The shifting politics behind music education

The reducing allocation of Local Authority funding to support music education has been a long term theme in my blog. However, there was one further aspect of the potential cuts to music education that I didn’t write about in the previous post.  This relates to the relocation of music education to the DCMS and most notably, of course, Arts Council England.

This was something I first wrote about in 2011 in response to some comments made by Marc Jaffrey (the Music Manifesto ‘champion’ – do you remember him, or that?). In his response to the National Plan for Music Education, Marc wrote that:

[…] whether the very shifts outlined above, notably the moving of the Fund allocation process from the DfE to ACE, is symbolic of a distancing of the subject of music from the DfE’s corridors of power? There are those who will comment in the coming days that what I see as a strength is in fact the very opposite. If Gove cares generally about music education as I contest, how specific is that commitment when it comes to maintaining music in schools and in the classroom? (my emphasis)

The potential removal of music education funding from the Education Services Grant (ESG) is, perhaps, the final stage in this process. If it proceeds, music education will have completed its move out of the control of the DfE and into the control of the DCMS/Arts Council England (both organisations with an unsure future). From there, it is too easily sidelined as being part of cultural enrichment or arts provision and not seen as core to the educational entitlement that every child ought to have access to as part of their compulsory schooling.

Whilst the battle to have have Music included in the National Curriculum has been won, although it is a shallow victory given the paucity of the Programme of Study that has been written, the issues about who is required to teach Music and through what means is far from over. It seems very likely that music education will not form part of a Local Authority’s ‘educational service’ for much longer. I fear that if music education is not seen as part of ‘education’ in the future, that this will have many worrying consequences. Can anyone tell me about any other curriculum subject that has been distanced so quickly from the remit of the DfE?


Jon Savage

NB: This was reposted from Jon’s blog ‘supporting innovation in education.’ Read it here.


Further funding cuts for music education: Fight now!

The Department for Education have released a new consultation regarding the Education Services Grant (ESG). Whilst this might not immediately sound like it has anything to do with music education, it most certainly does! The ESG is a grant paid to Local Authorities and academies for the provision of various education services. It is calculated on a per-pupil basis. The services it covers includes music education. In 2012/13, this figure was £14,344,043, the year before it was £17,337,019 and it had been as high as £25m under the previous Government.

The current Government’s proposal is to remove this funding completely from the ESG. You have to go into the fine print of the consultation to find the relevant paragraphs, but here they are from section 4.5 headed Central Support Services:

What does this cover?

This category of expenditure typically funds pupil support and extra-curricular activities. This includes: providing clothing grants; board and lodging grants; outdoor education, including field studies; music services; and visual and performing arts services.

As schools have greater autonomy over how they spend their money and in delivering the curriculum, we believe there is a limited role for local authorities in providing these services. This does not necessarily mean that local authorities should step back completely. They could commission services for schools and charge where appropriate (as exemplified in Section 3.2). Our fieldwork found that authorities were increasingly transferring responsibility for funding these services to schools, particularly on visual and performing arts and outdoor education.

Cumbria’s reported spend on this service is -£10 per pupil because the authority sells some of its central support services (such as its Music Service, two outdoor activity centres and its Learning Support Service) and forecast that, in 2013-14, it will have gained around £10 per pupil (or around £540,000) overall by doing this. The revenue is then reinvested to pay for council overheads, HR and business support services.

Our expectation is that music services should now be funded through music education hubs (which can cover one or more local authority areas) and from school budgets, not from the ESG.

