"What's the Point of School?" ...responding to The Daily Mirror

Yesterday evening we had  our simply brilliant year 13 arts show and exhibition.  The calibre of work on display in the visual, digital and technical arts  was stunning and worthy of acclaim - reaching the bar of culture industry quality (and there is not a shred of flattering hyperbole in that statement).  Plus the installation of the work which included black box projection, digital display, lighting, sound and live musical accompaniment was worthy of the Tate Modern and produced by our 'behind the scenes' technical students.

Entirely professional - No exaggeration!  Our students stood with their artwork and presented their concepts and explained their processes with confidence and insight.  

Yet I am both elated and dismayed today - elated by the wonder and reverie of a great exhibition but dismayed because, while I was sharing my appreciation of the artworks with parents, students, governors and industry partners, a parent from our wonderful 'Friends of Elstree' PTA group brought yesterday's article from The Daily Mirror to my attention.  The article claims to present its readers with a definitive list of the lowest performing schools in England.  We are listed in this article along with 364 others.  I only wish that Kara O'Neill who wrote the article had attended our art show so that she could have experienced the best kind of aesthetic learning in action.  The injustice of articles like this, and the lists on which they are based is that they often misrepresent the true picture of schools and the wonder that happens in them. The 'wonder' is the bit that elates me... the misrepresentation of schools as 'failing' is the bit which dismays.  

The Dismay...

Did you know that a large number of subjects that provide young people with valuable skills and rich experiences are not even counted in these kinds of league table?  For example 89% of our students achieved the equivalent of As and A*s in 'Production Technology' and 'Production Art'.  These are simply brilliant outcomes for our learners - not counted!  Other subjects cancel each other out, like if a child studies Art and Graphics and gets A grades for both, only one will count.  This system of league tables means that specialist schools or those trying to be more innovative or aesthetic in learning style are made to look worse than schools with a traditional curriculum.  

I also notice that a few other University Technical Colleges are on this list.  UTCs exist to do education in a more specialist way that gets young people ready for working in the ever changing modern employment landscape.  The whole point is to 'trail blaze' a type of education that responds to the real world - not a league table agenda that ignores innovative curricula.  

Furthermore, this list is a misrepresentation because it claims to compare like for like when in fact it does not.  It focuses on the 'Progress 8' performance measure as though this puts all schools alongside each other but in fact, there are massive problems with this attempt at being objective with schools that are so diverse.   For example, we educate young people from 14 to 16.  We have no control over their experience of school from the age of 11 (we do know that it often failed to inspire them) and yet this performance measure fails to recognise that.  Most of our students make very considerable progress in the time that they are with us but that progress is not considered in these formulas.   It is worth noting that the Department for Education recognise this and have said so in the foot notes of the league tables.  I can only assume that Ms O'Neill missed this as it wasn't reflected in her article - here it is for your reference - "In UTCs, studio schools and some other academies, pupils typically start in year 10, rather than in year 7... As a result, the Progress 8 data for these schools is not directly comparable with the Progress 8 data for other schools. UTCs... provide a specialist technical and professional education.  The government’s position is that it is not appropriate to expect the same rates of EBacc entry from these types of provision."

So I am dismayed.  Yet we must keep the faith at these moments.  I am also proud as can be of this college and the work we are doing.  Cultures of practice and traditional perceptions do not change quickly but in the long view, we are up to something here and education is changing and we are part of it.  In his brilliant book 'What's the Point of School', Guy Claxton (Professor in Psychology and Education, and Researcher at the University of Bristol) considers what the value of learning really is.  The whole book is good but one bit struck me and continues to... he talks about 'dead metaphors'.  This refers to the ways that schools are often still thought about.  Dead metaphors are based in the past and they limit the imagination of what schools can be. 

For example 'the factory' - a metaphor that suggests that young people can be mass produced to be the perfect commodity, where standardised assessment can allow us to judge the quality of our human products.  In our post industrial world, this metaphor is dead!  Claxton also considers the 'monastic' metaphor - a school where teachers are like the priest disseminating the 'truth' from on high which is preached to the masses who believe it and convert.  In a world where google can present you with several million answers to every question, this idea of a single best 'truth' or a curriculum based on 'right answers' is dead!  Instead, young people must develop ways of thinking, relating and acting which make them flexible, creative, resilient, reflective, confident and collaborative.

The Elation... 

Here's why last night, and indeed most days, I feel elated and 'chuffed' to work at Elstree UTC. 

The learners I work with are finding and developing their voice.  It is the privilege of teaching to support young people as they become their best selves.  Our students are daring to express their ideas and make stuff, to get things wrong and then go again.  They are collaborating and sharing ideas and solving problems - they are making a contribution rather than passively consuming.  They are engaging with complex concepts and wondering... imagining.  They are testing the ideas they have learnt about and responding (which is an awful lot better than regurgitating).

I am elated because I get to work with passionate young people, innovative educators and brave, forward thinking parents who want to do something different to the mainstream offer and immerse themselves in an specialist, creative education.  Indeed, parents have responded to the article with messages of encouragement which have lifted my spirits further.  Here are some of those messages received in the last 24 hours:

"I don't believe in league tables for schools, because they can be so wrong.  EUTC is doing well and my daughter is happy here, a lot happier and learning more than her old school." (Sarah - parent)

 "My daughter moved from one of the top 20 non-selective schools in the UK and is a transformed child. She has also had some surprised Ofsted inspectors talk to her at Elstree who clearly don't get why she'd leave a 'top performing school' that was stifling her and squeezing the life out of her." (Eileen - parent)  

"The fabulous teachers and students work so hard! I've never seen such enthusiasm in my son!" (Myra - parent)

I am elated because there is joy here.  Our students actually like coming to school and that has not always been the case for a significant number of our cohort who come to us after negative experiences of education.  Yet they leave us for destinations in work and training and higher education that are nationally impressive and meaningful.

I am elated because we are finding community, we are all learning how to relate together in a digital world and in a global digital context.  Our learners are developing relevant skills and technical know how that are actually useful and relevant. 

And yes, I am elated by the many excellent results our students achieve here whether the league tables count them or not.

And Finally...

To the press publications who think there is some kind of benefit in sensationalising reductionist league tables and producing spurious judgments about the 'worst' schools... I say that you are not my priest. I do not recognise your list as 'true' and I do not accept the judgement that the innovative learning community that I am honored to work within is 'failing'.  Although we will certainly continue in the the spirit of reflective resilience to develop and improve, this will not be in response to your lists but because we are insatiably dedicated to the best outcomes and opportunities for our young people.

Ironically, I do anticipate that we will move up your list - but this will not be because we conform to traditional dead metaphors but because as culture changes with time, the criteria of your list will change also.

Chris Mitchell