How to Change Education from the Ground Up


Recently I attend a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, it was focused on the current education system and how it should be changed to make it more suitable for the 21st century. I was drawn to this event for two reasons, one because of the big influence his previous RSA talk had on the London Youth Involvement Project during its middle phase.

Secondly it was the chance to look at the education system from a different point of view, we often focus on trying to change education from a national level but this talk was looking at how it should be built up from the ground up rather than a top down approach.

Sir Ken Robinson started by saying that the government is too focused on getting as many children into the top universities, this leads to confusion around intelligence and academic capability. This aspiration is false, we can’t all go to university and many people do not want to, it’s then drilled into you that if you don’t go to university you’re a waste. We should support young people to explore different aspirations at school not just ones that boost school league tables.

Due to the nature of politics, elected officials have a very short time to see change and often only care about what can be achieved in their terms of office. This means they can be quite resistant to change, so that is why it’s vital that WE do things differently so they follow us.

He also touched on the fact that we focus on STEM principles at school but this leaves other areas neglected and we should focus on Economics, Culture, Social and Participation. This really struck a chord with me as we often argue for a more rounded approach to education, especially in the drugs and alcohol field.

The main focus of the talk was the support and respect we need to give to teachers, if we empowering them and stop this system of ‘factory working’ for tests then we won’t waste all this potential of young people.

The quality of teaching and learning – that’s what matters, structure is much less important; central government is too focused on bureaucracy of schools and buildings rather than the quality of lessons.

I did not agree with everything that Sir Ken Robinson said but I thought it was an interesting take on education and I am fully supportive of the focus on quality of lessons. At Mentor we have focused on schools and teachers but maybe now is the time to build up a host of quality lessons on drugs and alcohol that we can deliver in schools.

An emerging movement around evidence based education

While we will continue to be baffled about the current liaise faire approach that Ministers have to health education I can’t help admire the speed at which they are trying to advanced the cause of evidence based education.

The latest example is that the DfE have commissioned two new Randomised Controlled Trials of programmes – one for maths and science the other looking at a child protection assessment tool.

Michael Gove says:

We need more hard evidence in the education debate. We also need to develop a better understanding of what counts as effective social work. Randomised controlled trials offer us the opportunity to establish which policies genuinely help children. I am delighted the DfE is embracing a more rigorous approach towards evidence.

The question for me then is whether the prevention field has already got a head start in this field – in that there is a history of running school interventions with RCTs and in producing metareviews of those trials – and whether that might be a way of engaging the Secretary of State in seeing the benefit of the field to educational and health outcomes?

But it isn’t just the Secretary of State for Education who has embraced this agenda it seems to me that there are many enthusiasts amongst teachers and school leaders as well – for example this LinkedIn group has a couple of hundred members, while this conference in September is likely to be oversubscribed many times over.

A final thought, this time from Tim Harford, who writes for the Financial Times and presents for Radio 4, who on his blog, The Undercover Economist, argues that it would be wrong to see this movement as a one way street.  Talking about how research and practice are not mutually exclusive he argues:

In short, evidence-based practice in medicine isn’t a case of doctors, brainwashed into believing whatever clinical trials tell them, passively awaiting instructions. It’s a two-way street, where some of the best ideas for research are suggested by practitioners, and best practice spreads sideways from clinician to clinician rather than being handed down by diktat…
One can see why Dr Goldacre calls this a “prize”. Teachers are better placed than anybody to generate new research questions, based on years of observation of subtleties that would escape any educational statistician.

This seems right to me and fits, I think, with the model of programme development that is set out in the EMCDDA’s standards for drug prevention which talks about justifying the need for an intervention, understanding the target population and tailoring it to the needs of that population – all things where research and practice need to be working hand in hand.

Teenage Alcohol Use and Educational Attainment

A few days ago I wrote about the links between substance misuse and other risky behaviours and educational outcomes pointing to US research which suggests that the correlations are clear even if the causation isn’t.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be able to attend a conference organised by the Cohort and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources programme about alcohol use by young people and young adults.

As the organiser’s name suggests the focus was on what some of the longitudinal data tells about the outcomes for young people who use alcohol.

I’m sure that CLOSER will share all the presentations but I want to focus on a paper that formed the basis of the first presentation, by Dr Jeremy Staff of Penn State University, who looked at what we can learn about the educational outcomes of young people who use alcohol. Continue reading