Let’s get a few things straight:

  1. Music education hub funding is already diminishing. It is reducing by 10% per year and has done since the formation of the hubs. In 2010/11 this funding was £82,562,467; it is currently £58,000,000 (for 2014-15);
  2. There has been no funding announced for music education hubs from the 1st April 2015. Arts Council England staff are still unable to give any assurances about funding. My best guess is that it will either be maintained at current levels or continue to fall by 10% per year;
  3. Remember that music education hubs and music services are not the same. For many of the newer hubs such as the Love Music Trust here in Cheshire East, the ACE hub funding is the only source of public money they receive They receive no support from the ESG (although the Local Authority still gets the grant and use it for other things) and have to raise other income through fees and subscriptions, charitable activities and other fund raising;
  4. In those areas where the ESG funds are paid to support music education, it is normally paid to traditional music services (who may or may not be the music education hub). The percentage of these organisations income that this grant represents varies considerably. I have specific figures for this which I can’t share here, but for now it fair to say that this grant is already shrinking in the vast majority of music services that I work with. However, it is still significant and should it be removed would be catastrophic for those music services that currently receive it;
  5. As of today, many traditional music services are already struggling and many have already had to close or at least reconfigure into a private, traded service. Recent examples include Milton Keynes and Gloucestershire. These services were forced to dismantle when the central LA funding (the ESG) was removed. They provide a useful insight into what might happen on a much larger scale should these proposals be carried forward.

There are at least three main consequences and these vary depending on the structure of music education provision in a given area.

If the Government proceeds with its stated desire to remove music education services from the provision of the ESG, there will be a disastrous impact on the work of traditional music services across the country (note, this does not equate to music education hubs which are often different but co-related; second note, it is also unbelievable that Music Mark have, as of today, made no comment or response to this on their website). As we have seen already, when this grant is removed music services have to either close, or reconfigure and cut back on their services significantly. There is normally a massive de-professionalisation of the workforce involved as these changes occur (i.e. put simply, music education is not delivered by qualified teachers any more).

Music education hub funding is diminishing already. For those music education hubs that are closely integrated with their Local Authority and/or music service, the proportion of their income derived from the ESG is probably diminishing already. But to remove it completely would be equally catastrophic to the above and result in redundancies and cuts in provision.

For those music education hubs that are already divorced from their Local Authority, then the reduction in this funding will not have any immediate effect. However, it will weaken their discussions with their respective Local Authority about the provision of services within their area. The DfE document above talked about the ‘selling’ of services that were previously delivered by the Local Authority. This is what some music education hubs are doing. But, despite the high quality offer that they provide, many schools are just not prepared to buy at commercial rates. If we want to provide a high quality music education to our pupils, delivered by appropriately qualified and trained teachers, then music education needs some form of public subsidy through the ESG and music education hub funding.

In any of the above scenarios, the loss of the ESG grant is bad news. I would urge you all to support the ISM campaign to protect music education. Music education should be a core part of every child’s state education. It needs to be taught in a comprehensive, systematic and developmental way by skilful and qualified educators. Sadly, as we have seen in this post and as I’ve reported over the years on this blog, music education provision of this type has been dismantled by this Coalition Government. It is vital that we support the ISM and other organisations and campaign for music education as an integral part of every child’s compulsory schooling. The current situation is a postcode lottery of provision delivered by providers of varying quality. The only way of ensuring that every child has a quality music education is by ensuring that it is supported and funded properly within every primary and secondary school. The staffing, curriculum, assessment, quality assurance, accountability and examination processes that schools work with must ensure that music is not marginalised or disadvantaged in any way (as is currently the case in every area). Funding streams must also be protected (all are currently either reducing – as in the music education hub funding – or under threat completely – as in the Local Authority Education Services Grant).

Whatever Michael Gove has said in the past about music education and its value, he has overseen a dismantling of music education within our schools. He has reduced state funding to a point where music education for many children is completely absence from their state schooling and an expensive optional ‘enrichment’ that their parents can choose (or not) for them to participate in. The National Curriculum has been watered down and is now a meaningless document with no exemplification or support. Many primary school head teachers have chosen to ignore music completely within their curriculum and buy in programmes or support on an occasional basis. He has made no effort to support the training of teachers in an effective way, with primary school trainee teachers still only receiving a few hours of training in their initial teacher education courses. He has crushed the networks of music education based within our universities and their subject communities within local schools. His policies have almost entirely been delivered in a cack-handed and incompetent way.

Out of all the music organisations in this country, the ISM has been the most proactive in campaigning for music education and have enjoyed considerable success. The rest have been next to useless. I would urge you all to support the ISM’s campaign.

