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July 22 2012

Failure can be an option | James Dyson

Success is overrated. Losing out on the sports field and in the office can spur us on to greater things

At school they might teach you it's the taking part not the winning that counts, but I doubt that is the mantra in the Olympic village. With the nation's hopes resting on Team GB's broad shoulders, most people really want an uncomplicated win, a resounding success at first attempt. Failure is disappointing, shameful, definitive.

I disagree. Failure, coupled with perseverance, can be the springboard to better things. For example, I expect that Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee athlete running the 400m for South Africa, has something to say about overcoming setbacks. The 2007 ban preventing him from competing against able-bodied athletes has been overturned, and he will be in London this year.

Success takes time, patience and perseverance – not just in track and field. Exactly 5,126 attempts to make the first bagless vacuum cleaner were failures – some catastrophic disappointments, some minor defects. It took 15 years. Prototype 5,127 was the success. During the past 20 years I have fought countless legal battles to protect years of work. Most of the time we are successful. Occasionally we fail. It is a painful process but it spurs me on to invent more.

In the digital age of "overnight" success stories such as Facebook, the hard slog is easily overlooked. More often than not, success is the result of months and years of consecutive all-nighters. Trial and error, setback after setback. Failure is painful, but it spurs on improvement like nothing else.

And yet, we try increasingly hard to avoid failure these days. More schools are holding sports days without winners and losers. The approaching exam results are once again expected to outperform last year's, threatening to render many students' genuine achievement meaningless in the eyes of many people. I myself scraped seven poor passes at O-level. I had, and still have, little patience for rote learning the "right" answer. Instead, I excelled at creating things – inventing and art. Without understanding where my strengths were, I might not have found my way to the hub for designers, engineers and scientists that is London's Royal College of Art. Like all good educational institutions, it was a place for trial and error, wrong thinking and frustration but also triumph and achievement.

My own experience with failure at college is part of the reason I now advocate design and technology in schools. D&T is an arena for making mistakes, and slowly crafting successes – getting your hands on materials and tools, taking things apart just to see how they work. Not just the incubator for would-be Edisons, D&T teaches perseverance – sketch, build, test, rebuild. Only 10% of students take D&T at GCSE; this falls to 4% at A-level. Its long-term future as a core subject remains uncertain. I do not accept that young people aren't interested in D&T – it just needs to be reinvigorated, brought up to date.

The current emphasis on rote learning right answers over inventiveness and practical skills rewards regurgitation over intellect and instinct. Pretending there are no winners and losers in school sports undermines achievement. But far more importantly, it crushes the incentive to improve, and does not prepare young people for the trials ahead. In school, let us reward those high achievers but, with a closer look, we can also applaud those failures who give every clue of going on to win even bigger. Changes to the education system are necessary and long overdue.

The keen sting of failure should not be shunned. It can spur on greatness, the cue to persist against the odds. Keep an eye out for the athletes who don't make it to the podium this year. They may hold gold in Rio 2016.


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September 13 2011

02mydafsoup-01

Swedes oppose profits in free schools | Social-Europe.eu - Fredrik Jansson - 2011-09-13


According to a report by The National Union of Teachers in Sweden (Lärarnas riksförbund), there is  solid opposition among Swedes regarding profits being taken out of the private so-called free schools. Eight out of ten Swedes want to see this limited. Even among centre-right voters 73 percent want to see such restrictions. Among centre-left voters 88 percent oppose profits.

Moreover, every other Swede does not think that there is equivalence in the schools in their own municipality.

The President of The National Union of Teachers in Sweden, Metta Fjelkner comments:

“The National Union of Teachers in Sweden wants all surplus reinvested in the school, into everything that improve the quality of teaching, as smaller classes, better facilities and equipment, qualified and well-paid teachers. There is something wrong with the school if it is on its knees with a lack of equivalence and declining academic achievement, while private owners can bring home millions in profits.”

June 21 2011

Education letters

From Hackney Downs to AC Grayling

Michael Barber's CV

It was nice to learn that Michael Barber is making world-class money working for Pearson (Mad professor goes global, 14 June). But it's sad that he is still quoted as defending the closure of Hackney Downs school in 1995 as some kind of triumph. The hurried closure of the school in December 1995 had a disastrous effect on the education of many of the boys, especially those in their final GCSE year. The history of the closure is one of educational neglect, political machinations and deionisation of the school, teachers, students and their families. Perhaps Barber was right to boast that the stand taken became the foundation of New Labour's education policy. It could stand as a metaphor for the increase in inequalities in the education system and the continuing punitive measures aimed at schools in poorer areas.

Professor Sally Tomlinson

University of Oxford

• Peter Wilby misses one of Michael Barber's greatest successes. Barber was also a member of Lord Browne's review of higher education funding. He was not the only horse out of the McKinsey stable involved in the review. There was also Peter Sands, the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, who spent 13 years at McKinsey. Indeed, there are many of us who believe that Browne's report would have been much more honestly entitled "the McKinsey report", but this would have drawn attention to the privatisation agenda underlying its recommendations.

Professor John Newsinger

Bath Spa University

No loss of jobs

Yup, James Dyson is the obvious choice to spearhead the revival of British manufacturing by repurposing design technology education ('It's not about banging nails into wood', 14 June). You conjure up problems: disappointment that the wheel on your wheelbarrow is not a bright orange plastic football; the frustration of not being able to watch the muck you've hoovered up whizzing round inside the machine. And then, having built a business out of that, you dump a big chunk of your workforce and send their jobs overseas. To me "British manufacturing" means people employed in the UK, paying UK taxes to finance, among other things, design technology education.

Root Cartwright

Radlett, Hertfordshire

Student complaints

Sue Littlemore asked whether vice-chancellors are becoming heads of customer sevices, following a rise in student complaints.

