Time for change

Liz Robinson

CEO

Big Education

Change is in the air. Of course, it’s the time of year for new exercise books, sharp pencils, and new stores of energy and enthusiasm. But more broadly right now, it feels like we are ready for a new chapter. At Big education, we have long been advocates for what we see as much-needed change in the education system. For a long time we have argued that school can and must be better. I believe there’s not only from a “deficit“ point of view focused on the problems that young people face, and indeed the harm caused by the school system. But also from a positive, expansive viewpoint about the potential of children and young people, and the extent to which we can develop them in their fullest sense through a different kind of educational journey.

However, events of recent years mean that our schools and many young people are at a crisis point. Issues which have historically faced a few (often unseen) children and young people have now become more common and visible, with a proliferation of mental health issues, far more widespread experiences of poverty due to the cost of living crisis and societal disruption caused by the pandemic.

For many years, the educational debate in England has been dominated by reductive “progressive versus traditional’ debate. The ‘knowledge, behaviour, and standards’ dominant narrative has been one which has been hard to argue against; as someone who has systematically developed and articulated a more expensive view of education in the 18 years since I started headship, I have often been accused of being ‘soft in standards’ or having low expectations. The reality could not be further from the truth. I, and we, at Big Education are more ambitious for children and young people. We are working to design and deliver a broader, high quality education, what we and others often call an education of the Head, Heart and Hand. It is 20 years since the Every Child Matters framework was launched; and sadly it feels like we are now a long way away from the principles set out in that work.

It is with great sadness we read that only half of the required teacher training places have been filled for the coming year. Why do people not want to join our wonderful profession? Well one reason is I believe that the profession has become intellectually dull. The reductive, even obsessive, focus on exam results in most secondary schools, and indeed very many primaries, reduces teaching to a one-dimensional, transactional process, rather than the complex, rich and stimulating profession that it truly is. I am bored of the over simplistic debates. I am bored of having to caveat conversations about the broader purposes of education with a reassurance that that doesn’t mean I am “soft on standards”. We need to open up the debate and thinking, engaging with education as the complex and multidimensional discipline it is. This can only stand to support recruitment and retention of great people within our schools.

One of our values at Big Education is to BE brave. Everyone in the organisation models that in their commitment to our expansive vision and broader approach. It isn’t easy. But what we hope to do as an organisation is to encourage others to enter into this debate, think more broadly, or as I like to put it, to ask bigger questions of themselves about why they are in the profession, what schools should be doing for young people and how they can make that happen. One way we are doing this is through supporting leaders to do this work really well. Our Big Leadership Adventure programme is now recruiting for our 5th cohort of leaders who want to make a difference in a different way. Get in touch here to find out more.

I’ve been heartened in the first two weeks back. I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues from across the sector who are beginning to talk openly about the need for change; that the pendulum has started to swing. With a change of government looking more likely, and a frankly farcical start to term for frontline leaders dealing with unsafe buildings, and a model of leadership from the Secretary of State focused on passing the buck, it really is now time for each of us to think about what we really believe is necessary for the next chapter of our education system.

That’s why we have focused on finding, developing and sharing examples of this more expansive practice. Our Next Big 10 programme, for schools and leaders who want to connect and learn with others who are working in similar ways, has a strong emphasis on ‘codifying’ and sharing signature practices from each of the schools. We know that this change is not about one big thing, but about rethinking aspects of school in meaningful ways which change the experience for the children and young people. For example, Ladybridge High school in Bolton sharing their human library idea, or Wapping High’s empowering methodology for coaching. Get in touch if you are interested in joining the upcoming cohort.

We hope to play a role in helping change the system and we know that that happens one conversation at a time, one child at a time, one mindset at a time, one leader and one school at a time. We hope you feel encouraged to be part of the change.

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Related programmes

This blog is from a school taking part in The Next Big 10, a programme for schools who are transforming education against strong headwinds

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