Jon Savage

NB: This was reposted from Jon’s blog ‘supporting innovation in education.’ Read it here.


Information literacy empowers? iTEC Investigates

“Information literacy empowers people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals” (Alexandria Proclamation). Information literacy (IL) has been a hot topic among librarians for many years and there is no shortage of models and guidelines to support its use. But do they meet the needs of today’s students? Findings from the Europe-wide iTEC project which ESRI staff are currently evaluating, indicate not.general photos

Comparing the activities conducted during iTEC with those supported by current IL models, I found that there are a number of gaps between existing models and emerging pedagogical practices. The first is a lack of support for creative activities and an emphasis on traditional information sources. While IL models deal almost exclusively with conventional resources, such as books and journals, students in iTEC also engaged in primary research, for example, observing their environment and recording the information they discovered using photographs, video and audio, activities which are not adequately supported by existing IL models.  Students also produced a wider range of outputs than the conventional essay or presentation usually referred to in IL models; classes created games, animations, multimedia stories and physical and digital objects.

future trendsSecondly, IL models are usually presented as a linear sequence, from planning activities, through information discovery to presentation, with relatively little opportunity for adaptation. In contrast, the order in which activities were undertaken in iTEC varied noticeably from class to class. In particular, presentation was frequently not the culmination of a project, but a formative activity which was used to review and revise ideas.

Team working was another important feature of iTEC. While the importance of learning scenarioscollaboration has been recognised as an important feature of modern pedagogy for a number of years, IL models remain focussed on individual skills and endeavours with models referring to, the ‘information literate individual’ and making little or no reference to appropriate methods of sharing information.

I’ve written about my analysis of IL models in more detail here. And I’ve also developed a new model, InFlow, designed to address the gaps described. This is being trialled by MMU Library Services and a number of other libraries. I recently introduced this model to librarians from schools colleges and universities in a workshop at MMU.

learning activitiesDuring the workshop, librarians engaged with various aspects of the iTEC process, including identifying future trends; creating scenarios; and designing learning activities using InFlow. Overall, feedback on the model was highly positive; librarians felt that it offered them greater flexibility and freedom when developing IL programmes. They also felt that it provided a more strategic approach and would allow them to revise and improve their existing sessions, as well as design new learning activities. The fact that the model is simple was another positive feature; it is an approach which could be understood by students who may be able to use it to plan their own research and projects. Some of the participants have even started to implement ideas in their libraries, including a school in Manchester where the librarian is using InFlow to structure a superhero project to help students to learn about religious saints.

Sarah McNicol

Acknowledge the utopianism, the future mundane and other stuff from design

I’m interested in how we in education can climb down from a discourse populated with world class, no excuse and no failure, excellence, good not good enough, gold standard evidence?  It’s not that we should accept low standards but there is a concern that in the same way politicians compete for wearing the hairiest shirt and being the meanest in austere times then there is a similar trend for politicians to demand a particular standard in education with arguably unrealistic conditions and claim that only they are interested in the good of the children, for example,

My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England, standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee-paying independent. (Michael Gove, 2014)

(Not to be outdone or accused as an ‘enemy of promise’, I suggest all two-year olds should participate in an international Battle Royale (see a trailer outlining the policy here) to sort the wheat from the chaff.)

Anyway, as I said in my previous post, I think education can learn a lot from design.

A first step will be to see policy as a solution but also a problem.  At FutureEverything, the ever-wonderful Anab Jain (Superflux) paraphrased Lebbeus Woods in saying “design should not be judged [only?] by the problems it solves but the problems it creates.”  Where Woods talks of ‘design’ I think we could substitute ‘policy’.  Policy makers should look at the world through the same eyes as designers who see that the carefully honed objects they developed have become the bric-a-brac and junk that become landfill and clog our ecosystem.  The English public sector has been subjected to wave after wave of re-disorganisation (Pollitt 2007) and ‘initiativitis’ that clog the arteries of organisations.  Further, no politician seems to fear looking to harsh on education, teachers and teaching unions but low staff morale and stressed pupils ought to be seen as the consequences of national policy.