When you pay, you've got rights to complain. When you pay a lot, you've got rights to complain a lot.

jekylnhyde via EducationGuardian.co.uk

• Student anger should be directed at the government, which has cut university funding and is making students pick up the bill. The universities will have no more money, while being expected to deliver enhanced services.

coffeetable via EducationGuardian.co.uk

A set-up?

Harriet Swain wrote a step-by-step guide to starting your own university in the manner of AC Grayling.

I find it difficult to see what the fuss is all about. AC Grayling is only doing this to highlight the cuts that humanities departments have suffered.

beth23 via EducationGuardian.co.uk

• A perfect skewering. (I'm still chuckling as I'm typing.)

2baz via EducationGuardian.co.uk

• Journalism of the lowest order.

Lionel via EducationGuardian.co.uk


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June 20 2011

Art clubs target talented children

Saturday art clubs – a reincarnation of a 1970s idea – are inspiring disadvantaged children

See their work in this gallery

The young boy looks wistfully out of the window at the huge green expanse beyond, the darkness of his clothing – layered with tiny strokes of coloured pencil – contrasting with the airiness of the never-ending countryside.

This extraordinary drawing – which goes on show this week in a new exhibition at London's Somerset House – is not the work of a professional artist, but 14-year-old Leeds schoolboy Hafizullah Karim.

The exhibition spotlights the potential of more than 400 young people aged 14-16, showcasing their work in disciplines from drawing, painting and sculpture to photography, print-making, ceramics and digital graphics. All have taken part this year in the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme, receiving free specialist tuition from their local art college.

The Saturday club is a modern version of an earlier incarnation, which bit the dust in the 1970s. The aim was – and is – to encourage disadvantaged youngsters to consider careers in the creative arts. So on Saturday mornings 14 art colleges – including Leeds, Plymouth, Hereford, Grimsby and Hastings – have been throwing their doors open to this group of young people who often struggling lengthy distances by public transport to get to the lessons.

Hafizullah seems surprised by the huge interest in his work since he won a place last year on the club run by Leeds College of Art. "I love art," he says. "It is my favourite subject at school, but I have learned so much from the Saturday Club. My tutors have encouraged me to be more adventurous in my style. In art, the more you do, the better you are. I have worked with clay, done graphics and also used watercolours." He explains that for this work, he originally took a photograph of himself sitting by the window at home but adapted it for the drawing – which he completed in about a week and a half – substituting the urban views outside for countryside. "The outside world and nature are so important to us all," he says, declaring himself an admirer of the Impressionists.

His love of the outdoor space may reflect the earlier restrictions in his life. Hafizullah's family left Afghanistan when he was three to live in Pakistan while his father went to find work in Leeds. The youngster honed his drawing skills at the afterschool Ghoighola Art Class in Quetta, which he attended for four years.

In February last year, he and the rest of his family moved to the area and he joined year 9 at City of Leeds high school. He won a place at the Saturday Club after the school's head of art, Catherine Walsh, recommended him as exceptionally gifted.

This year, more than 400 young people attending 100 schools in the UK have taken part in Saturday Club – funded predominantly by the private Sorrell Foundation to the tune of £150,000 a year – but it is hoped to increase this number to 500 next year. It is estimated that there are a further 100 UK colleges that could offer the programme using existing facilities, and the aim is to "scale it up" each year to allow more young people to take part.

The scheme targets 14- to 16-year-olds who have already shown evidence of artistic talent – many from challenging social backgrounds – who are still weighing up their academic options after GCSE and are yet to decide whether to pursue further or higher education. While the regular classes offer the kind of tuition and facilities that most secondary schools could only dream of, they are supplemented by "Master classes" given by renowned artists and designers such as Antony Gormley, Thomas Heatherwick and Naomi Cleaver. This brings the best of inspirational British art and design talent to youngsters from poorer backgrounds who might not otherwise be able to tap into such creativity, along with opportunities for longer-term mentoring. All students are also taken to London for a day – for many their first visit – for tours of major galleries.

Also studying at the Leeds club is Nida Mozuraite, a 16-year-old student at Morley Academy, who came to the UK with her family from Lithuania six years ago. She has been getting up regularly on Saturday mornings at 8am to travel to Leeds for the three-hour sessions. "I have got used to getting up early and I do it because I enjoy it," she says. "I have made lots of new friends and also been introduced to techniques I would not have been able to use at school. The tutors treat you like grownups, not children." Nida is just finishing her GCSEs and plans to study full-time at the college on its BTec national (extended) diploma in art and design in September.

The clubs' success is reflected in high attendance rates – no mean feat given that Saturday mornings are a time when you would expect most teenagers to be chilling out or hanging around with their mates – if they manage to drag themselves out of bed at all. Last year, Leeds College of Art received 80 applications for just 25 places, while at Plymouth College of Art some students happily undertake a 60-mile round trip to attend classes.

The clubs use existing resources, but the art college lecturers (helped by student volunteers) have to give up their valuable time on a Saturday to teach – a considerable sacrifice at the end of a busy week.

The drive to expand the programme into a fully national one is given extra impetus given the cuts to arts education funding that threaten to constrict the supply of talent to colleges, universities and, ultimately, the creative sector in the UK. Similarly, many teachers fear that art GCSE is at risk if schools have to comply with the new EBacc curriculum – which for the same reasons could also lead to design technology being downgraded.

Plymouth College of Art's club has been running for five years, and last year 38% of club members went on to take up courses at the college. An enthusiastic "veteran" is 15-year-old Ben Lintell, whose striking photographic work for a magazine project features in the exhibition. "I have done everything from old-style poster printing to pinhole photography, which has been great," he says. "The sky's the limit in terms of what you are taught, and I have also enjoyed the chance to work collaboratively."

