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

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.


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.