It's time to commit to a 'whole education'

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SecEd is a supporter of the Whole Education Network, which is hosting its 5th national conference next month. David Crossley reflects on why the time is right to commit to an entitlement to a ‘whole education’.

If we want move our teaching, school or system from good to great, we all know deep down that it will never be enough just to improve results in maths and English or our pupil progress scores.

If we are truly to narrow the gap and increase the life chances of all young people, we need to commit to offering a “whole education” as an entitlement for all. We should plan to support the development of wider skills and attributes for all, both inside and outside our classrooms. 

There is a deeper moral purpose also, it is about reigniting why most of us became educators in the first place. As a school leader, it is about playing a part in developing a generation of leaders at all levels who are values-led, unleashing their creativity and trusting them to deliver.

Good to great

The national target is for every child to attend a good school and 80 per cent of schools are now designated as “good” by Ofsted. For many, the question that arises is what they do to sustain improvement.

Whole Education offers an approach to improvement that is well-suited to meeting their needs and which seems to be closely aligned to what the McKinsey study in 2010, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, identified as the ways systems move from fair to good, and then good to great.

The report argued that the journey from good to great and great to excellent involves greater degrees of informed professionalism, with the “good to great” journey involving a focus on the professionalisation of teaching, and the “great to excellent” journey involving improvement through peer-led support and teaching innovation. 

They were talking about school systems, but this logically applies at a network, school and classroom level too.

Soft skills, hard results

The Whole Education Network is a response to what some might describe as an over-emphasis on conventional outcomes and test scores that can be easily measured. 

Its member schools are attracted by a growing consensus about what an “education worth having” involves, among not only school leaders and the teaching profession, but also wider stakeholders including employers and the OECD.

This is supported in other reports, including the Character and Resilience Manifesto published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility earlier this year, which makes the case for a focus on “character and resilience” that can be “learnt and taught at all stages in life”.

Further, countries like Singapore and Hong Kong that are top performers in the PISA tests are now focusing their attention on developing creativity and broadening their focus on character and citizenship education. 

Whole Education is seeking to embed and sustain an approach to school development that is “values-led, evidence-informed and impact-focused”. It is also predicated on a commitment to and belief in peer-to-peer collaboration, inspired and encouraged by the work of leading academics, thinkers and practitioners both nationally and internationally. It sees a focus on joint practice development and communities of practice as the best way to achieve its goals.

The choices we have

Our definition of a “whole education” is a broad and inclusive one that helps children and young people to develop a range of skills, qualities and knowledge they will need for life, learning and work. 

It also argues that it is the combination of these skills and qualities that is important. 

Schools involved in the network often focus on research and global practice. They also have a passion for strategies and approaches that help make learning more relevant and engaging. We are clear that offering a whole education focuses on more than extra-curricular activity. The schools that engage see curriculum and pedagogy as being at the very heart of this work.

Accountability pressures

Becoming more innovative requires confidence. However, this alone is not enough, successful innovation is a product of a relentless focus on the detail of implementation. Find a successfully innovative school and you will find that it focuses on not just the “what” but more importantly the “how” it does things, 

It is not about neglecting conventional outcomes, rather it is about exploring different ways of achieving them. Whole Education argues for a “both/and” not “either/or” approach that recognises the importance of outcomes for young people in more conventional ways but argues that they are likely to be of value and benefit if they are combined with a focus on wider skills and attributes too.

This is supported by the findings of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that stated: “Schools need to focus on developing these skills alongside improving their academic attainment. It is not a question of either/or. Schools need to be doing both.”

It is time to refocus on what is a true strength of our system – creativity. There are highly innovative international examples of individual schools or groups of schools who share our beliefs. 

These include the Expeditionary Learning Schools, a US national network of more than 160 public project-based schools in 30 states led by Ron Berger. Schools from our network have undertaken study tours to these and other schools and Mr Berger will speak at the conference.

The difference to learning

Professor John Hattie is, at first sight, an unlikely source of support for our work, but he is clear about what he refers to as “the importance of passion”.

He identifies characteristics that we share that truly make a difference to learning, arguing that while important, if we just concentrate on achievement we can miss much about what students know, can do, and care about.

These reflections on the purpose of schooling, the combination of knowing and understanding, and also the enhancement of character are closely aligned with the aims of Whole Education, and Prof Hattie will be sharing his thinking in the opening keynote at the event.

Two academic colleagues. Professor Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley. set a challenge and an aspiration for collaboration of the sort we foster in their book, The Fourth Way. In their words: “In the end, networks like this become more than an optional extra for the system ... and eventually challenge the logic of the system itself.”

Many of our founding schools share this ambition and see Whole Education as a “movement” and a potential catalyst for system change. A bold aspiration, maybe, but certainly an inspirational journey worth being part of, with the unifying goal of assuring we offer an “education worth having” to all.

  • David Crossley is executive director of Whole Education.

Further information
The Whole Education national conference takes place on November 18 and 19 in London. Visit http://wholeedconf.wordpress.com/ and www.wholeeducation.org

CAPTION: Movement: Chair of Whole Education Sir John Dunford (second left) during a debate at last year’s event


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