Innovation overcomes/ignores/laughs in the face of constraints

This posting is all about Cramlington Learning Village. It’s a very talked about school, has a high national profile and continues to innovate and think about new ways of doing secondary education, moving away from the strait jacket of  narrowly defined subjects and traditional school layouts and timetabling.  I first visited when I was a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. I was doing a piece of work on the conditions which made schools innovate using new technology.  It was by far the best visit I did.  The deceptively simple question I was asking myself on these visits was ‘why do some schools do more innovation than others?’ and I return to this theme here.

Many features of Cramlington even in 2005 were way beyond what was happening in other schools.  But even though the school employed a team of web designers, flash developers and multimedia producers to create bespoke digital content it was not the innovative use of technology which struck me as most important in what was happening there. It was the way the school had sat down and really thought about what learning was and then taken this deep reflection on learning and embedded it into the design of learning.  Pedagogy at Cramlington was not some kind of half arsed lip service to ‘learning styles’ or an esoteric discourse spoken only by the senior management to justify their existence, it pervaded what teachers in the classrooms actually did.  And the school didn’t do what so many others did and hand pick a few teachers to try out a new initiative. The whole school adopted a strategy, every teacher signed up to the new methods and there were no excuses or exceptions.  All too often innovation in schools fizzles out because it gets stuck in a perpetual pilot phase which shows promising results, but there are too many excuses (from both teachers and management) which kill the kind of widespread adoption which would really make the difference

Recently I’ve come back in contact with Cramlington as Ken Brechin Assitant Head Teacher presented on IRIS Connect at BETT and also at the recent Whole Education conference in Newcastle.  Mark Lovatt the Deputy Head gave a keynote at the Newcastle event and spoke about a week long learning event with the theme of ‘Living Cities’ which was taking place in the junior learning village at the school.  The event was ambitious in many ways, not least because all of the students were able to choose which workshops to attend from a wide range of possibilities covering many aspects of modern cities.  This necessitated an online sign up system and the kind of potential for uncertainty in school management terms which would have many school leaders cowering in their office behind a copy of the TES. You can see the cover it live stream for the living cities event here.

When people like Ken Brechin and Mark Lovatt speak of their work at Cramlington they talk authoritatively and with passion about their efforts to make learning environments the best they can possibly be.  They show an endless striving to improve things, and as Ken Brechin mentions, a desire to not settle for ‘what’s just OK’.  If I was returning to my research of 2005 I would certainly add this tenacity and ceaseless focus into the list of traits of an innovative school.

A final thing I noted from my renewal of contact with Cramlington was easy to miss. Missable because it was an absence rather than a presence, but it may just be the most important feature of the successful formula which has promoted innovation there.  It is the absence of any kind of bemoaning of constraints which might hamper innovation. Mark Lovatt, speaking for 25 minutes, never once mentioned the current political climate in education in England where an old school (literally) Dickensian/pantomime villain/luddite Tory Education Minister is  intent on dragging schools kicking and screaming back to the teaching of hard facts, threatening to destroy any innovative practices which encourage creativity, critical thinking and the authentic use of digital tools.  Mark Lovatt never spoke of the constraints of the National Curriculum or the demands of Ofsted and when Ken Brechin presented about IRIS and the CPD and lesson observation in the school he didn’t either.  The talk instead was about how to solve immediate practical problems, how to optimise resources within the school to make learning events as successful as possible and how to make the next learning event even better than the one currently underway.

It’s not that Cramlington does not face the same challenges as other schools; they don’t exist in a foreign jurisdiction and are subject to nearly all of the constraints of any other state funded school. It’s the way the school and its leaders choose to think about these external pressures which is important.   The ‘Living Cities’  learning event will no doubt have been mapped to the National Curriculum assiduously, Ofsted have consistently rated Cramlington as outstanding, and as for Gove, I get the feeling that the school is just to busy getting on with doing education in new ways to worry too much about political posturing in Westminster. If Gove wants a ‘back to facts’ and Latin in the afternoon agenda to satisfy the blue rinse  and Bufton Tufton brigade at the Tory conference who want to see a return to the kind of schooling they had at their grammar schools then so what?  Gove doesn’t scare Cramlington in any way shape or form; he is not helping them, but he does not appear as a threat to them, and if he did turn up at their reception one day demanding to know how they had spent the tax-payer’s money for the good of the young people in that part of the North East of England,  I am sure they could lead him quickly to lots of young people who could talk passionately about their experiences of schooling and if he did press them on what facts they had learned, I am sure he would not be disappointed. By the way if you’re reading this Mr Gove, I’m often in Surrey and live in the North, so I’d be happy to drive you up to the school for the visit, there’s a cafe on the A1 near Newark which does great bacon sandwiches and you can get receipts too 🙂

There is much to learn from Cramlington and perhaps the most important is that if a school wants to innovate, it should shut out the external noise from Central Government, the Local Authority and any other external bodies and focus solely on the goal it sets itself. This focus, rather than agonised hand wringing about what exactly the secretary of state for education is doing, should ensure innovation really takes root.

One thought on “Innovation overcomes/ignores/laughs in the face of constraints

  1. Great blog. Cramlington are such an inspiring school, always looking for new ways to engage their students and continuously innovate and develop their learning environment.

    Thanks for the mention of IRIS Connect, Cramlington are fantastic users of the system…yet another accolade to their supportive environment not only for students but for teachers too!

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