Restart Project fixing our broken (relationship with) electronics

Last night I went to a new year party held by the social enterprise the Restart Project and heard about their achievements over the past year and plans for the future.

restart_logo_complete_black1

I’ve previously met Restart’s founders, Janet Gunter and Ugo Vallauri to hear about their work and to explore common interests and opportunities to work together. They are hugely impressive individuals with a clear purpose and a passion that is infectious.

Restart is based on a simple premise – that our relationship with electronics is broken and we need to fix it. Whether it’s the latest must-have iPhone or broken bits of computers that fill our cupboards and drawers, it’s clear that we are, as a society, buying a lot of electronic equipment…without thinking very much about what happens to the ‘old stuff’. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and it’s costing a huge amount of money to dispose of redundant tech.

What the Restart Project does is encourage and empower people to use their electronics for longer by sharing repair and maintenance skills. They hold events – Restart Parties – where people are invited to bring their electronic equipment to be repaired by a team of enthusiastic volunteer repairers. Those turning up are taught new skills and encouraged to extend the lifespan of electronic devices and divert them from going into waste.

The project clearly offers so benefits on so many levels. It brings people together to interact, meet, talk and do things together, building social capital within communities. It helps people to learn new practical skills that can be used to save money and time. Among younger people ‘getting your hands dirty’ with electronics could easily lead to opening minds – and doors – to career opportunities in computing and coding or engineering; industries that the UK needs to continue to grow the availability of skilled labour in. And of course, Restart delivers on its primary purpose – to prolong the lifespan of electronic equipment, which saves people money and might just save the planet.

Everything about Restart inspires and excites me: the combination of social, economic and environmental benefits is clear and the potential huge.

I can also see the potential for technology to be redistributed to those who may not have access to even older equipment. I can remember back in the 90s taking donations of computers from companies and spending hours on end formatting old PCs and installing basic software on them to then distribute them to homelessness charities and groups.

Even though I do – I must confess – like to upgrade my phone and computer(s) every few years, I always try and find a home for the old kit. The emergence of the resale market for mobile phones over the last few years is an example of how much opportunity there is for us to make better use of old electronics.

IKEA’s head of sustainability recently suggested that we had reached ‘peak stuff’ and that consumers’ appetite for buying home furnishings had reached saturation point. If we want more new stuff, I’d suggest we need to think more about what happens to the old stuff….the Restart Project might just be the answer.

Time flies…

LinkedIn tells me it’s been three years since I started working on the project management to set up the Archer Academy. It must be about four years then since a raggle-taggle group of parents first met to discuss how we could get our local schools and our local authority to address a chronic shortage of local comprehensive education.

We didn’t know each other, knew little about the finer workings of the education system and had no desire or intention of setting up a school.

Our hand was somewhat forced by the realisation that: a) no one was willing or able to give us what we wanted and b) that there was huge local support for a local school for local children.

We became reluctant free schoolers and the Archer Academy was born.

the archer academy

We’ve come a long way in a short space of time and it’s incredible to think that the school has become a feature of local life in East Finchley so quickly. It’s just there. Part of our community landscape.

We’ve protected a community asset from development – ensuring that it will benefit local people in perpetuity rather than being turned into houses or flats. Creating fantastic new sport and recreation facilities that in just a few weeks local people will be able to use. I can’t wait for my first game of football on our new pitch!the Archer

And my eldest child will start school in September too – along with 149 other children from our local primary schools.

Regardless of controversy and debate about free schools – and I remain sceptical about the policy overall – I am proud of what we have achieved in establishing the Archer Academy. I have no doubt that is has helped to address unmet need in local educational provision that thousands of children will benefit from over the years ahead. But more than that, it has strengthened our community and generated significant social value.

Connections have been made within the community – bridging and bonding – which did not exist before. High quality sport and leisure facilities have been created which are open for community use outside of school hours and in numerous ways the school community – our students, parents, staff and governors – are contributing to local community life. Whether it’s collecting clothes for local refugees, or performing at the East Finchley Festival. We are working in partnership with numerous local businesses, charities and community groups – special mentions here for the ever wonderful GLH and Dan & De Carlo’s – to, in the words of D&D’s Danny Gates “…create one big family within the local community.”

local schools for local kids

Three years. It feels like a lifetime. Time flies…

From dream to reality

Yesterday the Governors of the Archer Academy held our last meeting of the academic year at our new premises in Stanley Road. It was a poignant moment to tour the fantastic new site and see the wonderful teaching spaces and the sports facilities that have replaced the disused playing fields and warehouse stores that were there before.

