New progressivism is a cause to fight for

13th November 2009 at 00:00
A Tory government would favour going back to basics, but schools should strive for a more inventive curriculum

As tends to happen in the run-up to an election, the next seven months will see opposition parties and sections of the commentariat fuel the perception that schools are "in crisis".

A more dispassionate analysis suggests a mixed but broadly positive picture. There has been a sharp reduction in the number of failing schools. Overall attainment has risen but not as fast as test and exam results might imply. We can all bandy about statistics but if a key measure of progress is that more people are choosing to participate in learning for more time, the simple fact that a higher proportion of young people today are going into higher education than were going in to sixth form a generation ago is something to be celebrated.

It is easy to be confused about the schools policies on offer from the major parties. On the one hand, Labour clams to be moving beyond the centralised command and control agenda of the past decade. But that isn't how it tends to feel looking up from school level. The schools white paper may contain talk of greater freedom on the curriculum and lighter touch inspection, but at the same time schools complain of being presented with more demands and guidance (which may not be compulsory, but often feels like it).

The Conservatives, meanwhile, try to balance a back to basics message on standards and the curriculum with a promise that schools can do what they like as long as parents support them.

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, attacks "soft subjects" and appears to promise that the bar of attainment will be raised while David Willetts, higher education spokesman, praises more vocational degrees in new universities and calls for faster expansion of participation rates.

Yet behind the headlines there does seem to be a convergence of thinking among professionals and mainstream educationalists. This consensus starts from the view that key aspects of the existing assessment and accountability regime have now become counterproductive. In reviews ranging from Commons schools select committee reports to the Cambridge Primary Review the emphasis is on re-professionalising the teaching force.

A more flexible curriculum is advocated, balancing the acquiring of knowledge with cross-cutting capabilities and the goal of engaging pupils in understanding and designing the learning process. This approach might, for want of a better phrase, be termed "new progressivism". It tends to advocate stronger partnerships between schools, and between schools and the wider community, as well as an open and collaborative style of management.

Although ministers tend to be ambivalent about aspects of the progressive agenda and Conservatives - like Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister - explicitly hostile, the commitment of both parties to freeing up schools, and making it easier for different brands of schools to grow, provide an opportunity to make the case directly to the outside world.

As with most public services, high and rising levels of satisfaction among service users co-exist with a negative view of the school system as a whole, a view that can easily be exploited by those demanding a return to a mythical golden era. The case must be made for more intelligent assessment and accountability, not for none at all.

In January the RSA and a range of partners will launch the Whole Education Alliance, a campaign that seeks to raise public awareness of best practice in schools while making it easer for teachers, parents and pupils to access innovative programmes such as our Opening Minds curriculum.

The responsibility to explore practice, to change and innovate, is not something to be left to periodic learned reviews or government initiatives. All schools must respond to a fast-changing world, address the transformation being wrought in young people's lives by technology and be aware of emerging evidence about the mechanics of human learning. Every school needs to feel it is engaged in some aspects of innovation - whether working on their own or in collaboration.

And schools must continue to change as institutions both by becoming more part of their community and being more intelligent communities themselves. Children spend roughly 20 per cent of their waking hours in school. But research shows that emotional receptivity is crucial to learning. If the signals children get from the rest of their lives suggest learning is irrelevant or that education isn't for people like them, they are unlikely to succeed. Teachers working in communities that lack commitment and confidence about learning are like factory workers trying to make a great product when they only control a fifth of the conveyor belt.

But how would it be if schools started to use their amazing human, social and capital resources to help to instill a culture of learning in the community they serve? We know it works. In desperation at failing to connect with a group of pupils, some schools have made a real effort to engage their parents and wider community. Where it is done boldly it can be a turning point.

But the responsibility for schools turning outwards to become a beacon for learning in their community cannot rest with schools alone. The RSA has been working with three secondaries in Manchester to develop what we call an area-based curriculum. The schools are supported by a facilitator who builds bridges with local institutions. The aim is to ground more of the pupils' learning in thinking about the city in which they live. So far it seems to have worked, engaging pupils and teachers alike. The long-term aim is for the wider local community to own the school curriculum, helping to design, support and deliver it, not just in school but in everyday life.

It can be easy for school leaders to feel bowed down by demands or depressed by the quality of the political debate, but it is vital that we show how the best progressive practice is helping to create the kinds of self-confident and adaptable young people society and the economy needs. After all, if schools can't thrive in a world of change how can we hope to persuade children they can?

Matthew Taylor, Chief executive of the RSA (the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today