Why “Building Schools for the Future” couldn’t learn from the past.

In the last 24 hours I’ve discovered two interesting articles in the Guardian, which together show one of the flaws I’ve noticed in education reform attempts.

The first article is a retrospective about how the Merseyside borough of Knowsley was failed by an attempt to innovate educationally and instead developed educational deficits so deep that it had to sacrifice its A-Level education entirely. The second article is an optimistic piece focusing on the XP school in Doncaster, which is adopting a project-based curriculum similar to successful schools in Finland.

The link here is that despite opposing perspectives, these articles are about the same idea; both the “Building Schools for the Future” program used in Knowsley and the project-based curriculum used at XP are repeats of the 1970’s Open Classroom movement (OCM). In the table below the left column describes the Knowsley schools (as told in the Guardian), while the right column describes Open Classrooms and their issues.

Knowsley Schools – 2009Open Classroom Movement – 1970s

“Following an audit of “learning styles”, the council’s senior education officers decided that most were “kinaesthetic learners”: rather than sitting behind desks, they needed to use their bodies and senses, and trial and error.”

“Open classrooms’ focus on students’ “learning by doing” resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing students’ creativity”. – Cuban, 2004

“Instead of classrooms and corridors there were vast open spaces known as base areas, with curtains on runners to create different zones. A child’s misbehaviour would be witnessed not by the rest of the class, but by half the school. Keeping track of pupils’ movement became a major problem.”“In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. Children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher.” – Cuban, 2004
“The acoustics were dreadful. The design and technology classes were next to the science laboratories – with no wall in between- with the result that a child who was hammering a nail into a piece of wood could reach out and touch a child who was trying to learn about the structure of an atom.”“Teachers in the study felt that the absence of walls and doors in the school made it more problematic for students to listen to each other and to the teacher. As well as auditory distractions, the open area design seemed to present students with some visual distractions, as classes and groups of children moved through the building — crowding and tight proximities between classes made this situation more challenging.” – Costa, 2003
“One of the new schools, Christ the King in Huyton, was hailed as an exciting centre of learning for the future. It was consigned to history after just four years: parents simply did not wish to send their children there, and less than half its 900 places were filled.”“Traditional schools sprang up in suburbs and cities. Open-space schools rebuilt their walls. By the early 1980s, open classrooms had already become a footnote in doctoral dissertations.” – Cuban, 2004
“And all the time, the borough’s exam results remained stuck to the foot of the national league tables: thousands of Knowsley children were leaving school with few qualifications, and sometimes with none at all.”“Open education was blamed for everything ranging from low SAT scores to discipline problems.” – Youngwood, 1987

The Knowsley schools were part of the “Building Schools for the Future” program. This started development in 2004 under Tony Blair’s leadership, but was already facing problems by 2006 when its original aims were considered “too ambitious”. In a BBC article about the Building Schools for the Future program from 2007, Conservative minister Jim Knight supported the program, while arguing that participants and management needed to learn from these early mistakes to progress. Yet bringing in the idea of learning from mistakes creates an obvious counterargument: why did the the development team not learn from the failure of the OCM in the 1970s, and create a program which failed for identical reasons?

One answer isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with academic research: people looking for published studies about the OCM wouldn’t have been able to read them, because the research is almost entirely paywalled. (However, the Plowden report which inspired the OCM is freely accessible online, and links to both the Plowden report and an accessible research paper are below.)

If speculative articles proposing new ideas and news articles proclaiming the short-term success of those ideas are easily available, while the evidence of whether those ideas actually have long-term benefits is inaccessible, then they cannot be fairly appraised. If advertisements for schemes and ideas are widespread, but the evidence which shows their limits cannot be easily accessed, then those schemes will continue to appear as a potential solution without taking their previous failures and issues into account.

I’m going to paraphrase George Santayana here, and argue that “those who cannot access the past are condemned to repeat it”.


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