Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Out with the old school

Graham Atwell has posted about a school system - Knowsley Council in Merseyside, England - that has abolished the use of the word school to describe secondary education. It will close all of its eleven existing secondary schools by 2009 and reopen as seven state-of-the-art, round-the-clock, learning centres with the aid of Microsoft (technology directing learning?).

The new centres will open from 7am until 10pm in both term-time and what used to be known as the school holidays. At weekends, they will open from 9am to 8pm.
No formal classes, no rigid timetable; the 21,000 students will work online at their own speeds on programmes that are tailor-made to match their interests - including subjects like haircare, beauty therapy, leisure and tourism, and engineering as well as the more traditional academic subjects.
They will be given their day's assignments in groups of 120 in the morning before dispersing to internet cafe-style zones in the learning centres to carry them out; will also be able to access their learning programmes from home.
Students may find themselves working beside adults - possibly even their parents - who can enlist for courses to update their skills.
Knowsley has acknowledged the need for private sector involvement in the running of schools - with Microsoft, RM (a supplier of information and communications technology to schools) and Jaguar (the local car plant) all backing the scheme.

Why are they doing this?
"Let's stop right now building new old schools," said Nick Page, who is in charge of transforming children's services in Knowsley. "We're building for the next 25 to 50 years and 25 years is a hell of a long period if we get it wrong."
Only 19 per cent of youngsters in Knowsley obtained five A* to C grade passes at GCSE in 1995 compared with 43 per cent in the rest of the country. The figure went up to up to 48 per cent last year but that is still 10 per centage points behind the national average.
"The lack of progress, catastrophically high levels of pupil absenteeism, stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment and the rapidly changing nature of the labour market drew a political response both locally and nationally," says a council document outlining the reasons for the changes.

What's the problem with this approach?
As usual it has to do with how it is done, who's involved/not involved and the blame game -

Mr. Read - a teacher and blogger with more in depth knowledge of this situation critiques:
at the heart of the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is an over-reliance on computers and ICT.
Knowsley have been keen to jump into bed with Microsoft, the organisation that has made a fortune from education. The danger is that schools have become techno-junkies, reliant on the next fix from Microsoft. There are much cheaper alternatives like Open Source.
Poverty cannot be ignored as having an impact on student progress; some children have complex educational and social needs. You can’t always replicate a school with well-motivated children and supportive parents in another setting.
The ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is an example of how not to do it. First of all you start with the blame game. There’s that marvellous sentence, “Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed.” Great you dedicate your life to teaching, struggling away with difficult classes, but you are the problem. Secondly, you give all the teachers P45s and make them re-apply for their own jobs. One of the council officials actually said that ‘insecurity and risk’ was an essential part of change. Lastly, when you do try to sell your programme to teachers organise ‘lectures’ where time for questions is limited and any dissenters are belittled as a Luddites or heretics.

Mr. Read goes on to make suggestions as to how it should be done:
  • Work with teachers and the community instead of imposing change by outside consultants with minimal knowledge of the local context
  • Integrate social services in schools, so nurses, youth workers and social services can work with children· Improve children’s basic skills through early intervention programmes like Reading Recovery
  • Invest in well-funded nursery education with qualified staff
  • Train teachers with professional development courses that treat them as pedagogues rather than ignorant technicians
  • Put in more funding streams like Excellence in Cities

While it is great to see a different approach to learning and a recognition that the industrial model doesn't cut it, is this approach doomed? Is this experiment doomed because it doesn't have teacher buy in and a larger social scope in its approach? Is it being directed and informed by ICT? Should private enterprise - like Microsoft -have such involvement? Is it just to teach for employment (Jaguar factory)? How will student progress be assessed? Will accredited schools accept graduates from this initiative?

Time will tell if this is seen as just another unfortunate blip in learning design or a harbinger of things to come.

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