A second idea would be to consider drawing on the future mundane aesthetic (read about this here), the principles of which are:

1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent – don’t focus on heros but on everyday people because normal people will live in the future.  From this we can extrapolate, not everyone be they a teacher or a pupil can be outstanding or excellent. 50% will be below average.

2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space – the futuristic artifacts of the future, the holographic interfaces etc – will sit along existing technologies. For example, our keys (a very old technology) sit along our smart phones.  From this, we should be aware that the new is layered upon the old.  We cannot begin the world anew and if our concern is only our the shiny gadget we dismiss much of what people are doing when not using, for example, a holographic screwdriver.

3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space – things don’t work. For every technological marvel from tablets to Internet banking there are issues with batteries, connectivity, theft and smudged screens.  Furthermore, the world isn’t divided up as clearly into aseptic utopias bordered by grimy ghettos – something that could be argued against perhaps? – but there is a mixture of the two.

So we should remember that the slick managerial diagrams that outline policy – my favourite is the PSRM below – describe a complex and thorny reality.


In a classic future mundane scenario, see Tom Cruise being annoyed by a broken cereal box:

The future mundane aesthetic emerged in response to unrealistic visions of the future and made the case for the continuity of the present with the future, just as the past is part of the present.  Like design policy should not be developed in relationship to an anti-septic world, or to emphasise and be based around, for example, a particular type of competitive and aspirational child with assertive parents rather than the broad spectrum of children and families that find themselves in England’s schools.

Thirdly and lastly, and I’m not suggesting this as something that should happen (check out my post on design fictions here) but I think there’s something interesting in Rachel Rayns’s Zoe Star project.  Rachel, the artist-in-residence at Raspberry Pi, wanted to create a machine that monitored the health of her garden, the water level in the soil etc, and being a bit creative she decided that the machine should be a little bit different.  So she created Zoe Star.  Zoe is in a relationship with the garden, she monitors the garden and when things are going well she over shares (tweets) on Twitter but when things aren’t going so well she sends direct messages asking for help on Twitter.  We all know people like Zoe.ZoeStar

So what has Zoe Star, a small-scale, garden-monitoring, social media, arts installation got to do with something as apparently robust as PISA or school data management systems?  I’m fully aware that to anyone sold on RCTs and evidence-based teaching anything else is a trivial distraction, a tedious folly and again I’m not suggesting this as a real solution (see my post on design fictions).  Nevertheless, I like the fact that this is a data collection, management and communication system that is in relationship with its object.  I like that it is made of wood.  I like that it’s got a cute name and if someone tried to bully a profession with the readouts from such a machine they would look ridiculous.

I think it’s important not underestimate the importance of the machismo and a shiny veneer in the way people and agendas come to dominate systems.  Post-Snowden we are all wondering how such a thing as the building of a global super-surveillance system could happen?  Finn Brunton (2014) has written about how rooms designed like futuristic sets have been used as part of the seduction of politicians in consenting to widespread snooping,

“In fact, some of the settings against which the historic disclosure of twenty-first-century state surveillance are playing out echo fiction directly and deliberately. The current director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, based the design of the Information Dominance Center for the Army Intelligence and Security Command (the AISC, which he headed prior to his appointment to the NSA) on the bridge of the Enterprise, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.1 DBI Architects (DBIA), the company contracted for this project, have a ‘stealth’ practice that specializes in producing these dramatic environments. They have built spaces for Lockheed Martin, the US National Counterterrorism Center, GeoEye – the satellite imagery business used by Google Maps and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – and the remodelled White House Situation Room. (If you saw the picture of President Obama and the national security team looking on during the raid on the bin Laden compound, you’ve seen DBIA’s work.) Their style is one vast homage to Sir Ken Adam, designer of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove and numerous Bond villain command centres and secret bases; looking through their portfolio, one awaits the arrival of Roger Moore, jogging in and slaying henchmen. These interiors are like love hotel fantasy suites for geopolitical security services. For Alexander, DBIA delivered the sliding doors, gleaming chrome, central command chair, massive viewscreens and all the rest. Screen shot 2014-04-03 at 15.03.10

