Batmanghelidjh vs. Batty Boy

Part 2 cont’d from What can UK schools learn from torture in Iraq

The Guardian compared two versions of new types of schools in an article in April:  the work going on at Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Kids Company with Ray Lewis’ Young Leaders’ Academy. 

Batmanghelidjh’s business card reads “Love is all it takes” and the success of her school, she says, comes from her staff having “an absolute memory of how it feels to be a child.”

The kids at Ray Lewis’ school line up for military drill every morning and the Guardian journalist records him shouting at them, “You a batty boy?…I don’t see any rhythm in this room. You move like poonani!”

When I posted this article to Facebook a friend of mine replied,  “I read that article too. I thought they were both a bit weird to be honest…”

Yeah.  That’s a fair point. (Read the article.)

But at least here are some ideas for new models that mainstream schools could adopt.  And what’s interesting about some aspects of these models is that they don’t have to cost any more than what we currently spend.  Last I checked lining up kids and shouting at them was free.

What can UK schools learn from torture in Iraq?

Part 1

Education needs to change but we’ve got no money.

It’s pretty much consensus that isn’t it?

The money bit: of course, we all know we’re in austerity times.

The education bit: well, whether it’s low levels of reading and writing or high levels of bad behaviour, too many failing schools or not enough good teachers, most people agree that there’s things that are not right with our school system.

What we need, say a number of high profile educationistas, is structural change.

Structural change in education is:

  • Change that doesn’t reverse every time the government’s focus shifts elsewhere.
  • Change that has a real, lasting impact on young people.
  • Change that isn’t just about the inputs.
  • Change that doesn’t require the constant pumping in of ever increasing amounts of cash.

I think that means that we need to focus on schools themselves.


We know that the environment in which stuff happens matters.

The Stanford prison experiment, dusted off for the world again during the Iraq torture trials, brings this gruesomely to light.

And the environment definitely matters in the case of education. The school building, but more importantly the school’s systems and structures – the way that teachers are organised and incentivised, the way that pupils are managed and tracked – all this stuff matters.

We have tried to tackle the school building bit of structural change with the shiny new academies we’ve been commissioning. But there’s not very many of them and it doesn’t look like we’re in an era of huge capital expenditure any more.

So how are we going to affect structural change?

For a start we may have to focus on actual structural change (the systems and the organisation in schools) rather than the structure of the school building.

I think we’re going to need to look at new models of how schools might do their job better. We need to look at new types of schools.


Latest postcard – the problem with schools

I was in London for a few weeks before flying back to Africa, to Uganda then Zimbabwe. I met a friend of mine for lunch in Carnaby Street.  (I don’t know when it got so media-trendy, wasn’t it once all DM boots?)  My friend was a teacher with me and is now working as a consultant for the financial sector.  Sure it’s fast-paced and sure there’s money in it, I said, but isn’t it a hard slog, isn’t it stressful?  No it wasn’t.  Not when you compare with it with our lives as teachers, she said.Now that doesn’t make sense does it?  Consulting for the finance sector, in arguably the world’s premier financial centre, at a time when the financial markets are roaring, is altogether better remunerated and less stressful than being a teacher?  How can we hope to recruit teachers, how can we ever expect to maintain a decent education system, when the choice for bright graduates is as stark as that?  Because, we will always need vastly more teachers than financial consultants.  And teaching should be an attractive career.  It can’t rely, like the priesthood, on an altruistic ‘calling’ to fill its ranks.

The problem is that we’re sending new recruits into structures that are utterly unsupportive.

I’m co-leading a chapter of a Teach First policy document to be presented to the House of Lords in November.  The chapter looks at the organisational structures of schools and attempts to find solutions to four key problems we’ve identified.  Please take a look at to see these problems explained, and take me to task on whether or not we’ve identified them correctly, and if our solutions stand up to scrutiny.

