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Education Innovation Nation blog #2 – A school of the future?

Context

The Cornwallis Academy, part of the Future Schools Trust with it’s excellent Skills Lab, became a ‘second wave’ academy in 2007, with HP as the original sponsor providing a £300k ‘contingency fund’. Kent Local Authority also was a sponsor to ensure they were well-integrated with the community. Kent has a high proportion of grammar schools, meaning roughly the top attaining 25% of students never reach the doors of Cornwallis. It’s a large, impressive but functional looking new building, akin to a company headquarters both inside and out. Constructed for £37m in 2011 on the site of the old school, at the same time as its sister Academy within the Trust was built. The dual-build helped to keep costs down, “two schools for the price of one” David Simons the Academy Principal tells us proudly.

Ethos

Dr Chris Gerry, former Principal and now Advisor, appears to be the original driving force behind the Trust. He has a clear vision about what the future is likely to look like (a more social and collaborative workplace/society), and what young people should learn in order to thrive in it (strong interpersonal skills and self-reliance). He has a reputation for horizon scanning, travelling the world looking for new ideas and research, with a particular interest in the psychology behind learning. Part of this is about engaging, supporting and accelerating learning, for example at Cornwallis KS3 and KS4 is completed in four years instead of five, and Year 11 students are members of the 6th Form. However this is about far more than exam success, with the school currently testing a Yale University model for learning emotional intelligence skills. Students are taught and encouraged to verbalise their feelings, for instance the phrase ‘self-regulation’ is used by staff instead of ‘behaviour’, the latter being seen to imply a judgement whereas the former places the onus back on the child. This is a common theme you pick up from speaking to staff, with the responsibility for learning commonly placed with the students, who are able to earn the freedom to adapt their environment and their learning to suit themselves. This approach clearly requires planning and risk-taking, but the rewards in terms of student engagement were obvious to see.

Teachers

So much radical change must clearly be unsettling at times for both students and staff, though the latter repeatedly used the phrase ‘nurturing community’ to describe the atmosphere. Senior staff explained that teachers initially needed plenty of close support as they ‘re-learnt’ some of the fundamental approaches to teaching, but that once they were comfortable with the new environment and practices, they could be more creative and had more freedom than ever before. There is a constant cycle of snapshot observations (up to two an hour) by senior staff and teachers act as ‘facilitators’ in teams of two or three, teaching groups of up to sixty children. Even junior staff emphasised the long-term, loyal relationships they develop with both the school and each other. David the Principal was promoted up from within the school after joining as Head of IT. Staff also seemed to thrive on the excitement of doing something bold and different, believing in their mission to truly equip their learners for the 21st Century. This was echoed by some of the students I spoke to, who described how jealous their friends from other schools were.

Design thinking

One of the main reasons why Cornwallis is innovative is its approach to the school’s built environment. They are pioneers of ‘plazas’, huge open spaces within the school created by knocking through internal walls. Each year group have their own area like this, which other years cannot enter. These ‘mini-schools’ within the school reminded me of a collegiate university, a smaller and more supportive community, perfect for building confidence. This is echoed by the individual lockers each student has, their own safe place where they can keep their possessions and charge their school-provided laptop. Within these mini-schools the students seemed to have more ‘earned autonomy’ and confidence than I ever remembered from my school days. They seemed free to move around the different environments within each plaza at will, able to sit where they wanted and change the flexible spaces around them (technology, furniture, lighting, blinds etc). I also got the impression that they were proud of their space within this shiny new school.

Research and insight

Another important element of the design thinking behind the school, is the on-going cycle of evaluation and research in order to provide insights that are fed back into the evolving school strategy. Chris has set up a Skills Lab attached to the Trust, conducting in-depth research projects such as an ethnographic study of the different ‘tribes’ within Year 8, a ‘lively’ year. At the moment this mainly involves professional researchers but the plan is to engage staff more and more in this activity, both in developing a Teacher Training toolkit for new joiners and as part of ongoing CPD. Student voice is an important part of this process, with data about student attitudes and emotions built into day-to-day data collection.

Technology

There is clearly a pervasive use of technology across the whole school, with about 8% of the school budget used on the exciting hardware that you see all around you. On arrival you peer through the windows and see banks of ‘video walls’ (think six huge flat screen TV’s connected together and on wheels). Each student is loaned a laptop and each plaza is equipped with a flexible multi-media system for multiple screens, projectors, microphones, speakers and even mood lighting! Everybody has an ID smart card that allows for quick data gathering, access control to both lockers and doors, a cashless purchasing system for food and drink, and follow-me printing to try and save paper. Although there is training on each system staff admitted that students were often the experts, but that the culture of the school allowed them to be open about what they did not know, even asking students for help. However you’d be mistaken to think the technology is the focus at Cornwallis; it took nearly an hour of speaking to staff and students before it was even mentioned. It is clearly just seen as a tool by most, something running in the background. They seem to work with a huge range of suppliers to suit their needs at different times; often developing bespoke systems themselves where those needs are not met. For me the really innovative use of technology was in the ‘back-end’ data gathering and analysis systems. They are building a constantly evolving and rich picture of each student, teacher, year group and school. Their databases include far more than just attainment data, with emotional and social information, resource usage data, and future plans to include social media information like sentiment analysis. They try to present these ‘intelligent metrics’ in usable forms for students, parents, teachers and senior staff – using it to help inform decisions.

Efficiency

Another unique aspect of the Cornwallis model, one that might excite Ministers more than parents, is how efficient it could be. Hundreds of international visitors visit the school each year, learning about how money is saved, space is utilised, tasks are automated, data is analysed and teaching time is freed up. Taken together, the latter three factors can allow teachers to really focus on where they can make the biggest difference. Staff seemed surprised that more visitors from the UK had not done the same.

Challenges

There were clearly a few teething issues with the new building, technology and practices – but these all seemed very minor, just issues for the staff and students to tackle and work around. For instance the issue of personal student profiles, social media and privacy was a delicate and iterative one as staff and students learnt how to behave in this environment, for example when writing on one another’s profile ‘walls’. However senior staff seemed far more concerned with the policy changes around them, feeling that England was taking a step backwards compared to other countries. In particular they felt that the narrowing and raising of what ‘success’ meant would disproportionately impact on their learners, forcing them to do more ‘traditional’ teaching and high-pressure testing in academic subjects, risking higher disengagement. They felt this made a mockery of their supposed ‘new freedoms’. They also referenced the increased pressure from parents and the recession.

Innovation and the future

When asked where they got ideas from, senior staff mentioned the KIPP schools in the States, Knowlesley up in Yorkshire and Project-based-learning approaches. For them the future is blended learning, in and out of school, involving whole families and communities. Finally I asked them who else does what they do, who else is as innovative? They just looked at each other and shrugged.

Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter for education policy news, comment and analysis. All text is solely the opinion of the author. You can also discuss this project on Twitter using #EduInnovNation.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

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