Naturally this is somewhat hilarious, with the hydraulic-hissing doors and thin science-fictional veneer – those contoured consoles enclose ancient CRT displays, beige keyboards, and database management software. It is also a brilliant bit of political scene-setting. In his time as head of the AISC, Alexander had many people to impress and political battles to win in order to rise to his current position, and bringing them aboard the Enterprise to sit in the captain’s chair helped smooth the way. Alexander is famous, as career political appointees go, for a kind of genial, unflappable charisma, particularly when articulating his steadily growing signals intelligence demands to computer-averse members of the US government and military. Letting his visitors play Captain Picard for a few minutes and watch the action on an updated Strangelovean Big Board was part of that capacity. The Information Dominance Room in Ft Belvoir, Virginia, was – as its name implies – one in a long line of chambers of political seduction, from Talleyrand’s carefully selected statuary to the looming Fascist offices, vast spaces for the theatre of intimidation and submission, parodied by Bertolucci’s The Conformist (emphasis added).”

I think that would be a good way to reverse the centralisation of power in education and the various hierarchies that have been built up in education.  If someone wants to flick a switch and change education for all children, in the state system, across the land they should have to stand next to a wooden box and then make the case for change from there…

James Duggan

How to get from here to excellence?

Another #futr post (see here and here for previous) so adjust your browser if these aren’t to your taste.

Like many, I suppose, I’m frequently astonished by the frequent changes made in education.  Examples of this could be the academisation programme or the repeated tinkering with certification, such as the latest plans to link GCSEs with high-ranking PISA countries (read more about it here).  Although Yong Zhao’s excellent recent blogs should dissuade us (read here, here, here and here), the only game in town appears to be getting England/ the United Kingdom to the tippity-top of the PISA rankings.  Fixed into this competitive view of the world, out-competing the rest of the world is the only acceptable option, as is achieving a world class educational system; so the only question is how do we get there? With anyone complaining, questioning or resisting labelled as the Blob (read more on the Blob here and here).

If not a national educational system compliantly quivering and following lines laid out in Whitehall then what?

Mike Bracken and Russell M Davies gave keynote presentations at FutureEverything.  First off, I love having my prejudices confounded and the very idea that these two men work in the government that I usually think of in terms of a legion of vampire squid with old school ties so I hold my hands up to that.  Together the pair head up the Government Digital Service (GDS), a unit that is tasked with making government digital by default. They were at pains to point out that at an event about THE FUTURE that they were doing basic but important things in re-wiring the Victoriana of government using the Internet. Like others, I’m sure, I usually scan ‘government’ and ‘IT’ and read ‘Universal Credit’ and ‘NHS IT’ ‘FAILURE’.  Yet the GDS has developed a new approach that is producing results:

  • Focus on user needs, not the government’s needs
  • Focus on stuff that matters (e.g., grants of probate)
  • Start on the hard stuff early
  • No more big IT thinking – work with a diverse range of suppliers
  • Making things open and available, it makes things better
  • Don’t write long documents, develop a proto-type
  • Publish (online) don’t send (documents)
  • Measure and share
  • Insource and re-skill
  • Fix the basics and other things become possible

I think the importance of such an approach for education is the likelihood that something that is effective in another domain is applied to education because of, well, the discourse of derision or what works works so make it happen in education (take your pick).  There was much to learn from the GDS’s work in stepping away from the epic scale projects at least until things are better understood and then work up from the pieces that are available.  Such an approach would be all too sensible in health and education, where instead of rapid academisation or ‘what ever the hell is happening to the NHS’ a plan might be to pick a local authority and try it for ten years and see what happens.  Away from the rather mostly apolitical and win-win stuff of organising access to government forms, education is thorny ground of politics and ideology.  Common sense things like measurement and transparency, both of which are clearly good in most circumstances, are curiously problematic in education.  So what are the alternatives?  As I will argue in my next post, I think education has a lot to learn from design.

