy in Cumbria, which was one of the first to open as a converter academy and to take advantage of academy freedoms. The school has been better able to tailor the curriculum to pupils’ needs. Having previously been bound by the local authority to implement new central strategies - regardless of how suitable such strategies were for the school - Seaton is now able to be more innovative. Greater budget flexibility has allowed Seaton to run more efficiently, and these savings have been ploughed back into the school. For example, they have introduced discretionary award payments for great teaching, which has been hugely motivating for staff. The academy has also started to rebalance the school year - with shorter summer holidays and a lengthened half-term.
Seaton is just one of many schools using their new freedom to do exciting things. The best scientific evidence proves that if you empower those at the frontline, they will exceed your expectations. A few months ago, academics at the London School of Economics published a landmark assessment of the academies programme.
They found three things. First, that ‘Academy conversion generates… a significant improvement in pupil performance.’ Second, that this improvement is not the result of academies scooping up middle-class pupils from nearby schools: the fact that more middle-class parents want to send their children to their local academy is a consequence of the school’s success, not a cause. And thirdly, beyond raising standards for their own pupils, academies also tend to raise pupil performance in neighbouring schools. Like CTCs and the Challenge schemes before them, academies are showing us all what amazing things can be achieved when heads are put in the driving seat.
But even more impressive than what individual academies are doing by themselves is what they’re achieving by working together. Under our plans, networks of schools are collaborating on a scale that has never been witnessed before. The facts on the ground are plain to see: increased autonomy and greater parental choice drive up standards and help tackle ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ - and freedom does not need to be the enemy of cooperation.
Some of these networks are small - often just two schools, with one sponsoring the other. Yet while small, they’re driving real change. Tudor Grange Academy, Solihull (a converter academy) has sponsored Tudor Grange Academy, Worcester. Since becoming the sponsor, the Solihull school has provided intensive support to its Worcester partner. Improvements have been made in discipline, behaviour, attendance and attainment, with Tudor Grange, Worcester being oversubscribed on first choice applications for the first time. The benefits haven’t all been one-way. Tudor Grange, Solihull has been able to increase staffing and improve the pupil-teacher ratio. School leaders have reported feeling a greater sense of responsibility and accountability to the communities that they serve.
Other networks are slightly larger, with one academy partnering with several other local schools. Altrincham Grammar School for Boys in Trafford became an academy in February 2011 and is now working with three underperforming schools in the area. The school has been working particularly closely with Broomwood Primary, with specialist French and Spanish teachers from the secondary school helping teach primary pupils. This has helped Broomwood set up its own provision for language lessons. Similarly, having achieved a science specialism, Altrincham Grammar shared its expertise by giving its partners access to its labs; assisting partner schools in rewriting the science schemes of work for Years 5 and 6; and supporting teachers in delivering these schemes. Gifted and Talented students from Broomwood and other local schools are also offered the opportunity to attend after-school science sessions at Altrincham Grammar.
Many academies are also forming chains - formal networks of schools federated together, usually as part of the same Trust. There are 111 chains of converter academies with a total of 337 schools. The Coopers’ Company (a good with outstanding features school) chose to convert in a chain with a local school at the other side of the borough, The Brittons Academy (rated satisfactory). Prior to conversion, the heads developed an action plan of how they would support each other in future. Both schools converted on 1st April 2011. Coopers are working closely with Brittons on combined CPD days and have arranged paired support of weaker departments. They have also set up a management link between the two senior leadership teams, and the head teacher from Coopers has become the School Improvement Partner for Brittons.
All these changes have been possible because we have been resolute in our commitment to spreading autonomy - from the introduction of the Academies Bill within our first few days in office, to the way we’re continually reducing constraints and burdens on schools. We’re doing all this because we believe - and the evidence confirms - that the best way to create a school system capable of adapting and responding to the challenges of the 21st century is by giving great teachers and heads real power.
That principle extends to the way we’re going about securing the next generation of teachers and school leaders. We’re putting our best schools in charge of training and professional development. We’re expanding programmes like Teach First and Future Leaders, so that the most promising are trained by the most inspirational. And we’re working with the National College on programmes like the SLE and NLE, to ensure that the school leaders of the future are mentored by the best leaders of today.
Overall, our vision for the future is of a self-improving network of schools, innovating and engaging, competing and collaborating, teaching and training, for the benefit of all our children.
I want to turn now from networks between schools to an altogether different sort of network: networks of the digital kind.
It’s an understatement to say our world has been transformed by technology. There was a particularly poignant and wonderful illustration of this in a recent New Scientist editorial, written to mark Steve Jobs’ death. “Nothing dates the 1987 movie Wall Street”, the piece argues, “like the $4000 cellphone clutched by financier Gordon Gekko. It was the size of a brick and he could only talk for 30 minutes before having to recharge it.” In the 1980s, the capabilities of today’s smartphones would have been unfathomable to consumers and engineers alike. They’d have thought it impossible that so much powerful technology could be packed into such a tiny case. If you were trying to build an iPhone using equivalent components from the 1980s, asks the author, just how big would that phone be? Running through all the parts - from the antennas to the batteries to the GPS to the gyroscope to the accelerometer to the cameras to the mobile computing capability and more - New Scientist concludes you would need a truck to haul around an iPhone built of 1985 parts. We’ve gone from an 18-wheeler to a pocket in just 26 years.