It was amazing to remember that this time three years ago the Department for Education had just given us approval to proceed to opening. We had no staff, no site and no students – just a vision and a firm belief that a local school for local children would benefit the entire community.

Now we have close to 100 staff, not one but two fabulous sites and an Ofsted report that recognised the excellent progress we have made and the solid foundations we have for the future.

We’ve been open less than two years but it feels, from my point of view at least, that the school has already become firmly established in the fabric of the local community. And when our Stanley Road site opens its doors in September to our students and to the local community I have no doubt that it will embed the Archer further still into the heart of East Finchley.

Given that one of tenets of our founding vision is based on engaging with our community – contributing to creating and sustaining an inclusive, thriving local area – this is extremely important to me and the other governors. Stanley Road is a wonderful example of how the school can add to the local area through the provision of new sports and leisure facilities. A derelict piece of land – what had once been a playing field but frequented solely by dog walkers in recent years – was transformed into an all-weather sports pitch, a sports hall with an climbing wall (fully accessible to enable disabled people to use it), rehearsal space, recording studio and a range of other community facilities. These will be available to the local community outside of school hours. Judging by the interest from local sports clubs and community groups there should be no shortage of local use.

The site is protected for community use in perpetuity – and this is something we have written into the agreements with the council and Sport England (as part of the site was – at least in theory – designated playing fields).

Looking at the architect’s impressions and ‘fly-through’ of the building which were produced around two years ago…

…it’s incredible to now be able to work around the building and the grounds and see it finished.

The dream has become a reality.

Free School with 17 pupils highlights DfE shortcomings

News emerged on Friday that a new free school in Brixton has opened with just 17 of the 120 pupils they planned to take. The Trinity Academy has opened its doors to year 7 (11 year olds) on a site that the Department for Education purchased for £18m but the planned admissions have not materialised. Clearly the school has satisfied DfE that it will be viable in the long term, but the affair lends more weight to criticism of the government’s free schools programme.

I can see free schools as potential options where local provision is inadequate – whether that’s due to the poor quality of available provision or because of a lack of places. And there are certainly parts of the country which have schools that are performing poorly or too few places (or too few places in the sort of schools that parents want). Where provision is good and places are available in line with parental demand there should be no grounds for justifying huge amounts of public money on opening new schools. That is precisely what free school critics have argued, and with some justification.

The situation in Lambeth is worth looking at. In terms of performance, Lambeth’s schools achieved well above national averages in the proportion of pupils making expected progress in English and maths and in GCSE results.

 % of pupils making expected progress % of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs % achieving A*-C in English and maths GCSE
English Maths 2013
England – state funded schools only 70.4% 70.8% 60.6% 61.3%
Lambeth 76.6% 78.8% 65.9% 67.2%

 

Of the 14 mainstream secondary schools in Lambeth with Ofsted inspection reports available, four are rated ‘outstanding’, eight ‘good’ and two are rated ‘satisfactory’. [Under the new Ofsted inspection framework ‘satisfactory’ has been replaced by ‘requires improvement’, but the assessments in Lambeth were carried out under the old regime].

 

With 85% of state-funded secondary schools rated good or better, Lambeth’s figures compare well with national figures, which, before the introduction of the new Ofsted framework was 79% receiving the top two ratings. Whilst a borough-wide perspective can mask local options to parents, it’s hard to suggest that local provision is inadequate.

 

The situation is compounded by the fact that figures from Lambeth Council, where the school is located, show that there is a surplus of secondary school places in the Borough. Figures suggest the Borough will have a surplus of 226 secondary school places this year.

So, both in terms of available places and the quality of provision, there appears to be no need for a free school to open in the area. The lack of take up by parents appears to back this up.

Which begs the question, why was this application to open a new free school ever allowed to progress?

DfE is supposed to ensure that free school applications can evidence sufficient demand for their proposals. At the Archer Academy, we had over 1,100 local parents expressing interest in sending their children to our school and we received 350 applications in our first year (for 150 places). Trinity Academy apparently received 90 applications for 120 places. This information would have been known back in December 2013 and DfE should have moved quickly to avoid this situation from arising. Having a small number of spare places is one thing, but to have 85% of places untaken is unacceptable.

We’ve had far too many of these free school fiascos. Until DfE introduces sufficient checks to ensure situations like this are not allowed to happen, it will be hard to argue that free schools are a credible option for addressing a lack of local provision.