Fellow member 14-year-old Eleanor James-George says: "I would very much like to go on to study at Plymouth College of Art. I have really enjoyed screen-printing T-shirts with photographs, and using  darkroom equipment, enlargers etc that we do not have at school."

Alumni of the original 1970s art clubs included designers John and Frances Sorrell (who went on to form design consultancy Newell and Sorrell and who set up the Sorrell Foundation) and advertising genius John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Sir John Sorrell reflects: "This strikes me as something the government should support as it is all about localism in action. Frances and I were lucky that we could start our careers in a Saturday morning art and design class when we were 14 years old, and by the age of 19 I was running my own business. We believe the club offers a real pathway for youngsters to develop their skills and confidence, and find worthwhile and rewarding careers. Just as we did."

• The exhibition is open until 17 July, admission free.


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Arts on Saturday

Disadvantaged children are being nurtured in the creative arts by the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme. An exhibition opens this week at Somerset House in London of the work of more than 400 young people



May 03 2011

Henry Pluckrose obituary

Leading educationist with an intuitive grasp of how children learn

Henry Pluckrose, who has died aged 79, was one of the most inspiring teachers of his generation. He believed that children have intellectual, emotional and aesthetic capacities that few adults realise and too few schools exploit. For more than 50 years, he made a major contribution to our understanding not only about how children learn, but about how to put that knowledge into practice. As founder headteacher, in 1968, of Prior Weston primary school in London, he established a model that aroused international interest and admiration. He was also a prolific author, editor, journalist and lecturer on educational and other subjects.

Born in an impoverished part of Lambeth, south London, Henry – as he was known to pupils, as well as to friends and colleagues – spent his first six years, as he recalled, "in a tiny second-floor flat (running cold water, gas for lighting and cooking, outside toilet, no bath)". His mother suffered "emotional instability" and he was largely brought up by his older sisters, who read to him from their homework, and taught him to recite passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha and other poems in infancy. He became a chorister at Southwark Cathedral and, after national service in the Royal Army Education Corps, qualified as a teacher at the College of St Mark and St John in south-west London.

In 1959 he began teaching at John Ruskin primary school in south London and his classroom soon resembled an artist's studio, buzzing with activity and creative energy. Arts in the broadest sense formed the basis of his curriculum: not just art and craft, though they were most in evidence, but also drama, music, poetry and dance. He gave particular emphasis to direct personal experience, taking children to museums, art galleries, churches, historic buildings, woods, fields and parks.

While teaching, he began to write regularly for professional journals and newspapers such as Primary Education and Teachers' World, and was asked to lead workshops and seminars at the University of London's Institute of Education. In 1961, he met Frank Waters, then editor-in-chief at the Oldbourne Press in Fleet Street, who invited him to write for the Modern Education Library series. His Picture Making With Juniors and Free Crafts for Juniors (both 1963) were the first of many books that shared his classroom ideas and techniques with a generation of primary-school teachers.

Increasingly, he contributed to in-service training courses. His workshops for teachers, like his classroom, overflowed with paints, dyes, glues, pastels and numerous other modelling materials, many of them begged or borrowed by him personally from the manufacturers. But as Frank Peacock, his head at John Ruskin, put it in an introduction to Henry's Creative Arts and Crafts (1966): "He is not an 'art-specialist' nor a 'craft-specialist'. Like all good primary-school teachers, he is a specialist in one thing only – children."

He joined Prior Weston – a brand new school on the edge of the City of London's Barbican development – as headteacher in 1968. To an unusual extent, it recruited children from very poor homes alongside the children of the metropolitan liberal elite. In the wake of the 1967 Plowden Report, which gave an official imprimatur to fresh thinking in primary education, it became a mecca for those committed to innovative teaching and more open forms of learning. Henry never claimed to be an educational theorist, preferring to call himself a "journeyman-teacher". But that was too modest: his genius was to bring together a wide range of ideas – from the philosopher John Dewey, the leaders of the "child art" movement, such as Franz Cizek in Vienna, Christian Schiller in London and Robin Tanner at the Ministry of Education, and psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky – and combine them with his intuitive understanding of how children learn.

Despite the responsibilities of headship, he continued to write and edit at an astonishing pace, producing books on history and environmental studies for teachers and many children's books, including a series for Mills and Boon entitled On Location (1973 onwards), as well as writing for the educational press and giving lectures and organising workshops across Britain. His Open School, Open Society (1975) was the major statement of his educational approach. He wished, he wrote, to extend the schools' "human dimension" and to make them "more open to the society they served", not only involving parents but also becoming the focal point in the lives of their local communities.

At the time, the vision of education created by him and other gifted teachers and administrators seemed likely to carry all before it. But the authors of the educational pamphlets the Black Papers – who wanted a return to more traditional styles – were already making waves. In 1976, a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, by James Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, marked a change in official thinking. Schools, it was argued, had moved too far from rigorous learning and basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills.

Though left of centre politically – he was proud of being "handbagged" by Margaret Thatcher at a publisher's party during her term as education secretary – Henry struggled to find a comfortable space in conventional British politics. He was so committed to the children in his charge that he felt an almost physical revulsion against industrial action, and joined the "no-strike union", then called the Professional Association of Teachers.

He might best be described as a radical individualist, and his favourite politicians were maverick, principled Labour MPs such as Joan Lestor and Renée Short. They were among the informal group he formed to oppose – or at least modify – the educational counter-revolution, holding frequent meetings at the House of Commons.

Largely as a result of its deliberations, he edited two books (their original working titles were "light-grey papers") with Peter Wilby, then education correspondent of the Sunday Times, The Condition of English Schooling (1979) and Education 2000 (1980). By then, Thatcher was in No 10 and the books were only modestly successful.