James Duggan

Setting the European Urban Boundaries Project

Putting together a project involving five European countries working closely with local communities with a history of systematic exclusion, displacement and deprivation is a hard and complex task. It becomes harder when the people involved emphasize the importance of developing bottom-up research, of working not for the communities but with the communities, and of operating in the interstices between micro interactions and macro structures. Though these are the features that make the European Urban Boundaries (EUB) project hard, these are also the ones which make it an exciting challenge for all the people involved. Last week, at ESRI, a group of fourteen people came together to present and discuss their work, their ideas and their doubts about the project. The purpose of the seminar was to be a place of discussion and preparation of the application that will be submitted next June within the European programme Horizon2020. The seminar gathered people from Germany, UK and Portugal, three of the countries that compound the project (Spain and Greece being the other two).

Mônica Mesquita (University of Lisbon), the principal investigator of the project, started by explaining the origins of this project and highlighted the main ideas orienting its construction. The EUB is an European extension of the national Urban Boundaries (UB), a project funded by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia and hosted by the Institute of Education, University of Lisbon. The UB emerged as a result of a long process of socialisation between its principal researcher and two local communities of Costa de Caparica: Bairro (a slum established four generations ago gathering immigrants and Portuguese) and Fishing (a miscellany of fishermen, from north, south, and countryside of the country, using, among others, what is called in Portuguese arte de xávega, a hard and very intuitive fishing technique). The structure of the project had been collectively thought through since 2002 by a movement of people (the Urban Boundaries Movement) sensible to injustice and humanity, though the project itself only started in 2012.

The EUB takes the methodology developed in the national project, and extends it to five European countries. It rests on a critical participatory research approach that brings together local communities, stakeholders, local and national organisations and academia. In particular, research is envisaged to expand the knowledge developed within deprived communities and about the ways in which their sense of identity is shaped. A critical participatory research approach allows all the participants of the project to work together in solidarity in order to address one of the deepest manifestations of crisis in Europe, namely the emergence of communities that live in extremely poor conditions. The research developed is tailor-made in order to address the particularities of each community; multidisciplinary, involving a panoply of expertise and stakeholders; and geographically balanced, comprising three countries from the “south” of Europe and two from the “north”. Overall, the project brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers, technicians, and members of communities from Portugal, UK, Spain, Greece, and Germany, creating opportunities to develop an organic research enterprise in the European context. Local associations of arts, education, and professional classes; non-governmental organizations; architecture ateliers; images producers; art gallery; studies centres; complete the team of the technicians of the project. The same diversity is present in the communities of the European Urban Boundaries: fishing, illegal settlement, refugees, scholars in different environments and at different levels, and Roma.

Rhetta Moran presented the association that will participate and represent the UK local community in the project. RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research, is a Manchester-based human rights organisation working with people, both locally and further afield, who are at risk of having their rights denied. RAPAR works with — and many of them are, or have been — displaced people facing challenges relating to citizenship, housing, deportation, employment, education, personal safety and other problems. In terms of research, RAPAR develops and delivers cutting-edge participatory research and learning opportunities nationally and internationally, ensuring that our work takes place within a context of continual action learning, research and development. RAPAR will also be one of the four transversal technicians of the project – people who operate in more than one of the countries, comprising architects, artists, academics, film directors and editors. Together with CommonWord (, MMU and Manchester Art Gallery, RAPAR will organise a team of technicians that will explore the interstices of education and art when working with local communities. Sahera Parveen (RAPAR), Sophie Gardner (RAPAR), Martin de Mello (Commonword) and Natalie Van Gaalen (MMU) will lead this consortium.