The fug of learning (…and the need to think horizontally)

In most schools teachers are incentivised to think principally in terms of, and held accountable primarily via, departments.  We can call this a vertical organisational structure.  There is little time for meaningful cross-departmental analysis of pupil progress or to coordinate teaching strategies.  This, combined with the failure to make explicit the ‘big picture’, means that pupils are too easily and too often lost in a fug of learning.

The ammunition run (…why relationships matter 1)

The ammunition run was the name given to the several-times-a-day dash my History corridor colleagues and I had to make from our classrooms to the photocopying room on the other side of the school.  Inevitably the dash would result in our being embroiled in all manner of low level disruption.  Involving relatively little hassle if you happened to teach the perpetrator, an inordinate amount of time was wasted if we happened to confront one of the rest of the school who remained strangers to us (and us to them).

Crushed by numbers (…why relationships matter 2)

One of the problems with the structuring of urban complex schools is that they do not take into account the central importance of relationships for effective learning and meaningful accountability.  Quite simply teachers are jointly responsible for too many pupils.  Pastoral responsibility is dispersed and so diluted between too many adults.  Joint responsibility, shared between so many people, too often equals no responsibility.

The hoodie problem

Urban comprehensives, particularly, are blighted by a critical mass of students ill prepared for education.  Too many schools have allowed the negative influence of a minority to prevail, drawing in others, and resulting in the extremely high incidence of low-level disruption that we see today.  A tipping point has been reached – antisocial behaviour has been allowed to become the norm.

Latest postcard: People-sized solutions

In previous postcards I’ve talked about how with capital and an entrepreneurial outlook the inherent inequalities in
Malawi might begin to be tackled.  And, although it sometimes seems like a drop in the ocean, the formula works.  Lend small amounts of capital to individual women (whose life on the poverty line consists already of a fair bit of careful budgeting and making ends meet) and support them with business training and ongoing mentorship.  Lend only to individuals who form a group with around 18 other borrowers and who agree to guarantee each other’s loans.  Ensure the group has the full support of the traditional authority structures within their village.  If the organisation supplying the loans has effective backroom procedures and doesn’t splash out on shiny white Land Rovers, within a short amount of time the interest rates it charges will allow it to be self sustainable, not dependent on constant western fundraising.  Its repaid loans (the MicroLoan Foundation has a typical repayment rate of 95% – compare that to any
UK lender, or even better to the repayment rate for credit cards) can be ‘turned over’ and lent out again and again.

It seems to me that the reason for the success of microfinance, or at least of the MicroLoan Foundation here in Malawi, is that it follows the principal tenet of any social entrepreneur – to observe the situation before transferring resources to meet a need.  It offers a solution on a scale designed to bring the best out of the people involved.

E F Schumacher is probably the grandfather of such people sized solutions.   In his most famous book, ‘Small is Beautiful’ (misleadingly titled because he’s not advocating a return to cottage industries, just that the size of a production unit should match its purpose), Schumacher says, ‘…people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups.  Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small scale units’.

Anybody who has heard me discussing the state of the
UK education system may chuckle now as they observe me trying to crowbar into this postcard a cause I’ve been ranting about for a little while now.  The average
UK comprehensive school strikes me as manifestly the most absurd and serious example of a unit size being utterly unfit for its purpose.

In education, if nowhere else, effective, subtle and complex human interactions constitute the most important process.  Yet we cram the kind of numbers together which can only result in unsubtle, often brutal, certainly unproductive interactions occurring.  As a deputy head of year and history teacher I had indirect responsibility for around 400 pupils.  I didn’t know all of their names.  Give me a couple of classes of 25 and I will call every child’s parents every week, actually implement differentiated lesson plans, and take them all out bowling every other weekend. (The reality in a good number of the charter schools I visited in New York and
Washington DC last summer.)  A federalised small school structure is probably best.  One school of 1000 pupils is divided into five units of 200 each with their own structure and leadership, but retaining the head teacher’s team to oversee whole school issues.  The charity ARK is, I believe, currently working on such a model in
London.  I’ve got more discussion on the benefits of small schools on my blog, and an article on innovation in the education system.

