We have a lot to learn from Charlie

19 February 2021

Creating a Co-mission on the Purpose and Future of Education

“I think currently the purpose of education is results and competition. It’s about pushing people to achieve more than others, and I don’t believe that’s what the basis of education should be. Education should be more than being in a classroom setting, being fed lots of information only to put that down on some paper at the end of the year and that be the end of it. Education is a continuous path of learning that is meant to be about preparation, and teaching young people how to live their future lives.” 

Charlie, 14

By Caireen Goddard (Big Change) and Harry Quilter-Pinner (IPPR)

In this incredible 12 months education has become a topic of national interest and debate. The media has reported widely on the realities faced by parents, students, teachers and headteachers, giving them a platform to share their stories and struggles. And the national conversation has played out online. Facebook reports a 40% growth in Gen Zers’ talking about online learning, and The Marsh Family have reached millions by singing out the reality of families locked down and learning at home.

For those of us interested in changing education for the better, herein lies an opportunity. 

As we emerge from the crisis and the nation gets back to school, surely this could be a unique moment to understand what we have all learned about education in the past year and to consider what we want to hold onto, what we must get back to, and what needs a rethink? In the coming months, amidst the very real need to focus on “catching up” and “lost learning”, can we also create the basis for a more fundamental public conversation about our education system? One that could lead to a brighter future for young people.

A chance to ask the big questions

As teachers have had to learn new ways of teaching and children new ways of learning, so parents now understand better how their children learn and the vital role teachers play. We have all been made more aware of how much schools do to provide a social and caring community for children, especially for the most vulnerable. Many headteachers and teachers have gone above and beyond to feed and support families in their local communities. 

And so big questions are raised about key parts of the education system: Do the exams we have now put too much pressure on students and teachers? How could we get the information we need to make sure children are learning without creating the current levels of stress? Are we teaching children the right things? What would we keep about remote learning? What can schools do about the crisis in mental health for young people? Can we fix the injustice of this system, which is failing the young people who need the most help from their schools?

Perhaps the biggest questions of all are the ones that Charlie so eloquently answers: What is the purpose of education? What do we really care about for children? What role should schools play?

If these are the right questions, then our task is to be bold enough to ask them. 

“Whenever I hear people say that “change is hard” I think, yeah, change that nobody wants is really hard. But there are moments in time when there is a confluence of events, when people are not just deeply frustrated with the way the system functions, but what its purpose is.” 

Professor Todd Rose, Co-founder of Populace, Faculty Member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

The back story

For a little over a year, Big Change and IPPR have been working together to scope and plan a new kind of “co-mission” on education. New because it will not be the preserve of the great and the good, but a genuinely collective endeavour between those for whom education matters the most: children and young people, parents, teachers and education leaders, and employers. 

Starting pre-pandemic and throughout 2020, we’ve had hundreds of conversations to shape the initiative. We’ve learnt from different experts, approaches, sectors and geographies and designed an approach that turns the traditional commission model on its head and addresses its limitations. (Over the last decade there have been at least nine commissions in the UK looking to tackle recognised problems in education, yet arguably these problems remain and our education system is largely unchanged.)

What will the co-mission be and do?

The Co-mission on the Purpose and Future of Education will be a national platform for hopeful conversation, insight and action. Running across 5 years and 3 phases, with a plan to launch this summer, it will:

  • Ask and answer the big questions the public cares about
  • Privilege the perspectives and participation of those seldom heard and under-served by the current system
  • Give young people the power to influence and make change
  • Establish a new purpose for education and shape a hopeful vision for the future
  • Learn from and invest in powerful new solutions

The intended outcomes of the co-mission are:

Outcome 1. Increased demand for change in education among the public – diverse “demand-side” voices (youth, parents, educators, employers) are engaged in an ambitious, future-focused public conversation about education

Outcome 2. Tangible impact at different levels of the system through experimentation – from new and expanded learning opportunities for young people, to system structures, in specific places and across the whole country

Outcome 3. The wider education ecosystem is aligned in pursuit of long term change – the co-mission captures the interest of diverse actors, bridging divides, and galvanising key parts of the ecosystem to work together in pursuit of long-term change

Outcome 4. Policy and decision makers are receptive to change and taking action – the co-mission has engaged key local and national decision makers who are willing to take action that can meet shifting public demand

A couple of the challenges (there are many more!)

1. The long/short term balancing act

We are not naive about the challenges of shifting policy or systems. 2021 will be a year of incredible pressure to recover and there may be an overwhelming, completely natural, desire to get back to what’s familiar. In that context it will be challenging to focus on the opportunity and need for longer-term changes, but that is what we believe is required. This is a moment not only to ask what parts of the old world are less important than we thought, but also to go further and challenge the fabric of English schooling, address what isn’t working, and future proof the system. 