Free schools are not a panacea to all our educational challenges and the sooner DfE wakes up to this, the better.

 

[1] http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/schools/performance/group.pl?qtype=LA&no=208&superview=sec

Young People & Technology

Preparing young people for a constantly changing 21st century labour market is a core part of the Archer Academy’s vision and ethos. We recognise that whilst traditional approaches to teaching and learning might have been adequate for the way things used to be, but they aren’t going to work in the future, if we want to compete in the global economy of the future. So we’ve built a strong emphasis on developing creative and critical thinking skills into our curriculum and offer a range of enrichment opportunities designed to inspire young people and support employability from age 11 onwards. One important part of this focusses on technology.

Despite the huge amount of tech-focussed stuff going on in the UK (and particularly in London, where we’re based) we’ve found it hard to know where to go, who to talk to and who can help us offer exciting, engaging and appropriate ways of engaging our students with technology. So, as my stock response to this type of challenge, I took to social media seeking the advice of my well-informed and well-connected networks to see what help they could offer. The response was fantastic. So I thought I would share the insight and wisdom offered to me, in the hope of helping others with similar challenges, to cut through the fluff. Here’s what I was got back…

I also got a lot of personal contacts, people sharing my request for help, passing it on to others and people offering support – which is amazing – but I’ve not posted them here as I wasn’t sure they’d appreciate being offered out as a source of support to anyone reading this blog. But I wanted to mention it as individuals who are prepared to help very definitely part of the story!

I’m sure this is a far from definitive list of groups and organisations interested in supporting young people to engage with technology in interesting, creative and inspiring ways…so feel free to add more suggestions to the list (post a comment and I’ll add any suggestions to the list).

I’ll try and let you know how we get on at the school – we did have a very good coding club (and no, it wasn’t called that Warren…it was a Minecraft Club but it was all about coding!) last term but we want to do much much more. And I hope that we’ll get some of the students sharing their experience on the topic too – I’ll be helping them set up their own students blog in a couple of weeks.

Thanks to all of you who offered ideas and insights. This post proves yet again the power of social media!

Links to tech and young people orgs [nb not all of these are doing work in schools or specifically with young people…but might still be relevant]

Make Things Do Stuff – http://makethingsdostuff.co.uk/get-involved

Facebook policy team – https://vimeo.com/68735668

Young Rewired State – https://youngrewiredstate.org

Mozilla Foundation – http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/foundation/

Apps for Good – http://www.appsforgood.org/

Audioboo Teach Computing Podcast http://audioboo.fm

STEM Clubs – http://www.stemclubs.net/

Coderdojo – http://coderdojo.com/

Code Club – https://www.codeclub.org.uk/

Fire Tech Campwww.firetechcamp.com

Technology will save us – http://technologywillsaveus.org/

Treehouse – http://teamtreehouse.com/

Code Academy – http://www.codecademy.com/

Suffolk Creative Computing Club – http://creativecomputingclubsuffolk.blogspot.co.uk/

Khan Academy – https://www.khanacademy.org/

The Hour of Code – http://code.org/

Kano http://www.kano.me/

Raspberry Pi Starter Kit – Pimoroni http://shop.pimoroni.com

Little Miss Geek http://littlemissgeek.com

Does Labour’s response to Al-Madinah offers signs of an education policy?

Newly appointed Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, had a first opportunity to get his teeth into his new brief, with the furore about the Al-Madinah free school’s damning Ofsted inspection. So it was interesting to hear how he responded and whether the reported shift in policy from his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, was in evidence.

Twigg had previously said he would stop any new free schools being opened, but would support parent-led academies (whatever they are). I listened closely to Hunt being interviewed about the Al-Madinah inspection to see if there were any shifts in policy, however subtle. What Hunt seemed to be saying was that free schools might be okay, if they were de-politicised and the “ideology removed” from them. He reaffirmed what Stephen Twigg had said about wanting to support parent-led academies and supporting parents who wanted to get more involved in their children’s schools. He then went on to say that what this meant in practice really boiled down to three fundamental concerns about free schools:

1)      That they should only be set up in areas of demand

2)      That they should only employ qualified teachers

3)      They must be transparent and accountable, particularly in relation to their finances.

I have to say I agree with him on all three points and my own experience with the Archer Academy has followed all of these principles.

