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Themed-curriculum academy group grows

Influential political and social policy charity the RSA has revealed plans for a major expansion of its group of academies.

The organisation, formerly called the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, said it hopes to partner around six schools converting to academy status, adding to its existing academy in Tipton in the West Midlands.

The RSA, which is headed by Tony Blair's former chief strategy adviser Matthew Taylor, promotes its Opening Minds curriculum, which replaces a subject-led approach to teaching with a more innovative "themed" approach.

In such schools, history and geography are not taught as stand-alone subjects in the timetable, but as part of an integrated curriculum that focuses on five themes such as "learning" and "citizenship".

The organisation claims that its "competence-based" approach better prepares young people for the modern world.

The approach has come under fire from traditionalists and would appear to stand at odds with the Government's own plans for a renewed national curriculum.

RSA director of education Becky Francis admitted there could be some "potential tensions" around the organisation's plans to expand its network of schools.

"There will be a range of reactions to (our expansion) but, on the whole, we get glowing reports from Ofsted," she said. "Academies, with their greater autonomy and freedom over the curriculum, are everything that we are about."

A new RSA Academy Board will be established to look after its growing network of academies, with a primary focus on working with outstanding schools in areas of disadvantage, which will pair up with under-achieving schools nearby.

"We are looking to carve a middle ground between the total autonomy that the old grant-maintained schools had, and the more collegiate chain model, which has a set of ethical principles that the schools will sign up to," Professor Francis added.

The first school to join the RSA family is Whitley Abbey in Coventry, which converted to academy status earlier this month.

The school, now called Whitley Academy, will work in partnership with the RSA, taking with it an as-yet-unnamed underperforming school in the area.

Whitley's headteacher Lorraine Allen said the school had been working closely with the RSA for a number of years.

"Whitley became a trust in 2008 and the RSA became one of the trust partners," Ms Allen said.

"When we took the decision to convert to academy status, it made sense to link up with the RSA as it has the same values as the school."

But Dale Bassett, research director at right-of-centre think-tank Reform, said he was concerned about whether the Opening Minds curriculum best prepares young people for life after school.

"I am all for more choice and diversity in the education system, but my concern is whether (this) is really providing the fundamentals of subject knowledge and the kind of deep learning that is right for young people in terms of learning outcomes and the labour market."


Cash for innovation

The RSA was founded in a Covent Garden coffee shop in 1754 by William Shipley, a drawing master from Northampton who developed the idea of donating "premiums" or cash prizes and medals to support the liberal arts and sciences.

The society funded an invention to sweep chimneys, which meant children were no longer used as sweeps. In 1872, it started a campaign and established a committee to improve girls' education.

In 1987, the society became the RSA and has regularly campaigned for better education for all. By 1999, it had created the Opening Minds curriculum, which is now used by more than 200 schools across the country.

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