Yet Henry's international reputation continued to grow. A Swedish television documentary, made at Prior Weston, struck such a chord in Sweden that Henry became something of a national celebrity there, in enormous demand as a guest lecturer. As he recalled (with some hilarious anecdotes) in The Travels of a Journey-Man Teacher (2007), government agencies invited him to lecture and advise teachers in Canada, the US, France, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 1984, he left Prior Weston, initially to complete an MPhil. He did not return to full-time teaching or headship but served on such bodies as the Council for National Academic Awards, the National Book League, the National Trust, the Royal Ballet and the Civic Trust. In 1986 he joined the staff of the Royal Opera House's education department, finally retiring in 1999.

By then, he had published more than 300 books and touched the hearts and minds of thousands, perhaps millions. He was already showing the first signs of a rare form of Parkinson's disease, an affliction he bore with great courage, even starting to write poetry, of which two volumes – More Than Words Can Tell (2006) and Word Shaping Tongue and Listening Ear (2008) – were published. "I have discovered," he said, "the joy which comes from having time to stand and stare."

He is survived by his wife, Helen, from whom he was separated, by their children, Elspeth, Hilary and Patrick, and by his partner, Hilary Devonshire.

• Henry Arthur Pluckrose, teacher and author, born 23 October 1931; died 6 April 2011


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April 21 2011

Sticks and stones: can architects be built in the classroom?

The government wants your advice on rebuilding the cultural curriculum. So how would you nurture the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the future?

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, learned the beginnings of his craft by playing with wooden building blocks. Many other architects did, too. But Wright was one of the very few architects who spoke thoughtfully, throughout his life, about childhood. Many architects since have been embarrassed by their youthful ways, and have presented themselves as fully fledged artists and professionals mature beyond their years.

And yet, one of the big problems in Britain – a country infamous for its visual illiteracy, or so say outsiders – is that architecture isn't taught to children, not much in the home, and much less at school. What an all-embracing discipline it is, though, for teachers and pupils alike: a fusion of art, maths, geometry, geography, physics, technology, politics, economics and environmental concerns.

So it is encouraging to see the government taking architectural education seriously. Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, has asked Darren Henley, managing director of Classic FM, to lead a review of cultural education. In launching the review, Vaizey stressed the point that all young people should have opportunities to take part in performance and visual arts and learn about Britain's cultural, architectural and film heritage.

Working with the Museums Association, Henley is asking anyone interested in his review to make submissions here by 20 May about how best to expand the cultural curriculum. If you are interested in nurturing an understanding of architecture in up-and-coming generations, send in your suggestions: the government might just act on them.

So how should an understanding and appreciation of architecture be approached in schools? Building blocks aside, how can we nurture not just the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the future but a public who will push these budding architects, rather than sniping from the sidelines that all modern buildings are terrible?

Children are naturally interested in architecture. Give them a stack of paper and ask them to draw a house, or ask them to build a sandcastle, and they will be very happy. They will enjoy making houses out of cardboard boxes, twigs, leaves, mud or stones. These creative skills should be encouraged beyond early education, because children have an innate understanding of the idea of shelter and dwellings, and they know how to make the buildings they create special. Architecture is itself a game, a high game of playing with forms (along with geometries, tricks of light and, of course, plans), and the greatest of all architects have never ceased to play; their sense of invention has been as fecund as a child's.

Teaching architectural interpretations of history is also a good jumping-off point. If you can interpret a building, of whatever place or era, you can read history. Children revel in tales of Egyptian tombs, pyramids, palaces, castles and magical homes: it is only a short gap between these delights, these fantasies and the whole world of architecture.

An appreciation of architecture doesn't mean that a child has to become an architect – a slow and expensive profession to enter – but it could, if only it was more widespread in Britain, make future generations feel more able to spur on, or deter, the best and worst architectural proposals, and even to commission intelligent architecture that will benefit everyone, from low-cost housing to spectacular art galleries.

Our desire to build, both to provide shelter and to celebrate who we are and what we dream of, is innate. Rather than complaining about contemporary architecture in a passive and ill-informed way, we should offer future generations the space to think how they might like to shape their world – the world of buildings that humans will always need. That might well begin, playfully, in the classroom.


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March 24 2011

March 06 2011

Architects do matter, Mr Gove

The education secretary claims architects have 'creamed off' money that could have gone to teachers. It's time he opened his eyes to the far-reaching benefits of a beautifully designed school

If Michael Gove were a building, he would leak. He would crack and crumble on faulty foundations. He would be windy, but also overheat. Behind a pretentious facade, he would be shoddy in design and execution.

So far, the secretary of state for education has had to apologise for the hasty and inaccurate way he announced the cancellation of school building projects, and been told by a judge that his failure to consult was "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power". He keeps giving not-quite-true information to Parliament, for example that a college in Doncaster, a pilot project of the government, took an impressively short 10 weeks to procure. It actually took 22 weeks.

On 14 February he told the House of Commons that "it's a scandal… millions of pounds were spent on consultants" on the design of new schools. "One individual, in one year, made more than £1m as a result of his endeavours." This might be an impressive fact, were it not that he is referring to a case in Birmingham in which the sum was £700,000, was paid over four years and covered the work of five advisers at different times, as part of a programme of more than 80 schools, costing more than £1 billion.

Yet Gove presses on, seemingly untroubled by evidence, common sense or decency, with his campaign to lower the quality of the buildings in which the nation's children are taught. He has repeatedly attacked architects for "creaming off" money that could be better spent on teaching. He recently smirked to a conference that "we won't be getting any award-winning architects" to design new schools, "because no one in this room is here to make architects richer". The message is that a well-designed environment is an irrelevance: teaching is all that matters.

