Becoming an academy is first step in helping pupils to thrive
SKILLS or qualifications? A diploma or a degree? In Britain, we have been talking about the academic versus vocational divide in schooling for more than 100 years. And there is little sign of it being resolved soon.
In Westminster, the debate is especially active as Education Secretary Michael Gove, pictured, cracks down on semi-vocational courses in favour of more traditional subjects.
Out go 'horse-care' and hairdressing and in their place comes the so-called English Baccalaureate – history, modern languages, and the sciences.
In Tipton in Sandwell they are pursuing a less divisive approach. In a tough neighbourhood, facing similar problems of post-industrial transition as Stoke-on-Trent, the Royal Society of Arts has sponsored a new academy school.
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And last week I was lucky enough to get a tour of the campus from its deputy head and proud Stokie, Daulton Redmond.
The first thing Daulton told me was that the catchment area doesn't offer any excuse for low attainment. Overwhelmingly white, British and from historically working-class backgrounds, their 1,075 pupils have a free school meal eligibility rate way above the national average. That is a challenge for the teachers, not grounds for a cop-out. And while their results are not stellar, they are up markedly on the predecessor school and heading in the right direction.
OFSTED has graded the school as 'good', but 'outstanding' when it comes to capacity for sustained improvement.
As you would expect, they have the basics right. The pupils wear uniforms, there is no running and shouting, teachers are respected. There is a sense of structure and discipline – which is vital for children who come from often chaotic backgrounds.
Certainly, the school's design helps. Funded by the Labour Government's Building Schools for the Future programme, it cost near £30 million and is built to last. There is colour-coding for the different Houses to give a sense of individuality. Classrooms open on to outside corridors which look out over the gardens – some of which are being used to grow vegetables for the canteen. Cleverly the toilet blocks – often places for bullying and smoking – have private cubicles which lead into an open plan washroom. Of course, they have the latest kit. There are computer suites and music rooms and the kind of media facilities to make a BBC Newsroom jealous. There is also a well-stocked, well-used library.
And that gives you a sense of the RSA Academy's strengths – a willingness to engage with both vocational and academic courses. On my visit, there was an Opening Minds morning in session – when pupils get to choose a range of diverse, extra-curricula activities. It could be rugby, or designing a new App, or cookery, or technology, or it could just be extra teaching on Spanish. The syllabus is developed by both teachers and pupils to encourage a more innovative approach to learning.
In these classes, there is no teaching to the test. Instead, there is a broader appreciation of learning and development. What is more, classes last three hours. To my mind, a frighteningly long time but if broken up and taught effectively, I was told it can produce better results than the traditional 45-minute class and avoids all that lost time moving between classrooms.
But as well as the vocational, the school offers the International Baccalaureate. This is the Gold Standard qualification which demands pupils mix an array of humanities and sciences.
The IBac pupils I met were smart, motivated teenagers who were well taught and full of ambition. Indeed, the school is attracting international students from as far afield as Austria and Mexico. And let's be frank, Tipton is not an obvious destination.
Not everything is rosy. The school's results have some way to go. I would think they need to get more of their pupils educated in the academic basics.
But attendance rates are up and the sense of aspiration is obvious.
So what can our schools learn? First of all, that simply becoming an academy is not the answer: you need ambitious leadership, a flexible teaching approach, and a good relationship with parents and community. But perhaps we can also develop a curriculum which provides academic rigour as well as vocational options. This should not be about putting poorer pupils on 'easier' courses. It should be about encouraging them to learn and thrive in the 21st century.
And I think Tipton might provide a better way to do that than Westminster.