Why our Free School will be a small school

Schools in England are getting bigger. Department for Education data shows that between 1997 and 2005 the number of schools in England with 1,000 to 1,500 students rose by 35%. Secondary schools with between 1,500 and 2,000 students rose by 124%. In contrast, the number of small secondary schools in England, with fewer than 500 students, fell by 43%.

The conventional arguments used to defend this increase in scale are misleading.

Continue reading Why our Free School will be a small school


We don’t need little changes: why businesses should run Free Schools


Schools should be palaces

We don’t just need more and better teachers; we need more and better school models.

It’s in vogue at the moment to say that the way to improve schools is to have better teachers.  I don’t mean to be too dismissive by saying ‘in vogue’; it is more than just the latest, passing education trend.  There is solid evidence to support the assertion that effective classroom teaching is the best tool for addressing the intractable problems of educational disadvantage and underachievement.

The danger, however, of such a focus on teachers and classroom practice is that we ignore the importance of school structure – we ignore those things that create the conditions in which classroom teaching occurs: the size of a school, its assessment practices and data tracking, the number and types of staff and their responsibilities, the methods for informing and engaging parents.

Continue reading We don’t need little changes: why businesses should run Free Schools

Raincoats & bad schools: organisations in the internet age

What kind of organisations will we need in the internet age?

My copy of Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a book about risk and uncertainty,  was almost destroyed by a freak hurricane (at least it was freaky for a Brit who had then just arrived in the US).  Almost, but not destroyed:  I was able to use it to write my last post which concluded with Taleb’s advice that instead of investing in trying to predict the problems we may face in the future, we should invest in preparedness. Continue reading Raincoats & bad schools: organisations in the internet age

No more money? No bad thing

Part 3 cont’d from Batmanghelidjh vs. Batty Boy

In Part 2 we looked at two versions of new types of schools.  We can debate whether either of these models constitute good schooling.   I think it’s exactly this debate (essentially on structural change in education; about how schools could be reorganised) that is good news for UK education.  It’s because of this debate, and my hope for the fruits of it, that I believe we may even be about to see a Renaissance in UK education.

A Renaissance?!

Yes.  Because the time – the next few years –  in which this debate will occur, and its fruits grow (gosh this is a cheesy metaphor)  has got some good things going for it:

1.  A good place to start from

The foundations for a renaissance are pretty strong.  Education today is reaping the benefits of the increased spending of the Blair years.

We have a teaching profession who have been feeling pretty good about themselves.  They have a better status and more money than for sometime before ’97.  And the profession has lots of new, young, motivated teachers (including recently some new maths teachers fresh from the banking sector).

But for some time we’ve been getting close to realistic limits on education spending.  It isn’t clear that more money would make much more difference.

Well now we can’t spend any more and everybody knows it.  The debate has to move.

It will be the new entrants, I think, the Young Turks, who will prove instrumental in achieving structural change.

2.   Education 3.0

You can’t make a point about anything these days without referencing the social media-internet-tech revolution.  And, yes that does have lots of practical and game-changing implications for the classroom.

But what I really mean builds on the Young Turks point above.  Is it just me or do my generation look admiringly at the boot-straps, start-up attitude of Silicon Valley et al, in a way that maybe previous generations in Britain haven’t looked at entrepreneurialism before?

What is exciting about education at the moment, for sure, is the talk of hacking or disrupting it (the A VC blog talks a good talk on this).  Education 3.0 (yes, that is my tongue slightly in my cheek for the silly name) is about taking that Silicon Valley attitude of entrepreneurial disruption into the school system – one of (the?) most conservative and outdated of institutions.

What if we looked at the fundamentals of education and found a more efficient way to make it work?  Those in the education Renaissance are in a good position to do for education what Amazon did for retail or Apple for music.

Ps. There’s not a bad track record of disruption coming out of recessions.

3.  Change is a-comin’

Amazingly the Tories may be talking some of the right ideas.  They want a focus on outputs.  They seem to want to break down the monolith – making it easier to start new schools.

And it looks pretty likely that they’ll be winning the next election.

Plus, we live in grassroots days.  Bottom-up movements have been inspired by Obama and the power of the internet.

I think we could be about to see pressure for structural change in education coming effectively from both the top and the bottom.


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.