It’s not just the hardware. Entire sectors employing millions of people didn’t even exist a quarter century ago. And many of those that were around in the ’80s operate today in ways that are unrecognisable to those of the past. Given the extent of the transformation - and the pace at which it’s happening - it is imperative we have a school system capable of adapting to and preparing for the challenges ahead. If we don’t, we will betray a generation.
And yet there is a perception by some that my department isn’t especially concerned about such things. That we care more about Tennyson than technology. That our interest is in Ibsen, not iTunes. That we’re more Kubla Khan than Khan Academy.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that our school system not only prepares pupils for this changing world, but also embraces the technological advances which are transforming education. My department is thinking hard about this and we’ll be saying more in the new year. But I’d like to talk briefly today about some of the critical developments that have been shaping our thinking.
One of the greatest changes can be seen in the lives of children and young people, who are at ease with the world of technology and who communicate, socialise and participate online effortlessly. Two-thirds of five- to seven-year-olds use the internet at home, rising to 82 per cent for 8- to 11-year-olds and 90 per cent for 12- to 15-year-olds. Over a third of 12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone, and typically use the internet for 15.6 hours every week. Children are increasingly embracing technology at a younger age: for example, 23 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds now use social networking sites.
Yet the classrooms of today don’t reflect these changes. Indeed, many of our classrooms would be very recognisable to someone from a century ago. While there has been significant investment in technology in education, it has certainly not transformed the way that education is delivered.
Part of the problem has been that investment has focused on hardware. My fear is that, in the past, too much emphasis has been placed on machines that quickly become obsolete, rather than on training individuals to be technologically as literate and adept as they need to be. What’s more, fixating on expensive, soon-to-be out-of-date kit represents a failure to understand the fundamental changes taking place.
One major change concerns content. Technology is having a huge impact on the way educational material can be delivered. iTunesU now gives everybody access to the world’s best lectures. The Khan Academy provides 2700 high-quality micro tutorials on the web, so that anyone, anywhere can access them for free. Brilliant scientific publications like Science are building their own ecosystems of educational content. And by definition, as we move to a world where we expect every child will have a tablet, the nature and range and type of content that can be delivered will be all the greater.
Educational gaming, for example, is a booming area - and ripe for even further development. Games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, are helping children engage with complex maths problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced. And the Department for Education is currently working with the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute on a pilot programme to use computer programmes to teach maths. We have not developed the programme - we are just helping them run a pilot. Stanford say it is one of the most successful educational projects they have seen.
These exciting advances are the sort of thing that a central government department could never hope to produce and maintain. And nor should it seek to: Whitehall must enable these innovations but not attempt to micromanage them. Such content is being created daily, and the vast majority is free to anyone with an internet connection. Our role is to help bring schools and these developments together.
To be absolutely clear: this isn’t about replacing teachers with YouTube videos - of course it isn’t. But it would be negligent of us not to look at how we can harness these developments for the benefit of all pupils. In Singapore, for example, I was lucky enough to witness how a superb lesson can be delivered through a mixture of online and teacher-led instruction. We can do it here too - and in the coming months we’ll be setting out how.
Another way in which technology is changing education is through its potential to create sharper assessment systems. Computer lab management software is now so sophisticated that an individual teacher can monitor how each student is doing simultaneously and then - without singling out that child in front of others - provide them with the direct amount of support that they need, accelerating the rate at which some children can learn and providing additional help for others. Problems can be picked up earlier. Students can be stretched when they’re ready. It’s the next step towards truly personalised learning - and it will also enable parents to have a better understanding of the level at which their children are operating.
Thirdly, technological advances can have a huge impact on teacher training. Teachers can more easily observe other teachers and learn more about the craft. Professional development content can be delivered in more accessible, engaging, and cost effective ways. Individual teachers can use the latest developments to refine their lessons to precision. As Michael Nielsen points out in his excellent new book, ‘Reinventing Discovery’, new developments allow teachers to get better feedback about how their lessons are being received. So not only does the spread of innovations like the Khan Academy mean there is more great teaching material on the web, but new tools like Google Analytics allow anyone to analyse video for attention, second-by-second, in a way that used to be very expensive and complex. All these are welcome developments.
Of course, in stressing the importance of digital content, I’m not saying we should neglect hardware altogether - far from it. But hardware means more than just the latest desktop - especially when many pupils are increasingly likely to have access to superior technology at home - or even in their pockets - than in their school’s computer lab. That’s why we need to think about how to give more children the chance to engage with truly cutting edge hardware, like 3D printers, or learn the fundamentals of programming with their own single-board computers, like the Raspberry Pi.
The challenge for us is this: how we can harness the many exciting technological leaps that are constantly being made? We will be saying much more early in the new year. Make no mistake: this is a priority for me. I believe we need to take a serious, intelligent approach to educational technology if our children are not to be left behind. As John Chubb and Terry Moe put it in their excellent book on the subject, a genuine engagement with the wondrous world of technological innovation will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past.’ We owe it to pupils across the country to take this issue seriously.