Highlights and insights from 'An Education Worth Having' event 

25 November 2014

Our Partnerships Director shares some useful insights from the Whole Education conference, in which we launched our Cultural Capital research.

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(Image: Holly Donagh and Steve Moffitt taking part at the 'Ensuring an entitlement to a cultural education for all' session at the Whole Education conference)

Rebel Alliance or new establishment? This was the thought that stuck in my head after two very productive days at the Whole Education conference last week.

Ron Berger
, the inspirational leader of the Expeditionary Learning schools in the states (who showed the charming, moving and funny 'Snakes are born this way' film which is a must watch), talked about the educationalists he meets across the world who are committed to providing a holistic education full of challenge, creativity, depth and relevance as a ‘rebel alliance’ – a valiant and disparate band of brothers who will triumph in the end. Certainly there was much evidence at the conference of these schools and teachers (I spent time with School 21 from Newham where they showed their work on speaking and debating and Hove Park school who are pioneers in using technology) much of it in service of rigorous tracking of pupil progress and focus on attainment – not in opposition.

Kevin Collins from EEF, David Crossley and John Dunford all presented arguments for a rounded approach to education founded on fairly basic logic – learning is more effective when it is grounded in activity you enjoy. This, and recent statements from the Secretary of State on the importance of schools helping to build character in pupils through access to a broader set of activities like sport and art made me think that maybe this way of thinking is starting to become the norm.

But this of course is the danger of spending too much time with people who share the same views, you forget that you are not the necessarily majority. I have had three conversations with school leaders over recent weeks about schools that were previously creative, rich learning environments that now, usually with the advent of a new head and/or a bad Ofsted report, put a line through their previous work to concentrate on a narrow curriculum aimed at improving exam results in maths and English. Much as we think the arguments are won, this is not always the case on the ground.

Similarly then when we launched our Cultural Capital research in a roundtable discussion at the Whole Education conference chaired by Matthew Taylor we had to keep reminding ourselves that the ten school leaders in the room – all committed to extensive cultural education programmes in their schools – did not represent the norm.

The focus of our discussion was the very real issue of how to ensure young people from economically disadvantaged background could have the same level of cultural engagement (in and out of school) as their peers. (For my take on the impact of this see here). Should we take a compulsory or entitlement approach? Is it about cultural organisations changing their practice and welcoming more young people and their families or is it for schools? Should this be a key part of the narrowing the gap strategy for schools and if so how will it stand up to research scrutiny?

Earlier in the conference John Hattie had said that arts and sport justified their place in the school day because they connect students with their passion and this keeps them engaged with school. He also said that fundamentally these subjects provide the content for skills (discipline, resilience, confidence) to be developed and trying to learn these skills in a vacuum (the notion of the skill of creativity being a case in point) was meaningless. Clearly we would advocate for whole school strategies to deliver an integrated and creative cultural education for every pupil, but in an era of scarce resources where we know pupils on Free School Meals face particular barriers to taking part in the arts and culture – should our discretionally effort not be focused on them?

To this end Matthew Taylor proposed a concerted push to enable schools to devote a percentage of their Pupil Premium to arts and cultural provision – ‘10% PP’. This would mean schools signing up to the spending pledge and in return the arts and cultural sector – perhaps adjudicated through a body like A New Direction – would devise a clear set of quality assured cultural offers designed for these schools. In this model you could imagine schools coming together to pool their 10% to achieve greater buying power and a real market place being established. Current London schools have £470,000,000 a year to spend on pupil premium.

Going forward we would like to hear more from teachers and schools leaders, from people working in cultural organisations as well as parents about whether or not a creative and rounded education is on the up in our schools (examples please…) and what can be done to enable more young people, particularly from poor backgrounds, to take part.