There has been talk that schools can be churned out in bulk, the way Tesco builds its supermarket or McDonald's its outlets. To dot the country with standardised McSchools is not obviously consistent with the government's localism agenda, or its interest in a "happiness index", but never mind. One contractor, Willmott Dixon, has punted some suggestions as to what such schools might look like. These look plausible, if drab, on unencumbered, level sites. But, like Daleks encountering a staircase, they need help when they hit a slope, or a constrained urban site, or the individual needs of particular schools. Standardisation has its uses, but it needs design to do well.

To Gove's rejection of design, Phil Blinston, executive head of the Minster School in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, says: "It's bizarre. I just don't get it. Why wouldn't we want to factor in everything architects have learned from other buildings? Youngsters are growing up visually articulate. Why would they not expect to see that in school? Why would you expect them to lower their standards?"

The Minster School has been using an award-winning building for four years, designed by architects Penoyre & Prasad. Blinston says: "Our results were good and continued to rise with the new building. Our behaviour has improved." It has good acoustics and natural light, which "have a profound effect on the emotional state of children, which helps their learning".

Its circulation works smoothly, without "one-way systems, keep left signs or massive numbers of rules". Hidden spaces "where vulnerable kids fear to tread" are designed out, so you don't need "people standing guard". It is designed so that locals can use the building in evenings and school holidays, so this public asset is used to the full.

"I'm not talking about fancy architecture," he says – and a limited budget means the school has a simple-going-on-basic look – "but it's about enabling people to feel good. Good design produces a relaxed community. If we say education is important, we can demonstrate that by putting children in decent environments." Buildings cannot do a teacher's job, in other words, but they can make good teaching better and bad teaching less so.

To which it might be added that, if environment were irrelevant to learning, then Eton College, the alma mater of many of the present government, would sell its agreeable slab of Berkshire real estate and move to low-cost units in a business park in Slough.

Gove is very much right about one thing, which is that the last government's £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme, which aimed to rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school in the country, was a monstrously wasteful and cumbersome process, which often led to very poorly designed schools. The "creaming off", however, was not being done by architects, who were, instead, among the first to point out the faults of the programme.

The main beneficiaries were the financial institutions and their advisers who funded the programme, who will earn handsome returns and bonuses for years to come at the taxpayers' expense. They are followed by the big construction companies, several of which were fined in 2008 by the Office of Fair Trading for breach of competition law – ie price-fixing – on a range of project types. They were, to coin a phrase, creaming off the funds of clients, including local authorities.

This unfortunate blemish has not impeded the same companies from securing huge education contracts, and it would be stretching credulity to think that price-fixing never now happens in school building. Yet there has been no ministerial slap. Rather, Gove's architect-free vision of the future places ever-greater reliance on the men with the hard hats, the handshakes and the plausible paperwork.

There are also the lawyers who expensively write and rewrite the byzantine contracts, at hourly rates several times greater than architects', and project managers, who do less, and less useful work than architects for a similar total cost. Worst of all was the waste inherent in BSF's processes: it cost contractors up to £3m to bid for a package of schools. They would expect to win one in three, meaning that they would want to recover £9m from successful bids just to cover their bidding costs.

Gove's department is unable to produce the figures on which he makes his assertions, saying that "detailed data on individual projects was held locally to minimise the regulatory burden on projects and project reporting". It is, however, possible to find out that architects' fees have been between 2.5% and 5% of construction cost. If capital costs other than construction are included, this can drop to well under 2% of the total. If, as happened under BSF, future running costs are included in the contract, architects' fees become a tiny proportion. Most architects working on schools will tell you that it pays less well than almost any other kind of work and is sometimes loss-making. One says that schools work "is threatening to put us out of business".

In other words, in the torrents of waste surrounding school building, good architects are value for money. If budgets get tighter, we will need their skills to make the most of them. If, as seems likely, future work is more about refurbishment rather than glamorous new buildings, architects' adaptability will help. If there is more standardisation of new buildings, it needs design intelligence to do it well. Gove seems to think that architects are all bow-tied ponces longing only to inflict their fantasies on the public. They could be his greatest allies.


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October 16 2010

Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton

A Brixton school designed by Zaha Hadid contributes to the debate on education – mainly by being so excellent, writes Rowan Moore

Zaha Hadid is a celebrated architect. You have probably read the articles by now: most famous woman architect in history, Pritzker prize winner, forceful character, born in Iraq or possibly, if the journalist hasn't done their research properly, Iran. She has just completed her first school, a powerful, singular object in Brixton, south London, called the Evelyn Grace Academy, it serves Coldharbour Ward which, according to the school's principal, has the highest rate of violent crime in Europe.

As it happens, Hadid's office in Clerkenwell, central London, is in a former school building. It is one of hundreds built in a few years to the designs by Edward Robson, following the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which introduced universal free education. Robson created a basic standard design with simple architectural qualities – light, airiness, durability, good details and proportions – that could be varied and adapted to different sites. His schools became beacons of dignity in areas where there was little, and when some were eventually replaced, their innate qualities meant they converted easily into desirable flats, or design studios like Hadid's.

Both Hadid's work and her business premises are pertinent to the debate going on about the design of schools, prompted by the remarks of the education secretary Michael Gove and the waspish columnist-turned-education-reformer Toby Young. They claim that the last government's £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme was a monstrous waste of money, that architects "creamed off cash which should have been going out to the front line", that "the link between buildings and academic performance is practically zero", that "vainglorious architects" had inflated budgets with "extravagant fantasies."

Gove and Young make important points – that teachers matter more than buildings, and that Building Schools for the Future wasted much money – but spoil it with some gamma minus homework and a seeming delight in being boorish and ignorant. Young resembles a yapping attention-seeker in the back row of form IIIC.