Such small schools, I suggest, would be easily affordable within the existing education budget.  But if the treasury was looking for extra cash I can think of no better way than (to crowbar in another favourite cause) to fund these schools from an annual land value tax. 

When government spends taxpayer money on infrastructure, land values often rocket.  Instead of putting this taxpayer cash into property owners’ pockets, capturing a percentage of the increase would finance the treasury without harming the economy. (It is not a tax, after all, on things we want to encourage, like employing people or buying things.)  An annual land value tax would be paid by the landowner and exclude any capital investments he’s made (so, the value of the building on the land isn’t taxed).  The use of an annual land value tax to fund school building seems particularly suitable.

The lesson of microfinance in
Malawi is that even in the coldest of transactions (it’s not often you think of money lending as affirming your faith in the human race) it pays to recognise the conditions under which individuals excel.  I wonder if small, federalised schools funded by an annual land value tax could put a little more   people-sized humanity into the
UK – no crowbars needed.

It takes a village…

There was an interesting discussion on teenagers the other morning on the Today programme.  IPPR research has suggested that British teenagers are the worst in Europe on almost all measures of anti-social behaviour.  Identified as one of the causes for this was, I think, the relatively little time that British young people spend interacting with adults.  Another point which came up in the discussion is that Britain’s youth lack the benefits both of the support of the extended family prevalent in Catholic Europe, and of the large family focused welfare state of Nordic Europe. 

The rite of passage to adulthood requires interaction between young people and adults.  Otherwise there is little to check negative peer influence (it inevitably will sometimes be negative) and no real reference to the adult world. 

I was discussing in the pub yesterday the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.  It takes an extended ‘family’ and cross-generational interaction. 

I’d like to pursue this idea of a school ‘village’.  I’d like to see far more adults in and out of schools than currently occurs, both formally in teaching situations and informally (for example running lunch time clubs).  In fact, what about a communal space in which adults on their lunch break would interact with pupils?  There is almost a need to force interaction – to build a Post Office in the middle of the school canteen, for example.   I have a half-formed picture in my mind (half formed over a coffee with a friend of mine who works with architects and engineers) of a central space utilised by, and around which stands, small schools in a federation.  The space could include not just necessary school services (the nurse, the library), but work places for adults – offering placements and apprenticeships for young people.

Implicit and Experiential Learning.

I want to try to pursue a theme I touched on as comments to the post on accountability, simpler timetabling etc.

That is that there is a beneficial kind of learning that we could call implicit or contextual. I have struggled to try to define what I mean by this, but I think the most recognisable way to explain the kind of learning I am here concerned with is that it is the education received by the comfortably well off, with books in their homes and trips to theatres and galleries etc. It is the kind of learning extra to ‘class learning objectives’ or ‘desired outcomes’. It is often found in the anecdotal, the details or the artistic. It acknowledges that far more is learnt implicitly and through experiences than explicitly through a classroom learning objective. I gave an example in previous comments of implicit learning. When I first started learning History at school, I already had a sense of historical time periods. I had learnt this implicitly through stories and art. When learning about the medieval period, for example, I had a decent sense that we would be talking about those things associated with Knights in Armour, not Cowboys. Much implicit learning is learnt through experiences. By experiences I mean explicitly learning other than in a formal classroom setting. For example, I remember clearly as an eleven year old in a music lesson listening to music to identify the instruments, I gained a considerable advantage because I had been to concerts and could remember seeing and hearing musicians playing. To recognize the importance of this kind of learning is not to deny the importance of a focused lesson, but to attempt to multiply opportunities to learn implicitly and to learn experientially.

