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

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