Transforming Schooling in Old Buildings – “New Wine in Old Bottles”

A question that I get asked constantly is “how do we implement change in ordinary ‘factory schooling’ buildings”? Last week I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Cornwallis Academy in Kent in the UK where they are part way through transforming out of the factory schooling model into something much more effective.

Whilst, clearly, there are significant differences between schooling systems in the UK and in other parts of the world, there are many lessons from Cornwallis that are applicable in most countries.

Cornwallis Academy is a large mixed secondary school with 1600 students and is part of a consortium of schools called Future Schools Trust, headed by Chris Gerry.

Results in Cornwallis have improved 16% since 2008 – but the ambitions of Chris, David Simons (Cornwallis’ Principal) and the staff go way beyond getting good academic qualifications. The aim of Cornwallis Academy is for their students to grow up to be happy, fulfilled citizens who can support themselves and contribute to society.

The main drivers for change at Cornwallis were:

  • Developing a work model for students and staff that is representative of the world outside the school
  • Building a team model to share good teaching practice rather than the traditional model of the ‘lonely ‘artisan’ teacher’ 
  • Developing a wider skill set such as social and 21st century skills that are relevant in modern world

These were all built around a relationship driven culture where pupils are part of the learning experience – not just recipients with the teachers in total command of the learning.

‘Attainment’ (i.e. learning performance) and ‘Wellbeing’ are the two main agendas that are used to ensure that students are successful.

  • The ‘Attainment’ agenda aims for 100% pass rate in examinations
  • The ‘Wellbeing’ agenda focuses on emotional intelligence and risk reduction, and recognises that social development helps drive academic success 

An economic model underpins management decisions across the Future Schools Trust consortium. In other words, managing costs and maximising effectiveness of spend are the key management drivers. Through the lense of economics, management at Cornwallis pull three main levers simultaneously:

People

A key aim is to develop more creative teachers through a more modern work environment that breaks the link with traditional approaches and attitudes.

Teachers are required to work in small groups and have choices about how they manage their work.

The school’s management can provide detailed guidance to teachers within this environment if they need to.

They are designing systems that feedback information on performance to both pupils and teachers, and compare performance with averages. Exposing the data in an open way provides “nudges” to performance. There is a focus on improving lesson quality and continuously collecting data on how well pupils are learning.

The school runs a 6 weekly reporting schedule that includes reporting on the development of “soft skills”.  Teaching teams are continuously collecting and reporting lesson data.

Space

Much work has been done to remodel learning spaces within existing buildings and within constrained budgets. Much of this has involved knocking down walls to create bigger spaces and painting – low-budget activities. The aims were to:

  • Impact mood positively
  • Foster group work
  • Provide more space than conventional classrooms
  • Allow some choice of work space
  • Embed technology

The Future Schools Trust has pioneered a new kind of learning space called the “Learning Plaza” – a large space created from knocking down walls between traditional classrooms, or using an existing large space such as an assembly hall.

 

This space was once four separate classrooms. Knocking down walls forces a transformation at relatively low cost.

According to Gerald Haigh,  a UK Education Journalist, “if we believe that transformation involves providing children with a wide range of learning opportunities, among which sitting still and listening to the teacher is one of the least important, then the concept of the ‘Learning Plaza’ immediately looks like an entirely logical solution.

There, children can consult more than one teacher. Teachers can consult each other. Children can work in groups—of any size from two to ninety—or independently, and with their technology to hand.

The figures show that the children who use the Learning Plazas are less likely to be absent from school, and much less likely to be excluded for misbehaviour”.

The Learning Plaza concept – large open spaces, and lots of technology, give staff and students room for creativity and collaboration

A key Change Management principle is “Test Bed Areas”, and through trialling Learning Plazas concept they found that it is 20% cheaper to build schools based on the plaza concept – for a start, there is less brick and mortar going into a new-build school using this approach.

Technology

At Cornwallis, they are not afraid to take the best ideas from the world of business, so they make great use of “Business Intelligence” – BI. This allows them to operate a model driven by measurement.  

Working closely with Microsoft partner lookred, they pioneered the use of CRM (SRM) and predictive analytics to manage student relationships.     

22 different risk areas are identified, and each student has an individual risk profile relating to likely success both at school and beyond. This enables teaching staff to make data-driven interventions, and manage risk. The system is ‘intelligent’ – over time it ‘learns’ which approaches have been most successful. The interventions are informed by the consortium’s work with Yale University on ‘life space’ which looks at how children make life choices and how they might influence these.

Underpinning this, Management Information Systems provide real-time information on how the school is performing.

Technology is used extensively in teaching and learning, with most of the curriculum online now and the intent to have it all online by the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Students and staff have ubiquitous access to devices, and Cornwallis was one of the first schools in the UK to make extensive use of Tablet PCs. The school also runs a “Connected Learning Community” through a Learning Gateway (SharePoint) portal, which provides all stakeholders a unified platform for communication and collaboration.

Students and staff make extensive use of technology, including a Learning Gateway portal

This smart use of technology leads to potential savings across a range of public sector services including welfare, health and law enforcement.

Looking to the Future

 

“Breaking the mould” – where there once were classrooms, there’s now a well used informal learning space, complete with coffee shop

Cornwallis will be moving into a new building in September 2011, with all the advantages of having first trialled new approaches successfully.

In recognition of the lessons that can be learned from the Cornwallis experience, this summer they will host 180 leaders from China who will be there to learn how to bring about transformational change at scale.

Key Lessons from Cornwallis

  1. Economics underpins everything. Financial autonomy is essential.
  2. Leadership training is crucial. You can have all the physical assets you like, but without clear goals and solid management nothing will happen.
  3. Create momentum, and advance on all three fronts – people, space and technology – aggressively and in parallel.
  4. Invest in Test Bed Areas – don’t implement wide scale reform without first trialling it. Start with transforming the model for a single year group.
  5. Focus on the end-user experience. It’s all about building engaging learning experiences around the student, not forcing students to fit the factory model.  

Conclusions

The result of the new approaches at Cornwallis is that learning has speeded up, to the point that the “key stages” – the time taken to progress from one segment of the UK National Curriculum to the next – can be accelerated. The staff at Cornwallis believe that their students could complete Key Stage 3 in 2 years instead of 3; external examinations (GCSE) in 1 year instead of 2; and even university courses in Year 13.  

Whilst I’m totally inspired by what I saw at Cornwallis, I think there is one crucial  piece missing from the jigsaw puzzle – a full shift from a time-based to a performance-based model. This approach is brilliantly articulated by Richard DeLorenzo from the Reinventing Schools Coalition in his book “Delivering on the Promise, and underpins the approach taken by Kunskapsskolan schools. To do this at scale will require “dynamic timetabling”, something that a number of organisations are keen to develop.

Saying that, Cornwallis offer a solid, practical and well thought through model for anyone wishing to make transformational change within hard resource and environmental constraints. What’s more, they generously share their “secret sauce” for the benefit of the wider community.

A Principal for whom I once worked told me that the best way to eat an elephant is “one chunk at a time”. Cornwallis has shown that it’s better to eat 3 chunks  – people, spaces and technology – simultaneously.

Thanks to Chris Gerry; David Simons; Claire Thompson; the staff and students at Cornwallis; Chris Poole and Matthew Woodruff of lookred; Andrew Wild of Manchester City Council; and to my Russian and CEE colleagues, Igor Balandin; Anton Shulzhenko; Alexander Pavlov and Teo Milev, who prompted the visit.

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