Saturday, 17 September 2005

Never mind the Unteachables, there are no Unlearnables...

I wrote this for my Guardian Column in Autumn 2005. At this point (2009) little has changed


I'm chair of trustees of a new charity, TheCademy, which, amongst other things, looks after the remarkable Notschool.net project which I have been something of a father too since its inception in the 1990s. The project uses home computers to connect learners into a vibrant learning community with hundreds of mentors and experts all around the world stimulating and leading learning. It is no more expensive than traditional learning in brick and mortar schools and works spectacularly well. The catch is that to get into Notschool you need first to be excluded from school by circumstances or by behaviour. We call our learners "researchers" because this is assuredly NOT school and because we learn so much from them about designing effective learning. For most of our researchers the project is a last chance to build self esteem and progress. They grab it.

At the launch of the new charity some of Notschool's alumnii spoke about how the project had quite literally turned their lives around. They spoke convincingly of the way that a personalised learning agenda, with mentors and peers who valued them as individuals, had unlocked their passion for learning and demolished most of the barriers that had stood in their way. The learner centric curriculum that emerged under their guidance contained a lot of science, maths, narrative, new media and much else that is conventional and important, but it also contained Wrestling, Electronics, very high levels of ICT capability and Chinese rather than French as a modern language. When one of the Notschool alumnii fielded a question about their preference for Chinese, she replied in fluent Chinese; you could hear jaws dropping to the ground all around the launch guests. The young researchers said little about their backgrounds but lots about their passion for learning. Guests had tears in their eyes, but PGCE students present had a host of hard nosed questions: "what advice would you give to a teacher about what NOT to do in conventional school?"

Notschool has been lauded everywhere from Prime Ministerial speeches to White Papers. In the five years that it has been functioning it has moved from a rather maverick project, only allowed to exist because the children it focussed on had been failed by everything else, to a really radical alternative that has so much to offer to conventional learning about the role of respect, families, personalisation and engagement, all hot items in the current education agenda. Perhaps the fact that there is a vigorous Notschool cohort in Bolton, Education Minister Ruth Kelly's constituency, is significant!

But here is the problem: Notschool works, it is cost effective, is incredibly complex, is scaleable and is currently rolling out to even more LEAs. But because it is NOT school it doesn't fit very well into the current DfES structures (who should be responsible for it?), and of course in a world where the money now goes directly to the very schools that our researchers have either fled or been bannished from, getting their money back from schools is not trivial. The new Education White Paper welcomes a new diversity of approaches, with the doors open to a host of new learning institutions. I heartily applaud it. However, what we learn from Notschool is that building the freedom for really radical and effective new solutions to emerge is not easy. My biggest worry is that the new freedoms will lead to a few scandalous and naively simple "high-tech hi schools" run by some of the escapees from the dot-com collapse, rather than the really radical, complex, effective alternatives that we need to evolve.

Notschool shows that all children can learn, and love to learn. Like me you were probably aghast at the recent Unteachables TV series. How anyone can label a child as "Unteachable" and then exclude them is completely beyond my comprehension. Tha is about as damaging as it gets. What Notschool shows us is that, never mind the Unteachables, there are no Unlearnables at all, and we need more variety, with some really fresh thinking, to prove it. I'm just starting a series of TV programmes with old East End teaching colleague Stephen Hoare that will, I hope, show what is possible.


© Stephen Heppell 2005

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