We will not ignore opportunities to influence the current (and future) government or to push for short to medium policy changes that we believe can deliver impact. This means understanding and getting alongside existing campaigns and other changemakers (like the work of Rethinking Assessment, Fair Education Alliance, and Foundation for Education Development, the recent call for a royal commission led by Robert Halfon), supporting them where we can and working out where we can partner up to avoid duplication of energy and resources. 

But as we prepare to launch the co-mission, we will also hold onto and push for what we believe is needed and for what is possible, remaining optimistic and hopeful, and refusing to get sucked into short-term thinking or away from our values. 

2. Bridging existing divides 

Both Big Change and IPPR have long-established views on both the problems facing education and the possible responses. Big Change has published research on Reimagining Education Together, its 10 big hopes for education, and in late 2020 this blog and the global insight series a #NewEducationStory. We’ve also backed over 30 early stage projects that are helping make those 10 hopes a reality. Meanwhile, IPPR has published widely on education including recent research on the future of education post Covid-19, preventing youth unemployment and on the future of further education. Likewise, in recent years IPPR has set up and incubated the Difference, Frontline, Think Ahead and the London Progression Collaboration.

However, both our organisations strongly believe that the co-mission must be a reflection of the views and ambitions of young people, teachers and school leaders, parents and employers rather than our own. And in providing this platform for engagement, we hope to not only capture the imagination and interest of the wider public, but also bridge existing divides within the sector. We’re not only talking and listening to supporters, but also to sceptics who have pushed us to think deeply about the reasons why change in the English education system is hard. In framing and positioning the co-mission and delivering its research and participation activity, we will focus not on the questions, evidence or ideas we care about, but on creating space for a balanced and thoughtful debate. One that is interesting to those who think of themselves as either ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ – or indeed neither or both. 

If we fall into age old arguments about “knowledge vs skills” or alienate any set of stakeholders, we will have failed. 

Plans and priorities – the next six months

The co-mission has three phases and we are at the start of Phase 1. In a few short months we have secured strong support from an initial set of strategic partners and funders, and this puts us in a good position to continue with our plans for launching the co-mission publicly in the summer. But we are under no illusions about the task that lies ahead. 

Our fundraising target is significant – £3.5m for Phases 1 and 2, much more for experimentation – so if you would like to support this work, either as an individual or organisation, we’d love to hear from you. Funding long-term system change is a tough ask, but we believe essential in tackling the longstanding challenges education faces. 

There are other opportunities for organisations to get involved. So if what you have read feels exciting, needed, and aligned, and you have either expertise, capacity or other resources to bring to the table, please get in touch or sign up to our newsletter and we will keep you updated with the work. 

Harry Quilter-Pinner, Director of Research and Engagement, IPPR (H.Quilter-Pinner@ippr.org

Caireen Goddard, Director, Network and System Change, Big Change (caireen@big-change.org)

More information

For more on the co-mission design and phases:

See the output from our initial scoping work which sets out the design features of the co-mission and take a look at our proposed model

For background to some of our thinking about changing systems, take a look at:

The work of Donella Meadows, a seminal figure in system dynamics, who argues that there are a range of leverage points for system transformation. All are important but not all are equally powerful. Changing the collective mindsets around the purpose of a system is one of the most high-value leverage points for transformation. 

Perspectives on how and when to pursue systemic change, i.e. because the challenges are ‘stuck’: there has been no significant change in outcomes despite investment over time, and there are challenges that are new, and growing in a way that current systems are not designed to deal with, even if they were expanded, in Building Better Systems.

About Big Change

Big Change wants to see a society where we work together to support all young people to thrive. As a catalyst for change, we:

  • Back the pioneering people and projects leading bold approaches at the frontline of change;
  • Unite a community of supporters to direct funds and energy to the areas of greatest impact;
  • And activate diverse allies as a force for long term system change.

We take a systemic view in all that we do, focusing our efforts on understanding and tackling the root causes of the issues that affect young people and prevent them from reaching their potential. 

Since 2012 Big Change has supported 36 pioneering projects that are leading bold approaches and early interventions across a breadth of areas: from reducing exclusions to improving mental health, transforming youth rehabilitation to creating life changing children’s homes. Our project partners have gone on to unlock more than £45 million in follow-on funding, engage over 700,000 young people, support over 66,000 teachers and adults working with young people, in 574 communities across 30 UK towns and cities.

We have also built a global network of leaders and experts in system transformation, who are working together to understand how change is happening and to act collectively in response.

About IPPR

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is the UK’s leading progressive think tank. We are the only truly national think-tank, with offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Founded in 1988, we use evidence based research and policy development to drive a more prosperous, sustainable and just society. Our work covers all domestic policy priorities, with opportunity for young people consistently at the heart of our mission. Completely independent, we work with leading figures in politics, academia, business and civil society to deliver real impact.

This impact is delivered through 5 streams of activity:

  • Evidence based research
  • Policy development
  • Framing and communicating of ideas
  • Influencing and campaigning 
  • Experimentation through incubation of new organisations