That free schools (or indeed any school) should only open in areas where we need them, seems quite obvious, but it does get complicated when you start to unpick it. We do have a massive shortage of school places, so a great many areas are in need. But it also reflects the impossible job of local authorities, who have a statutory duty to provide education for children, but find they have diminishing  control and influence over the schools in their area. This applies to all academies, not just free schools. Ideologically the free schools programme is currently incompatible with local authorities coordinating place management and this is something that must be addressed. But there is also a question over what happens in areas where they are in need of excellent schools, but they have poor performing schools. Is that demand? Clearly parents in those areas could (and should) be demanding more. How can poorly performing academies be improved when they are accountable only to the Secretary of State? There are some issues to work through here.

Part of the solution lies in point 3 – the accountability of schools. Much could, and should, be done to strengthen the accountability of schools to their local communities. This is partly about financial transparency, but it is also about ethos and culture and the extent to which the school and its leadership team see themselves as being accountable to the community. It is embedded deeply into the DNA of the Archer Academy, but only because we chose to make it that way. There is currently very little required of academies to be accountable to parents and the wider community and this must be addressed.

As someone who is very interested in open data and its potential to strengthen accountability, I am keen to see how our school can play a leading role in opening up our data as far as possible. I think this helps to give parents information about the school that they can use to make more informed decisions and how the governors to account. It also enables third-party developers to find new uses of the data – providing new insights from mashing-up, interrogating and visualising our data. It’s perhaps a bit of an unknown quantity, but my work with Data Unity has given me confidence that there is value in opening up data.

As (exempt) charities, academies receiving considerable tax benefits. The social contract that charitable status is based on, is that in return for this privilege, there must be some public benefit. Part of the deal involves being accountable to beneficiaries – which in the case of schools is obviously pupils (and their parents). Financial accountability is a key part of this.

How can we expect families to be able to hold schools to account if they do not have access to information on which to base decisions and inform opinions?

I not aware of many schools that are embracing open data – but I would be very keen to hear of any examples – but I think it is an exciting agenda with many opportunities to be explored.

Al-Madinah inadequacies highlight wider weaknesses

The Ofsted report into the Al-Madinah school in Derby is damning. Extremely damning. Inspectors highlighted a catalogue of shortcomings that have resulted in the school being taken into special measures. Every single category that Ofsted examine was rated ‘inadequate’ and the school, which only opened last year, was described as ‘dysfunctional’. This is not good. Not good for the Al-Madinah Educational Trust who run the school, not good for Michael Gove and his flagship free schools programme and most of all not good for the children who go there.

Of particular interest (and concern) to me, as a founder of another free school that opened a year later, the report singled out the weaknesses and ineffectiveness of the school’s governing body.

Whilst I do not believe that this incident proves one way or another whether free schools are a good or a bad idea, it does highlight inadequacies of the current process. I find it simply incomprehensible that a free school applicant’s governing body can be so obviously lacking and still pass through the process in being allowed to open. Having been through the process myself, I do not know how this could have gone unnoticed. Whilst I would not necessarily say that the interrogation of governor capabilities was as rigorous as I had expected it to be, I still wonder how they could have actually managed to get the school opened without being more competent.

It may have something to do with who is actually doing the setting up. In our experience, as a group of parents, we had not organisational backing or resources to draw on. We had to do everything ourselves. This did make it hard and it could well mean that areas with less resources and capabilities are not able to establish their own schools. But the upside, I suppose, is that it meant we had to be sufficiently competent and capable to set up a school – which stood us in good stead to actually oversee the running of the school. [Quick health-warning: we haven’t had our first Ofsted inspection…so we’ll see what happens then! And if I have to eat humble pie, I will happily do so!]

However, I have to say that from my experience of governance in other schools (maintained and academies), I wonder whether the standard of governance is sufficiently high. I have attended a number of training sessions for governors and been deeply unimpressed by the level of knowledge and expertise among many school governors. They were unaware of the basic fundamentals of good governance and the ‘Nolan principles’ of public office. The did not understand how they should hold their headteacher and senior leadership team to account and provide a balance of support and challenge.

My (far greater) experience of charity governance is of a generally higher standard, with trustees on boards I have worked with and sat on, overall far better informed. I am aware that this is by no means a definitive sample or scientific survey. But it does make me wonder whether we have to address the school governance – not just in free schools but across the board.

I believe this incident highlights weaknesses in the free school process but also issues with governance more widely. It does not, to me, demonstrate that free schools are right, or wrong. But rather that we need to support parents and local people who are prepared to put themselves forward to act in the interests of their community, so that they can fulfil their role adequately and effectively.