In the afternoon a round table took place to discuss the constitution of the Manchester’s team of transversal technicians. Sahera, Sophie, Martin and Natalie presented their ideas and implementation strategies. There were comments by Liz Jones, the Professor at the institute representing the project, and Hauke Hauke Straehler-Pohl, from Freie University, Berlin, who represents Germany in the project. During the discussion many questions were raised concerning the vicissitudes that a project involving direct work with local communities encompasses. I highlight some that may stimulate some comments:

a) How to work with local communities from a place in the academia?

b) How to conceptualise communities’ problems not as their own problems, but as problems caused by macro dynamics external to those communities?

c) What can local communities teach us about European policies?

d) How to create spaces of dialogue and conflict between people that have been separated from the social fabric and local and global authorities?

e) How to align different local communities, some of them in conflict within themselves, towards a common goal?

f) How to address the issues of communication deriving from the different languages used in the project?

These are some of the questions that we discussed which will be central to our project. We thank all the participants in the seminar for their ideas and discussions. This was revealed to be a very productive day as part of the ongoing construction of the European application. The team will have the next two months to finish the proposal and submit to the European Council. We may not win the grant, as this is a very competitive application, but the pleasure of knowing new people and the possibility to further develop a movement that goes beyond an academic project has already made this work worthwhile.

Alexandre Pais

List of participants

Mônica Mesquita

Hauke  Straehler-Pohl

Rhetta Moran

Sophie Gardner

Sahera Parveen

Danny Mills

Liz Jones

Martin de Mello

Natalie Van Gaalen

Rachel Holmes

Tony Brown

Alexandre Pais

Green Yoni

Manjeet Kaur

Drones will Watch the Watchmen!

Another year, another FutureEverything (read about my last outing here) and another time I sidle up to the cool kids in the school cafeteria, try and fit in, and come back with ideas for how things might be different in education.

This year’s conference theme was ‘Tools for Unknown Futures’ and part of this was exploring the potential of design fictions (read about design fictions here and here). The basic idea is to create scenarios that present provocative but realistic versions of the future or near present that help us rethink where we are and where we are going.  I love the idea of design fictions because I’m not bad at ‘what if?’ but I suck at implementation and delivery. So with little training, time or talent… and late at night… I offer:

Drones will Watch the Watchmen  

Ofsted inspectors have crucial roles in safeguarding standards in the educational system.  Her Majesty’s Inspectors visit schools for short, intense periods and during which they are required to attend to a complex and dynamic school environment, making robust and reliable decisions.  Research that proves it suggests that a lack of sleep impairs performance, especially for professionals with busy lives that involve lots of travelling (read more about it here).  Until the inspectorate, the teachers and the pupils can be replaced entirely by drones [embargoed until 2017], our solution answers that oldest of accountability chestnuts, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And our answer is, of course, Drones will Watch the Watchmen!

DwWtW will pair Ofsted inspectors with two drones that will follow them around, monitoring via quantified-self wearables fitted onto the inspector to monitor vital statistics such as pulse rate, liquid intake and their social media channels. While the inspector is observing the class, the drones will hover by the windows of a classroom barking ‘Here and now, boys, here and now!” to ensure they maintain focus on the task in hand. Then once the day is over the drones will follow the inspector home and use thermal technology to see if inspector gets their 8 hours constitutional rest. Failure to comply will result in the drone singing lullabies before moving to stage two intervention of emitting amplitude modulated microwaves to scramble brain function and cause temporary (8 hours) paralysis.  While one drone is watching if the inspector is definitely getting their 8 hours rest, its partnered drone will do shuttle flies up and down the street reciting the kings and queens of England in revered tones to inspire and educate the neighbourhood’s children.


An artists impression of drone one

DwWtW helps Ofsted meet its current stated priorities and values:

  • Better outcomes: a rested HMI is a happy HMI is a reliable HMI
  • Better inspection and regulation:  oh yes, both of them
  • Better public involvement:  the drones will introduce itself to anyone that asks
  • Better ways of working:  what’s better than a drone?
  • Putting children and learners first:  locating the inspector in second, in third and fourth place the drones, and fifth to thirty-fifth the drone pilots and ground crew… with the teacher in thirty-sixth.
  • Achieving excellence: a reliable HMI produces a world class educational system. FACT!
  • Behaving with integrity:  those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear
  • Valuing people’s differences:  Hello, hej, guten tag, ciao, hola, shalom, aloha, oi oi party boy, nuqneH… – drones will be programmed to say hello in 15 different languages!

