Why Nottingham is the new Nashville (without the music)

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Pioneering school-employer initiative is to cross Atlantic

A decade ago, the performance of high schools in Nashville, Tennessee, was among the worst in the US. Attendance was poor and the graduation rate of just 55 per cent was well below the national average. Rising youth unemployment and crime rates were also causing concern.

Today, however, Nashville is acclaimed as a centre of educational excellence, known nationwide for the quality of its schools as much as for the quality of its music, thanks to a transformative programme linking education and business. Last year it was even praised by US president Barack Obama.

Now a similar revolution could be heading to these shores, with schools in Nottingham planning to learn from and build on Nashville's success.

Last year, vocational learning charity the Edge Foundation funded two trips to Nashville to learn more about the seismic changes that have taken place in the city's schools. Earlier this month, business and education leaders from Tennessee spoke about the secrets of their success at a special conference at Nottingham's Bulwell Academy.

The revolution in Nashville began when city business leaders became convinced that action was needed to improve links between employers and education. At the same time, high-school principals realised that the current curriculum needed to change.

An initial group of eight principals came up with plans to reorganise their schools into small learning communities, which would forge strong links with local businesses.

Today, standard high-school structures and programmes have been transformed across all Nashville's high schools. First-year students go through an intensive career education programme, called the "freshman academy", where they find out about the labour market, meet local employers, sample courses relating to a variety of occupations and attend a careers fair.

With support from counsellors, they then choose an academy to join for the remainder of their time at high school. Schools have between three and five academies, depending on size, and each academy is linked to one of five employment "clusters".

There has been a marked difference in educational outcomes under the new system: in 2013-14, the high-school graduation rate reached 78.7 per cent, up from 58.2 per cent in 2003-04. Attendance rates also improved, from 87 per cent in 2007-08 to 92.1 per cent in 2013-14.

Nashville's schools are now held to account not only by the city's board of education but also by its Chamber of Commerce.

`Externships' for teachers

One particular success story has been "externships". Teams of teachers spend several days in a partner business, finding out about all aspects of the operation, after which they start a cross-curricular project to launch in their school the next academic year.

David Harbourne, director of policy and research at the Edge Foundation, visited Nashville last year. "We went with high hopes and they were exceeded," he said. "The decision to link education to the world of work has led to deep and lasting links with employers.

"Now students are extremely confident and engaged individuals who are working with employers all the time. They don't have to ask `Why am I learning this?' because someone has explained to them the relevance for their future."

Mr Harbourne said Edge now wants to build on existing links between schools and employers and add as much as it can to city-wide initiatives such as Aspire, Nottingham's new education-business partnership.

Edge plans to launch freshman academies for Year 9 pupils in some of the schools it supports in Nottingham at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, as well as organising regular visits to and from local businesses.

"We want to do this step by step and with very great care; it can't be an instant revolution," Mr Harbourne said. "That's what we learned from Nashville. But if we do it right, it could have a huge impact on educational attainment and employment outcomes."

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