No 7: Breaking the monopolies that control the way schools are designed

I’ve been following the Political Innovation project quite closely over the last month or so and the innovation that I would like to propose represents a synthesis of many of the other ideas in this series.

I work in the field of Education and in particular School Design. With a decade of significant financial investment by government (and emotional investment from teachers and parents) there’s a pressing need to ensure all of that energy and ambition is not driven out of the system by this summer’s BSF cuts.Of course money is a huge issue. But thinking about education in this current climate is arguably more valuable. What is needed to unlock a small-c conservative education system is a mixture of creativity, participation and a focus on what works. The spontaneity of parents, teachers and communities can be mined in new ways to ensure we are getting the best out of limited resources. We need a National Clearing House for Schools that shares real time knowledge about what works, – one that uses clever information tools to pool the wisdom of grassroots professionals.

For too long, public policymaking has been a top-down process that has been monopolised and codified too tightly. Not all of the great ideas we hear about are expensive in cash terms – but the potential value of many of them is huge.

How do we do this? Well, take Ivo Gormley’s idea on making short documentaries about the impacts of social policy. This has an obvious application at the grassroots level to education and school design. Similarly, Lauren Currie’s ideas around how you can involve everybody – not just the self-selecting active citizens – to participate in decisions around the future direction of schooling.

In the public sector, there is a real cultural resistance in being forthcoming and conversational about these issues. A small number of QUANGOs are still (even now!) licensed to manage such work, and they have a track record of imposing rigidly defined methods and of stifling innovative thinking.

Tim Davies’ idea on building a consensus among public sector management that interactivity is a good thing, really needs to be promoted among the staff in local government who deal with education policy – and a clear message needs to be sent to QUANGOs such as Partnerships for Schools – telling them that frankness will be rewarded and not punished.

Dominic Campbell’s idea on making procurement a great deal more interactive – a process that could and should involve teachers, parents and local communities – can ensure that a more energy goes straight to the front line where it is needed and ensuring that procurement isn’t a wasteful dialogue between detached professionals or a budget-maximising private sector.

The National Clearing House for Schools builds on this and has already been hugely successful in the US through websites such as Edutopia (funded by the George Lucas Foundation) and the National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities (a more techie site – literally about the nuts and bolts of school buildings).

As David Hargreaves said in ‘Education Epidemic’ – we need to create meaningful engagement amongst professionals using the latest peer to peer technology. Our proposed Clearing House would provide a collaborative resource to every parent and organisation that participates in the management and development of a school and be made available in an open source way to all local government professionals teachers and pupil – so that they can own the ways the education system and schools are specified, bought and delivered.

All of this needs to be politically-driven. It’s not an expensive idea, but it has an obvious appeal to all sides of the political spectrum.

About Ian Fordham

Ian Fordham is Deputy Director of the British Council for School Environments and co-founder of the education and design think tank The Centre for School Design.
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