They seem to be saying that it doesn't matter if children are educated in leaky sheds. They have also decided that architects are the main culprits of the failings of the Building Schools for the Future programme, when the main folly of BSF was the last government's grandiose decision to transform every secondary school building in the country, without much assessment whether this was the best way to improve education. It then created absurdly complicated and expensive contractual procedures, in which spending on architectural quality was cut to a minimum, with the result that very many truly terrible school designs were produced. The creaming off was done by contractors, financiers, lawyers and other consultants, not architects, and there was too little design, not too much. "A new loo seat is all very well," guffaws Young, "but does it have to be handcrafted by an Italian artisan? What's wrong with B&Q?", seemingly unaware that the chance of anything being handcrafted under BSF was remote.

Into the midst of this debate sails the stately form of the Evelyn Grace Academy. This is not part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, but is the result of different Labour policy – the creation of state-maintained but independently run schools called academies, whose construction costs would be partly sponsored by businesses and benefactors. If BSF schools were bought in bulk, academies were bespoke. The present government likes the idea of academies, if not their architecture, and wants to make more schools like them.

The academy is one of eight supported by ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), "whose purpose is to transform children's lives". This glamorous charity was set up by Arpad "Arki" Busson, hedge-fund multimillionaire and squire of Uma Thurman. Evelyn Grace is also individually sponsored by another hedge-fund manager, David Gorton. ARK's other schools include the Globe Academy in Southwark, south London, by Amanda Levete.

Peter Walker, principal of Evelyn Grace, stresses old-fashioned discipline and endeavour. Its ethos is to "achieve excellence" in "an industrious, orderly and respectful environment". It has a longer school day than most, from 8.30am to 5pm. It has uniforms – blazers, ties, V-necks – which pupils are expected to keep in good order. As we tour the school he calls children to order for standing in the wrong place or in the wrong way. But the strictness is also tempered: the academy, which will eventually have 1,200 pupils, is subdivided into four "small schools", so that children are not swamped by the vastness of the whole.

And then there is the building. On the breast pocket of the traditional-looking blazers is a traditional-looking shield within which a surprisingly constructivist crest appears, a leaning Z with a dot above it. This is based on the plan of the school which, with the dynamism for which Zaha Hadid Architects always strive, this thrusts diagonally from one side of the site to the other. Playgrounds and sports pitches occupy the spaces between the building and the streets on either side, with a bright red 100m running track stretching from one side to the other, the building bridging it at half way. As a proclamation of alertness to dozy morning arrivals, the track is hard to beat.

More oblique lines stride across the elevations, veering into curves where the building takes corner, and helping mark out the four "small schools". Inside, the building has a basically simple plan, with classrooms on either side of broad corridors, but rendered complex by the architects' irregular geometries and double-height halls serving the small schools at different levels.

The aims of the school and of the architects are not a perfect fit. Hadid's architecture communicates the seriousness and high ambition that Walker claims for his school, but it expresses the intimacy of the "small schools" less well. There's also a conflict between the flying angles and the rectangular shapes that classroom planning and economic construction tend to favour. In places it looks like a standard gridded building to which exotic geometries have been cosmetically applied.

What the building does best, says Walker, is communicate to pupils that "someone is valuing them". It is palpably exceptional, adult and unpatronising. You can tell that dedicated people have tried hard to do something out of the ordinary. It also creates moments of adventure and intrigue, such as the unexpected overlapping of spaces, which counter the potential boredom of big schools.

As to its contribution to the great schools debate, it can be taken as evidence for both sides, or neither. Young would count it among the "extravagant fantasies", as it was neither easy nor especially cheap to build (£36m, with a contractor pulling out in the process). Proponents of design would repeat Peter Walker's argument, that this is a piece of magnificence dedicated to children whose lives don't have much.

The truth is that the Evelyn Grace Academy is a one-off from an age that has already passed, when the City of London's firestorm of wealth threw off sparks of philanthropy to less lucky districts a few miles distant. It is not something that is repeatable for hundreds of new schools, and Young would be right not to hire Hadid or Norman Foster for the free school he is trying to establish.

But it is idiotic to conclude that spaces of learning are unimportant. Even if no connection can be proved between design and exam results, which is subject to debate, children should experience well-made spaces, just as they should experience art and music. The task is how to achieve this without extravagance. The search should be on for a new Edward Robson, an architect who could do this. The aim should be to find an updated version of the London Board Schools.

Gove, Young and the architectural profession should be on the same side. They should stop squabbling, find a bit of Evelyn Grace Academy discipline and work together. And if Arpad Busson wants to spend ARK's resources most effectively he should fund their efforts.


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June 14 2010

Makers versus Sponges

The rumbling debate over whether technology helps or hurts us -- and our kids -- is growing louder. The ever articulate writer, Nicholas Carr, stoked debate with his new book, "The Shallows." (Yes, he believes, Google makes you dumb.) Last Monday, the New York Times worried that technology may be reshaping our brains. Also last week, neurobiologist Steven Pinker weighed in on the New York Times op-ed pages today with a piece that waves away those concerns. (Everything rewires our brains, he notes.) If that seems like too many quick links, the New York Times' Bits blog recaps some of the debate here.

On the education side, the Washington Post took theses questions to the classroom in a piece entitled, "Some educators question if whiteboards, other high-tech tools raise achievement."

I keep wondering why we lump all "technology" into the same basket. By doing so, we ignore the most important distinction of all: whether we are sponges for absorbing other people's ideas, or whether we're making our own.

O'Reilly has long been a champion of the "Maker" movement so perhaps this amounts to singing to the choir. But here's one slice through the technologies organized according to their potential relationship to kids:




















IT Tool: Sponge or Maker? Smart boards in classroom SPONGE: Kids absorb lectures with better graphics Electronic games SPONGE: Kids learn to master rules of the games (and sometimes the content, too) Scratch MAKER: Kids create their own games iPod Touches SPONGE: Kids absorb & interact with presented material iPod Touches with "homemade slides" MAKER: Kids create their own "flashcards" to present on gadget Powerpoint / Keynote / Prezi / Glogster, etc, MAKER: Kids have to pull together materials to create presentations

A Powerpoint (or Keynote) presentation is hardly the height of intellectual achievement. But when we think about how kids interact with ideas and media -- what promotes creativity and learning -- it seems to me we need to focus on whether the gadgets are the means for kids expressing themselves or a way of imprinting someone else's ideas onto their brains.