AND SCENE!  (I’m not sure how you conclude a design fiction.)

Okay, so this fiction is ridiculous.  No one would suggest that this would take place.  The absurdity, the fiction, however helps us re-think how technology and governmental technologies are being integrated into education and the consequences for the humans involved.  Whether it is testing, data management systems or now CCTV cameras to monitor teaching activity (visit Iris Connect’s website) the imperative to improve things for pupils at all costs and using all devices to hand might take us to places that we don’t necessarily want to go.  So where do we draw the line?  What technologies creating particular transparencies within the system are we happy to exploit?  Who is it okay to observe and surveil?  Who gets to make these decisions?  Who gets to resist them?

James Duggan

Prisoners of The Blob

Toby Young has written a pamphlet ‘Prisoners of The Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything.’ (Click on the image to download the document.)


I like this bit:

“Members of The Blob shouldn’t be thought of as bureaucrats fighting to defend their little patch. Rather, they’re evangelists for a quasi-religious cause, soldiers in a secular crusade that dates back to the Romantic Movement. Often, they don’t realise they’ve been enlisted in this campaign. They imagine that their educational ideas are just plain common sense, backed up by empirical evidence. Of course it’s a bad idea for children to learn Latin verbs – and here’s the ‘research’ to prove it! In this respect, they’re less like the red blancmange in The Blob and more like the innocent townsfolk who’ve been enslaved by the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” (p. 3)

Toby goes on to back up his common sense with research that proves it. I think my favourite bit is this section (pp. 15-17):

“Just Google It

Notwithstanding this, some progressives argue that any time spent on getting children to memorise facts is ‘pointless’ because if they need to retrieve a fact they can just Google it – it’s available at ‘the click of a mouse’, to quote Ian Livingstone.

‘Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,’ says the journalist Justin Webb (emphasis added). ‘The reason is that everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.’

Giles Coren, the restaurant critic of The Times (emphasis added), is even more adamant that all book-learning has been rendered redundant by Google:

What use is any learning at all in an Internet world? What use are books and the ability to read and understand and remember the contents of books when every fact in the world can be on hand in the blink of an eye, literally, right on your Google Glass? What is memory in 2013? What is knowledge?

Let’s gloss over the fact that a child without ‘the ability to read’ wouldn’t be able to decipher the information he or she retrieved. The trouble with thinking that Google can play the role of long-term memory is that it underestimates the amount of working memory we use when searching for something on a computer or an iPhone, thereby making it difficult to think at the same time. According to Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (2013):

We cannot rely on just looking it up, and we cannot outsource memory to Google. This is because we need those facts in our long-term memory to free up space in our working memory. Looking something up on Google uses up that space in our working memory and means we do not have that space available to process the new information or to combine it with other information.

A second problem with the ‘just Google it’ approach is that it neglects the amount of foreknowledge a child needs in order to perform an accurate search. The bottom line is you can only find the fact you’re looking for in a particular subject if you know quite a lot about that subject already. This was a point made by the journalist and broadcaster Libby Purves:

Search engines are fallible, despite their spooky air of omniscience: when you really know an obscure subject, you rapidly notice how shallow it is online. And searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for. A great paradox is that the pre-Internet generation may prove to be uniquely privileged, because having learnt facts once makes us diabolically efficient Internet searchers.

Finally, even if a child at the Webb-Coren Academy (emphasis added) does manage to perform an accurate search, he or she won’t be able to understand the information retrieved without knowing something about the subject already (and that’s assuming they’ve been taught to read). For instance, if you Google ‘space station’ the Wikipedia entry you pull up is only comprehensible if you already know a bit about ‘low Earth orbit’, ‘propulsion’, ‘research platforms’, etc. The child could perform further searches to plug these gaps, but the same problem will just recur, with him or her being condemned to carry on Googling for ever.

In short, Google is no substitute for committing facts to your long-term memory.”


James Duggan