Last week I spent a day in the Institute of Education as part of a successful application for the Sinnott Fellowship, a bursary program designed to assist funding school projects that enable schools to look out beyond their gates and make links with the world outside. I won it for researchED, the grassroots education research organisation that tries to bring the teaching and research communities together and get the best research into the classrooms that need it most.
I half-expected a worthy but utilitarian day of PowerPoint presentations and nibbles, but instead I was amazed to hear the kind of incredible projects that schools and staff are capable of, with a bit of love and money (always more of the former than the latter. Anyone can do something big with big money. But it takes heart and imagination to do something incredible). Some were simply astonishing charity projects, taking children into the poorest parts of the world and making a difference where difference is most desperately needed, like The Brentford School for Girls' work in India. Kate Holton talked about her school's links with Kenya, Paul Clark spoke about his enormous mentoring program, and Rita Pancholi showed us her beautiful project to bring local OAPs into a reading program with younger pupils, sort of a homegrown School in a Cloud concept. Every one of them was a belter, adding value to the whole school experience, bringing the world to the classroom, and in some cases, the classroom into the world. I remember, years ago, attending the Wellington Festival of Education and trembling at the ambition of their pupils, until I realised that anyone is capable of these wonders, if their heart is settled and set.
What struck me was that many of these projects were taking place in the most remote of locations, the least connected of social and cultural peninsulas. Many of the schools were practically hidden in mountain ranges, or just next door to broke. Despite that – perhaps because of it – professionals, teachers and educators were looking for ways in which they could turn base metal into gold. Like water, human ingenuity is always capable of finding a way, and these people were next-Gen innovators and batteries of endless energy.
So many of the schools they spoke about struggled to feel the presence of a world just beyond their gates. Of course, this isn't surprising; I can attest to the difficulty of it, having worked in a desperately poor area of Greenwich. When I asked the kids if they'd been to Trafalgar Square, only 3 or 4 had. In London. So many of our children aren't global citizens, aren't urbane inhabitants of a wonderful cosmopolitan matrix. So many of them are marooned in oases of desperation, surrounded by moats of economic dolour.
When it comes to careers, a common cry is that students have horizons that are both low and narrow. What do you want to do? English. Where? We don't know. What course? We don't know that either. They don't know what they don't know. Of course they don't. How could they do anything else? That's where we come in. Some of the projects were focused on making better links between students and jobs. Careers advice nationally is often a multi-coloured picture – in some areas tight and dynamic, in others slapdash, underfunded and withered. Good careers advice is particularly crucial to children who are poor in social capital, contacts, and obvious, aspirational role models. I once taught in a school in an area so poor that the children, when asked, dreamed of being either international rap stars or shelf stackers, with nothing in between. They could only imagine luxury lightning bolts of lottery fortune or shuffling into the business end of the unskilled combine harvester of industry.
The most amazing thing I saw all day in a day of amazing things had to be Simon Pugh-Jones's orchid project at Writhlington School. For twenty years, he's been driving a school enterprise in growing and selling orchids around the world, which in turn pays for annual visits to the furthest-flung arboreal nurseries in the world. Have a look at the Writhlington School website, and shudder as you contemplate the world-shattering enthusiasm and energy that this project represents. They fly orchid cultivators in from around the world to train them. Let that sink in a bit. A committed orchid nerd – well you'd have to be – Pugh-Jones is a man who hums with energy, optimism and utter commitment to his cause. And look at the results.
You know, I was pretty cocky about researchED. I walked in there feeling damned pleased with myself and what we'd achieved in one year. But the sobering – and humbling – realisation was to see what is possible in almost any school if the will, passion and persistence is there. There are some bloody lucky students out there.
Of course, there's one other vital catalyst to these ideas: time. Schools need to have the ambition, the imagination and the nerve to believe in these kinds of projects. They need the political will and clout for someone to say, "This will work" and then let it, even past the first few nervous hurdles and obstacles.
Teachers are, indeed, doing it for themselves. But then, they always could. This engine runs on hope.