Of course, a kid doesn't need to make a Prezi presentation to deliver a great and inspiring report. But we live in a world that values flashing lights and cool transitions.

That struck home a few weeks ago when I saw a group of fifth grade students show off a semester's worth of work to their parents and guardians. They had done traditional, glue-and-paper reports on different U.S. states, a project that had extended over about a month as the students gathered information, wrote summaries and clipped out pictures. Then, a week or so before "open house" night, the students were asked to deliver a report on one element in the periodic table using a Keynote presentation.

On the evening the parents and guardians showed up, I saw the same act repeated over and over: students grabbed the arm of their guest and dragged them over to watch their Keynote. They stood by, beaming as the slides clicked through. They had also absorbed a surprising amount of information about their elements, where they were found and why they were located on the periodic table. The students were proud of their state reports, too =- and knew they had worked far longer on them. But at least on this evening, the Keynotes stole the show.

Back in the 1970s, kids who sat glued to the television screen didn't have a choice: we were all just sponges for the stuff broadcast over the airwaves. Today's computer technology lets us choose if we want to be a maker or a sponge. Shouldn't that be starting point when we argue about the role of technology in schools?

Postscript -- Could this be the ultimate "Maker" class? Encouraging engineering in kindergarten.

May 20 2010

Loo with a view

Schools triumph in the RIBA architecture awards – as does a bus drivers' toilet in Dagenham



May 17 2010

Four short links: 17 May 2010

  1. MapReduce and Hadoop Algorithms in Academic Papers -- a collection of such papers, interesting for those who wrangle big data. (via tlockney on delicious)
  2. Facebook and Radical Transparency: A Rant (danah boyd) -- well-argued and well-written piece about what is becoming the tech issue of the year. The key to addressing this problem is not to say “public or private?” but to ask how we can make certain people are 1) informed; 2) have the right to chose; and 3) are consenting without being deceived. I’d be a whole lot less pissed off if people had to opt-in in December. Or if they could’ve retained the right to keep their friends lists, affiliations, interests, likes, and other content as private as they had when they first opted into Facebook. Slowly disintegrating the social context without choice isn’t consent; it’s trickery.
  3. Schooloscope -- interesting new Berg project to help parents make sense of the long and complex reports on British schools produced by the relevant government department. Notable for what it doesn't do (leaderboards), and what it does (the face visualisations). See Matt Webb's description.
  4. Expert Labs Grand Challenges First Results -- they gathered the results of the Office of Science and Technology Policy's call for "Grand Challenges in science and technology that could yield significant breakthroughs in the future". Interesting for all who planning crowdsourcing efforts because there's a detailed and thoughtful summation of lessons learned. And even those in the science and technology communities who might have ready responses would have to acclimate to the huge new idea of being asked for their feedback, as well as the big new idea that they could give feedback using common social networking tools. If there is an area for improvement in our efforts, this is clearly an important one to focus on. Even relatively minor variables like the time of day when a social networking prompt is sent can have significant impact on results, both in terms of the quality of responses, as well as the speed with which they responses are submitted. More significantly, the terse wording and distracted attention environment of social networks can amplify ambiguities in a prompt.

April 22 2010

One way to build a smarter school infrastructure

Ask a hundred kids to draw a picture of “home” and you’ll see some common themes: “home” should be safe, warm, fun, inviting. There should be room to play, to rest, to grow—maybe even to work. And then there will be a million differences, including laugh-out-loud details (bunkbeds on the ceiling?) as well as sweet ones.

Ask a hundred educators to draw a picture of what “school” should be like, and some big common themes will similarly crop up: school should be engaging, have a genuine connections to the real world, should nurture different talents, help kids no matter what their strengths and weaknesses and, of course, be safe.

Ed Fish, president of ePals, spends a lot of his time thinking about that beautiful, shimmering image of school—and then all the puzzle pieces that need to fit together to make it possible. ePals has had some stunning success: it boasts that it is the largest online community of educators and students, delivering mail and other communications services to 600,000 classrooms around the world and 25 million students. (About half of those are in the U.S., Fish says.)

Today ePals said it was teaming up with Microsoft to try to create another puzzle or two piece—namely how to shore up the foundations underlying school email and collaboration technologies. There’s a second element of the deal, too: Microsoft took a minority ownership stake in ePals (less than 10%), making it the second outside investor in the privately held, 14-year old firm. (National Geographic made a similar investment 18 months ago.)

The gist of the deal: ePals will offer Microsoft’s Live@edu mail and calendar services to its far-flung constellation of teachers and users. (Here’s the official release.) In practice, educators won’t see much evidence of the alliance until at least September. Then ePals expects to nudge them to look first at the email applications available through Live@edu, then at the calendar capabilities. By 2011, other web applications should become available, too.


The journalist in me immediately figured that the ePal-Microsoft alliance was another bit of saber rattling between Microsoft and Google. Many educators—both in higher ed and in the K-12 arena--are embracing Google Docs as a nifty way to provide free email, collaborate on documents and share calendars. (Experiences such as those of Bronx middle school principal, James Levy, are compelling.) Even though just about everybody uses Microsoft Word documents, the Redmond company trails Google on the “cool” factor among geek educators.

I’ll confess I’m also suspicious of proclamations that cloud computing is on the verge of transforming public education’s rickety technology infrastructure. At one marvelous elementary school I know, the valiant IT guy wrestles with nine different versions of operating systems sprinkled across a fleet of more than 100 computers, many of which are old enough to register for first grade—not to mention two different networks connected to two independent servers that share less communications than a divorced couple. And did I mention that this IT guy is only scheduled to visit the school twice a week? Stuffing all that complexity in the cloud would be awesome—almost as awesome as the complexity of transferring the management to the cloud in the first place.

