The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Why we need a ‘Big Education’

There are growing numbers of people – teachers, parents, students, employers – who believe that our current education system and the debate around it is too narrow, too small, too introspective and ultimately not living up to the vision needed for the challenges the country faces.

It is clear what is going wrong: the labelling and grading of schools by Ofsted, the high stakes assessment system, the de-professionalising of teachers so a third leave within the first few years, the intense pressure on headteachers, leading in some cases to depression and early retirement; children losing any remnants of childhood on an overly pressurised conveyor belt. And then at the end of it all employers saying loud and clear that exams are not enough, knowledge is not enough; we want the problem-solvers, the questioners, the people with initiative and motivation.

For too long there has been a school improvement industry – focusing on ‘best practice’, lifting up the schools in most difficulty – but far less genuine collaboration to reimagine what school could really be like, developing ‘next practice’.

Peter Hyman and Liz Robinson

In short it’s time for something bigger and something bolder. An education that reignites a sense of purpose, is based on a set of powerful values and brings alive the ‘whole’ child and the ‘whole teacher’. That is what Big Education is about. We are an organisation – but also a growing coalition – that is trying to change the story in education.

Our starting point is based on the following design principles:

We believe:

  • In making a difference to the entire system not just our own school
  • In prizing distinctiveness and centres of excellence over uniformity
  • In challenging not accepting the way education is done
  • Good exam results and a good Ofsted grade are a minimum necessity not goals of education
  • The divide between progressives and traditionalists gets in the way of true innovation that has an impact: dogma of any kind is unhelpful
  • Education is an intellectual as well as practical undertaking and needs a rich blend of both

One phrase perhaps best sums up our approach: ‘innovation with rigour’. Strong basics are our foundation – a focus on powerful literacy, numeracy and oracy skills. A culture that respects and empowers young people but expects kindness, responsibility and hard work in return. On those foundations we believe young people need (and the world needs them to have) a more expansive education, one of the head (academics), heart (character) and hand (problem-solving and creativity). It is not enough to focus solely on knowledge.

Our expanded view of what school and education might look like is a developing model which we are using to shape our own curriculum and pedagogical approaches. Some of these are becoming very well developed.

We are extremely proud, for example, of the work of Voice 21, a charity which grew out of School 21, which is now supporting and developing practice in oracy in over 500 schools up and down the country.

We are proud of what we have achieved in our own schools. Academic measures are excellent, Ofsted says we are outstanding, and we have developed and embedded new practices which embody our belief in a ‘big’ education. School 21 and Surrey Square have worked hard to be outward looking and engage with the wider educational community. Our motivation is not just to improve our own schools but to make a genuine impact on the wider system.

By becoming co-directors of the organisation we wanted to signal our belief in collaboration, in sharing ideas and practice, in being humble and open to the fact that we don’t have all the answers but seek to listen, to learn and to build on the great thinking of skilled classroom teachers and thoughtful school leaders.

Our current work focuses on:

  • Toolkits to support schools in developing a rich curriculum and a repertoire of pedagogies
  • A Leadership Programme to nurture leaders who want to run more expansive schools
  • A set of pedagogies and practices to unlock the head, heart and hand of every child
  • A peer review process to share, challenge and enhance the rigour of each school
  • Creative ‘innovation’ processes to develop new thinking on areas such as assessment.

We genuinely seek partnership; to work with those who feel the same way, who hanker after something different. For too long there has been a school improvement industry – focusing on ‘best practice’, lifting up the schools in most difficulty – but far less genuine collaboration to reimagine what school could really be like, developing ‘next practice’. Yet so many of the leaders and teachers we meet are doing incredible things, pushing the boundaries, and looking for more for their students; wanting, in short, a ‘big education’.