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School 21: Doing things differently in East London

The debate between ‘knowledge-based learning’ and ‘skill-based learning’ is noisy, passionate and - more often than not - phrased as an ‘either/or’. However, there’s a growing consensus that a middle way is possible, striking a balance between the need for a curriculum which is rich in content and an emphasis on the wider skills required by children to apply knowledge meaningfully in their lives.

School 21 is a free school in East London which has developed an unusual approach. At its heart is a vision of what children need to thrive in the future. We caught up with Oli de Botton, Head Teacher at School 21, to find out more.

(NB. Oli de Botton will be taking part in our upcoming education and skills event, Acting Now for Future Skills. Find the full agenda and register your interest here).

Toby: How did School 21 come about and what makes it different from other schools?

Oli: School 21 was founded in 2012 at the height of Olympic optimism in the heart of Stratford. The project came together when the co-founders (Peter Hyman, Ed Fidoe and me) met separately and together in slightly random ways. We were united in the belief that education needed to be done differently and that much of the received wisdom about schooling  needed challenging. All of us came at it from slightly different angles - which I think was a strength. It certainly made sure debate and argument were at the centre of the school and that ideas and innovation were what powered us forward.

Toby: Children who joined School 21 in September will leave school in 2031. They will face a very different world - filled with fake news and artificial intelligence - to the one that their parents faced when they left school (something that we’ll be discussing at our upcoming event, Acting Now for Future Skills). How do you think about the future and what are the skills that School 21 emphasises to prepare pupils for a world of work which might look very different?

Oli: There are some quite unhelpful arguments still doing the rounds about skills for the future. At one end of the spectrum there is the idea that the jobs of the future don’t exist yet and as such more generic skills should dominate school curriculums. At the other end there are those who believe there will be little change and as such schools should just deepen their exploration of the subject domain. I think we sit somewhere in the middle.

Our mission is about empowering young people to shape the world around them. An important difference from those who seek young people who can simply access the world as it is. It isn’t enough for our children to know stuff, we want them to put their knowledge into action.

So in practice this means understanding the ‘currency’ of education (GCSEs, subject disciplines etc), but also understanding how to use the platform qualifications give to make a difference. This is where important skills come in. Children need to find their voice so they can argue with confidence, advocate for others, work together in groups. Children need spark and creativity so they can solve some of the more intractable problems they may face in their lives. Children need a sense of well-being so they know who they are and can master their destiny.

Toby: Can you give a sense of what that looks like in the classroom in School 21?

Oli: A typical day at School 21 might begin with a coaching session. Here students might use the philosophy for children or socratic seminar method to reflect on the text they are reading. Groups are small  (1-13) and the ‘coach’ has been trained and in our oracy and well-being methods.  Normally the text would allow students to explore important themes and personal empowerment. In Year 7 for example we look at Wonder, a story about a child will facial disfigurement who comes to school for the first time at 11. The day might move on to a project where students will work in teams, if they are crafting a product, or individually if they are receiving more didactic instruction.

What does music look like? Students explore how we hear and see in a project combining science and the creative arts. 

This term in Year 5 and 7 students are exploring a speed through a physics and design project which will culminate in the construction of go-charts. Lessons in maths and English will be heavily focused on mastering key concepts and skills and children will be exposed to interactive whole class teaching as well as dialogic techniques. On certain days students have lesson length assemblies where we might use drama techniques to explore behaviour issues or we might use the assembly circle to bring subjects to life. Higher up the school students might attend Big ideas courses where they grapple with important concepts such as the nature of being or AI through rich texts and discussion.

Toby: Teachers already have exceptionally high demands on their time. One of the common complaints about introducing innovative teaching methods is that they require resources that school and teachers don’t have. How have School 21 tackled this challenge?

Oli: I think teachers are crying out for something different; schools where their craft is venerated above all other concerns and where they have the autonomy to innovate in the best interests of their pupils. Schools need to be places of rigorous enquiry where professionals use research, know-how, best practice and deep reflection to produce astonishing outcomes. Simply put, if we think what we are doing is fine for children then of course we don’t need new methods. But if we think we can and must do better innovation plays a key role.

Toby: What types of support would you like to see become more widespread, at the systems level or in individual schools, to help schools and teachers to innovate?

One of the things that I have come round to belatedly is the idea that important skills like oracy need rigorous measurement. I can’t think of another area of education or public life where we think something is important but we haven’t put powerful impact evaluation tools in the hands of educators. There is some really interesting work going on at the moment around measuring academic outcomes more reliability (using comparative methods etc.) We need equally rigorous and accepted approaches for other skills.

Toby: The debate between ‘knowledge-based’ learning and ‘skills-based’ learning can often get quite heated. How have your experiences at School 21 informed your view?

Oli: Yes. The debate can be quite reductive. We need to teach both skills and knowledge. And the sometimes maligned ‘project based learning’ which we deploy for about a 20% of our curriculum is a good tool for both. A recent project involved children working up mathematical models to show how the proposals for new concrete factories on the Olympic park would harm the environment. Working with local groups, they wrote papers and campaigned. Just last month they spoke at the planning committee and the plans were shelved. Maths, english, oracy, group work. Making a difference to the community.

Toby: If you could secure one major policy change for the school system, what would it be?

Oli: A change to GCSE system. It seems to me quite outdated to have a school leaving exam at 16 when compulsory education or training ends at 18. I would prefer more regular maths and English checks (perhaps using sampling), thereby leaving more curriculum space for innovation and breadth for longer. This would allow things like poetry, Music, drama, art, sport, philosophy to be studied for longer and without examination.

Oli de Botton will be speaking at Nesta's upcoming education and skills event, Acting Now for Future Skills. Find the full agenda and register your interest here


Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Mission Manager, A Fairer Start

Toby worked with local governments to develop and pilot improvements to services that support young children and families.

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