Fish, of ePals, understands that kind of problem well. “It’s the small things that kill you,” he agrees—like figuring out how to reset a student’s lost password in a way that doesn’t waste a day or even a week of instructional time.

When Fish ticks off the pieces that he believes are necessary to build that bright and shining picture of education, he starts with giving individual teachers the ability to design (and easily use) “prescriptive policies,” real and workable ways of establishing who can communicate with whom. Teachers need to set the rules: Should a class in Detroit be blogging or emailing a class in Mexico? Should students be able to comment on one another’s work? What should be done to shut down bullying? And what constraints should be on students’ school email accounts when they use them during the after-school hours?

“Those policies have got to be designed to support learning and safety,” Fish says. And teachers have got to have their hands on those knobs, he adds.

Until recently Microsoft had little that could help on this front. Its communications technology for schools was built on its Hotmail product. But 18 months ago, nudged by customers, such as universities that wanted to offer life-long email to alumni, Microsoft migrated its support for education messaging to an Exchange environment, it inherited a more sophisticated dashboard of controls. “Live@Edu was born from that demand,” says Anthony Salcito, vice-president of worldwide education at Microsoft.

“We thought a lot about who was the right cloud partner,” says ePal’s Fish. “We need an ecosystem. It needs to be a sustainable model. Fewer than 10% of school kids have collaborative email accounts—but we think that’s going to explode.”

The education infrastructure may indeed be on the verge of tumultuous change, provoked by those final grains of sand dribbled on top of the existing pile—the financial incentives offered by the Obama administration, wrenching local budget crises and finally that growing agreement about what we want to see happen in schools.

More telling to me than much of the rhetoric surrounding the ePals and Microsoft deal is the personal alliances that have been forged: the ePals board is packed with long-time anti-Microsoft firebrands: former AOL CEO Steve Case, former Lotus CEO Mitch Kapor. Nothing draws erstwhile competitors together like an opportunity. “Even as a competitor, I’ve always been impressed with how Microsoft’s corporate culture embraces others’ technology and approaches,” says Fish, who is also a former AOL executive. (It’s not a total bear hug, however: Microsoft did not get a seat on the ePals’ board.)

I hope ePals and Microsoft are a success. Schools—and teachers—do need great controls to make communications fully a part of the classroom to make that bright and shining picture of schools a reality. I’ve got my version of that picture pinned on my wall. Far more important--so do millions of kids.

January 24 2010

English Heritage issues SOS - save old schools

Conservation watchdog says more historic schools should be refurbished, not demolished

Britain's unprecedented rush to build schools is condemned today as a threat to hundreds of sound and thoughtfully designed buildings from an era when materials were high-quality but cheap.

MPs intend to grill the government's Partnership for Schools team about the ratio of rebuilding in the £20bn programme, which is supposed to see half the money go on restoring historic and often locally popular schools.

Instead, a survey by Building Design magazine has found that 70% of completed projects have been new-build, with timescales under the private finance initiative and similar schemes pushing local councils that way. The government's conservation watchdog English Heritage is up in arms and the culture department is expected to list more schools to shore up their protection.

The alarm is based on "quick-fix" bids from town halls to get public money, which overlook the value of pioneering work by councillors' predecessors.

Two new publications by English Heritage describe the progressive thinking and enlightened architecture which went into school building from the late 19th century onwards. The group has taken the unusual step of backing them with an opinion survey, which finds that 83% of people want old school buildings retained for new use. Almost half - 47% - say that historic schools are more inspiring for pupils and teachers than new ones, and 75% value Victorian and early to mid-20th century examples as local landmarks.

The issue is raising the temperature in local government, with Leeds' ruling coalition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives defending a ward next month where passions are high over the closure and subsequent neglect of Victorian Royal Park school. Nationally, the Conservatives are suggesting links between the new-build bias and overspending and delays in the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Lady Andrews, chair of English Heritage, called the huge school investment programme "unique in scale and vital" but warned: "Local education authorities need to strike the best balance between replacement and refurbishment.

"The latter is often the more environmentally sensitive and effective solution. It uses the assets of the community, minimise requirements for new materials and cut demolition waste. It also helps to reinforce people's sense of belonging and local identity." Tim Byles, the chief executive of Partnership for Schools, the agency responsible for delivering the huge programme, is to be questioned about the new-build imbalance by the Commons' select committee on children, schools and families. He denied that refurbishment was "the poor relation of new-build. We are passionate about making best use of existing buildings and sustainable refurbishment projects." He recommitted the programme to achieving a 50-50 balance on completion. Elain Harwood, English Heritage's architectural historian, said: "We have some wonderful school buildings in this country, many with beautiful architecture and valuable social history. Demolition should be a last resort, and is a loss for us all."

The guidance document highlights successes in the building programme's minority of restoration schemes, such as High Storrs art-deco secondary school in Sheffield. The city council included the original 1930s buildings in the modernised school which has 21st century IT networks and better accessibility for the disabled.


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December 18 2009

Christmas in the Classroom

This is how Ros Asquith, weekly cartoonist for EducationGuardian, has seen school Christmases over the years



November 07 2009

Kingsmead Eyes at the V&A Museum of Childhood

An exhibition of photographs from a dynamic photographic collaboration that will go on display at the V&A Museum of Childhood from 7 November 2009



Video: The Kingsmead Eyes photography exhibition at the Museum of Childhood

In a project led by the photographer Gideon Mendel, pupils from Kingsmead School were given cameras to record what they saw. Their photos offer a child's eye view of family life



February 26 2009

November 09 2008

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