Sun, Jul 13, 2008 - Page 9 News List

UK school pioneers participatory education

A new report published in the UK calls for a different approach in schools, with children playing an active part

by John Crace  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Turn off the main road in Cramlington, 14.5km north of Newcastle, on the new east coast of England, and you come to a flat, wind-swept open space. On one side there’s a fenced-off building site; on another there are some low-rise buildings from the 1960s and 1970s that look well past their prime. It’s somehow hard to reconcile all this with anyone’s shining example of a school in the last century, let alone in this century. And yet a new report published by the UK-based Innovation Unit suggests that is precisely what Cramlington community high school should be.

The report What Next? Twenty One Ideas for Twenty First Century Education by Charles Leadbeater is a synthesis of the current best practice in six schools (or groups of schools) that have been working closely with the Innovation Unit over the past 10 years. Leadbeater’s earlier report, Personalisation Through Participation, helped kick-start the slow drift towards personalized learning in UK education policy, and his recent book, We Think (published by Profile Books), argues that participation will become the central organizational basis of society.

He believes that schools that don’t understand — or pay attention to — their changing relationships with their pupils and their communities are the ones that struggle.

“Learning can no longer be seen as something that is done to children by teachers,” he said, “nor even as something that happens only in schools between the hours of 8:30am and 3:30pm. It is now something that can happen at any time and in any number of different ways; schools have to be able to adapt to these new circumstances and continually reinvent themselves to find new ways of engaging with their students.”

This might all sound a bit theoretical and idealistic for some tastes, but Leadbeater insists there are schools that are doing just this and the people who are leading them, far from being idealogues, are pragmatists.

“This isn’t about abandoning the standards agenda,” he said. “Every headteacher understands they need to do a good job in terms of delivering good academic and league-table results in order to get any legitimacy for what they are doing. Rather it’s about understanding that qualifications aren’t the only goal of an education, and that there are different — and often better — ways of making sure that children leave school with the cognitive skills they will need as adults.”

So what’s the blueprint? Leadbeater suggests you need a strong leadership team with charisma and vision that can first establish a sense of order. You can’t turn around a failing or under-performing school unless you have a sense of structure that everyone both recognizes and knows will be enforced. He also argues that size does matter: just as relationships cease to function as effectively in big groups, so too do schools, and he would like to see the large schools broken up into a number of smaller schools — much as has happened in parts of New York City.

The trouble is you can’t be too prescriptive. It’s not just that there are pitfalls in any system — breaking up large schools can institutionalize segregation by effectively creaming off the highest achieving kids into one school and the more challenging into another — it’s also that, by definition, personalized learning is personal, both to the students and the school concerned. So any school that tries to imitate another too closely is almost bound to get it wrong. All anyone can really do is pick and choose the relevant bits from schools that are getting it right. And one that is getting it more right than most is Cramlington.

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