What is a Big Education?

31st January 2019

Speaking at an education forum event last week, I was struck that, by the time I spoke, I had already had two guests share their own damaging experiences of education and testing, having impacted on their sense of self as ‘less than successful’ decades later in life, despite clear evidence to the contrary! These examples provide a perfect example of why we believe that defining and delivering a ‘big education’ is such a critical necessity.

We believe that many young people receive, at best, a partial education. The current paradigm does a great job at certain aspects of ‘knowledge transfer’, the passing on of the ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (Matthew Arnold). We believe that this is an important aspect of what an education should involve, but that is it not enough – it is necessary but not sufficient.

Why do we think this? We are concerned about the ever increasing pressure on our young people to achieve exceptionally within our high stakes testing and examination system. The implications of this can be seen from the narrowing of what is taught, both in terms of the actual subjects (with a squeeze on the arts and other less ‘purely academic’ subjects), as well as a greater emphasis on the accumulation of knowledge above all else within subjects. We are concerned about increasing mental health issues, anxiety and stress amongst our young people, as well as a sense that their youth is being seen in one-dimensional terms as one long slog to get to the end point of a transition into university.

We as parents are locked into an ‘arms race’, feeling we have to fight and plot a path for our children, as we all chase the holy grail of top grades and coveted university places. We are a powerful driver in reinforcing the status quo.

And just as some students are stressed out on this track towards exams, huge groups of young people continue to leave school at 16 without basic qualifications and skills, with a huge and persistent gap in the attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Increasingly, we are seeing the this race is in fact redundant – the Emperor’s new clothes – as employers are looking for broader competencies, frustrated at the lack of relevant or useful skill sets, and, in some cases, now completely ‘qualification blind’ in their recruitment (e.g. Ernst and Young). This is all, of course, set in the context that “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another.” Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum.

I was pleased to share stories from Surrey Square school, where I was head teacher for 13 years, describing how our mission of ‘personal and academic excellence; everyone, every day’ underpins our belief that school must be about more than ‘just’ the academic core. Through actively teaching, promoting and assessing progress in ‘personal excellence’, through our core values, we place an important and priority of a broader range of knowledge, skills and learning. We are proud to be an example of how it can be done – children achieve exceptionally well academically, as well as the broader expectations we have of them, and this has been externally recognised by Ofsted.

Our new organisation, Big Education, brings together Surrey Square along with School 21 in Newham, an exceptionally innovative and successful new school and the International Academy of Greenwich, another very new school focusing on teaching the International Baccalaureate. We formed Big Education in order to share our deep passion, capacity and experience in running and starting schools, which have a broader view of education. We call this an education of the ‘head, heart and hand’. We have planned and shaped, with real rigour, a curricula in each of the schools based around this model.

Alongside running our schools, we are incubating and developing a range of ‘products’; ideas, programmes, leaders and networks. We have had huge early success with a programme called Voice 21, which promotes and trains teachers in Oracy, the skills of speaking and listening, a critical life skill and core element of our practice. The extraordinary success of this work, now reaching 500 schools across the country within the first two years, is wonderful to see. We want to build on this success, both through supporting the growth of Voice 21, but also expanding into other areas, including a leadership programme, currently being piloted.

We have some wonderful partners and supporters – we are amazed at the strength of feeling and commitment to the kind of change we want to see from all quarters. But we have huge ambition, to inspire, provoke and support more and more people to ask themselves that key question – What is a big education?

If you are interested in working with or supporting us in any way, please do get in touch and find your way of being part of a growing movement for change.

Liz Robinson, co-director, Big Education

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