Let me try to explain what I mean by this. I once observed a fantastic year 6 lesson on the Second World War. The teacher had constructed a narrative about a German soldier. I watched one installment of this story, in which the soldier was, I think, returning on leave from
France. The teacher dressed in an old German army greatcoat to tell the story. It was delivered mostly orally with great attention to detail and description. (Incidentally, this episode included the discovery of a new character, the soldier’s girlfriend – for the 10 and 11 year olds a remarkably subtle and appropriate introduction to relationships.) The additions to the oral story-telling were period music, a film clip and several props. Noticeable in their absence were explicit lesson objectives, vocabulary lists etc. With the episode concluded pupils were asked to write a letter home from the soldier. The quality of the detail of many pupils’ letters was outstanding, with accurate references to period details and appropriate use of relatively technical vocabulary that hadn’t been specifically explained. This, I think, is illustrative of the kind of implicit, contextual, often (although perhaps not really in this case) experiential, learning that I am advocating.

Practically this kind of learning requires a number of things. Illustration and art are fundamental for the providing of context. If learning about the Tsunami’s effects in
Thailand, illustrations can implicitly reveal the vegetation or architecture. Illustrated timelines should probably be an essential feature in almost every classroom. Great works of art can offer starters and ‘hooks’ to all manner of subjects. As can music. More fundamentally, there must be a culture both in and out of the classroom that values knowledge and open-mindedness. Music played in class can be more trouble than it’s worth when anything composed before 1990 is met with unanimous derision as ‘classical sh*t’. School trips, as I have mentioned in previous comments, must be ‘normalised’ to remove the distorting hysteria. Teachers must be excellent. They must be ready sometimes to go off-topic, on a tangent, to discuss and debate, preferably with reference books and Wikipedia to hand.

This is not impossible fantasy. It requires actively attempting to ‘multiply everything’. That is provide as much to stimulate implicit learning as possible. It would be helped by more potential in schools for cross-curricular work. It certainly requires more school trips, although normalised into the curriculum perhaps they wouldn’t even be called ‘trips’ but ‘out of school lessons’! It requires solid basics.
Reading, writing, numeracy, research skills take on their proper function when they are instinctive tools not difficulties in their own right as learning problems. It requires a strong culture of valuing knowledge that can be achieved in schools. Despite evidence to the contrary in many state schools it is of course possible to create an environment in which pupils ‘work hard and be nice’. (This is one of the mottos of the KIPP schools I visited in Washington DC and
New York City, models, in many ways, of creating a positive school culture).

I would like to pursue a number of concepts that, I think, link to this kind of implicit and experiential learning. I think there are links to coaching as an important teaching technique. In that through coaching, the trial-error-correction process, a teacher is uniquely able to respond to the individuality of implictl learning. There are links also to the need for teachers accountable not only to externally administered national exams, but, in their responsibility for a small number of pupils, to the pupils themselves, parents, the school and their colleagues. Whilst standardised tests may fail to take into account, or impede, this kind of implicit learning, it can nevertheless be accountable. In this respect there are links to the need for smaller schools, a unit size of, say, 200-300 being able to offer accountability without standardisation. I think the importance of ‘experiences’ might make for an interesting basis to think about introducing certain rites of passage into a school curriculum. Certain experiences might be considered part of a particular progression and so become elements of a graduation or rite of passage. There may also be links between implict and experiential learning and the benefits of an apprenticeship or work based education.

Small groups, simpler timetable, accountability.

I’m in Washington DC at the moment and last week visited the National Air and Space Museum and the fabulous Wright Brothers exhibition. The exhibition offered an example of some excellent pedagogy (well structured investigative narrative, inquiry questions, multiple intelligences etc.) and would make an excellent teaching resource.  I got thinking about what might be the barriers to using this as a resource, and how might they be overcome.

I know that it would have taken my pupils thirty seconds to get round the exhibition and then they’d have been queuing for the Coke machine and looking forward to the coach trip home.  But, what if I could take a really small group that I knew well?  What if this group were used to working outside of a classroom, so that there was none of the hyperactivity and aversion to any kind of ‘work’ that often accompanies the rare trips out of school? What if this group had studied the cross-curricular context of the exhibition prior to the visit and were working towards a project of their own choosing; maybe they were going to be building a plane or selling historical model kits?  If all these ‘ifs’ were possible, how many more spaces outside of the classroom would be opened up as viable learning environments, and what an innovation in education that would be.

These are some thoughts on what might be required to make the above ‘ifs’ possible.

Firstly, teachers need to be responsible, and so accountable, for far fewer pupils.  Last year I was in some senses ‘responsible’ for over four hundred pupils.  In another sense, however, I was not really responsible for any.  I would see my history students for two lots of fifty minutes a week and, even in my capacity as assistant head of year, problems could always be passed on; the burden of responsibility and accountability rested rather informally and without clarity on the combined shoulders of subject teachers, form tutors, heads of year, heads of department, the inclusion team, special needs department and the Head and her assistants.  I suppose I only consistently nurtured, where at all possible, those pupils that I chose to.  And I wasn’t really held to account for any of the nearly four hundred pupils.  Just so long as I didn’t phone for ‘on-call’ too many times.  The only real measure of accountability was the exam results of the twelve A-Level students I taught over two years.  To be responsible and accountable for a group of students, you need that group to be small and to see them for longer than two hours a week.  Form tutors, who are supposed to take a nurturing role, may see their form for only ten minutes each morning, and themselves have a full teaching timetable.  As a teacher I wanted my time to count.  It was infuriating that my time was so thinly spread between so many.

One innovation which might address this problem would be a reshaping of school timetables.  Rather than five or six different lessons and teachers each day, what about timetabling only three longer periods?  For too many of my pupils school passed in a kind of grey blur.  For many it was a question of hanging on unnoticed, not really understanding, for fifty minutes until the next lesson.  Quite apart from the inefficiency of many short lessons, unless there is real collaboration they have the potential to distort reality.  Life is not divided neatly into subjects and knowledge is almost necessarily cross-curricular.  You can’t understand the significance of the Wright Brothers without an understanding of social, cultural and technological history, physics, even some biology (the warped wings the brothers used are modeled on birds), maths, some geography and design technology would help.  It is not that I’m against specialisation, but specific subject knowledge, skills and understanding could be taught far more effectively, particularly at Key Stage Three, through the kind of cross-curricular ‘projects’ that are commonly seen in primary schools.

We cannot teach in schools everything that an educated citizen should know.  Let’s ensure, therefore, that our pupils learn how to learn.  There are key skills required for this.  We could efficiently teach, for example, how to collect data, analyse, observe anomalies or bias and evaluate, in a cross-curricular environment.  Moreover, if we accept the importance of learning how to learn, we should acknowledge the unrivaled importance of literacy and numeracy.  Within a simplified timetable there should be an uncompromising commitment to ensuring pupils achieve a minimum standard in literacy and numeracy before progressing.  Without them access to other subject areas is impossible, or, if it is possible (I have seen some excellent ideas for EAL History teaching for example), then it is unmanageable.  Even if it is both possible and practically manageable, ultimately, I would suggest, it is unwise to ignore the central importance of competency in words and numbers.  However many levers to pull, buttons to press and pictures to look at, it would have been impossible to understand the Wright Brothers exhibition if you couldn’t read.

The benefits of a simplified timetable include the fact that it is flexible.  Getting out of school, and making use of rich learning experiences available beyond the classroom walls, should be easy.  The biggest obstacle preventing me from taking a class on a trip was the difficulty of arranging cover.  Indeed, out of school visits, for this reason, seemed to be positively discouraged.  That it is so difficult to take kids out of school doesn’t make sense on so many levels.  The time, money and energy dedicated to ‘bringing a subject to life’ in a classroom, the efforts to make teaching ‘relevant’ and link schools to the community, appear almost utterly futile when you think what could be achieved if it was just a little easier to get out of school for a bit.  Not only should it be easier to take pupils out of school, but it should be easier to bring other teachers into school.  We should recognise that there are far more people that can teach, that have skills or knowledge to offer to young people, than are teachers.  No, not everybody can teach a specific academic subject and not everybody can teach in a traditional classroom environment.  However at every school’s doorstep there are parents and employees and enthusiasts whose talents could be utilised if only the right structure was in place to facilitate it.