Schools need to be redesigned with a focus on relationships in order to raise achievement, says policy adviser Charles Leadbeater

If schools are to tackle educational inequality and raise levels of achievement, they need to be re-designed with a focus around relationships, according to a paper written by policy adviser Charles Leadbeater for The Innovation Unit at the DCSF.

‘Children learn,’ he says, ‘when they have the right relationships. Those relationships make them feel cared for; give them recognition for who they are, where they come from and what they have achieved; motivate them to learn; engage them to be participants in learning.’

Practical approach
Emphasising that this focus on relationships is part of ‘a deeply practical approach developed in good schools in challenging circumstances,’ Leadbeater says that consequences of adopting such an approach is to promote the importance of:

  • learning in a wide variety of settings from a wide variety of people
  • giving pupils more say over what they could learn, how, where and when
  • providing an experience of learning that is collaborative and experiential, encouraging self-evaluation and self-motivation as the norm.

Changing learning
Leadbeater argues that schools need to be structured around a recognition that learning:

  • is best done with people, rather than to or from them
  • is most effective when it means something to the learner
  • is more likely to mean something when people feel they are participants in their learning, shaping what and how they learn.

Such an approach to learning can happen through encouraging relationships that:

  • build participation by encouraging students to set objectives, choose the tools they want to use to learn and ways to present their work
  • provide recognition of who children are, where they come from, their goals, contributions and achievements
  • ensure students feel cared for, safe and secure because their distinctive needs are attended to, they have a voice in what happens and they are treated with respect
  • motivate students to learn by building up their confidence and capability, setting realistic but stretching goals, widening aspiration and achievement.

‘The focus on relationships for learning,’ Leadbeater says, ‘gives schools a clear focus to redesign their space, timetable, year groups, pastoral programmes, curricula, workforce, disciplinary regimes.’

The ideas put forward in Leadbeater’s paper are culled from the experience of schools whose work has been funded by the Innovation Unit. A common feature, he found, is that that these schools seek to achieve higher standards by ‘ensuring children have the relationships they need to motivate them to learn.’

An outstanding feature of the schools in the report is that they seek to ‘make innovation systemic across the whole life of the school, reflected in its buildings, curriculum and crucially in relationships with children.’

Their approach, he says, challenges the value of a system of national targets, strategies and systems of inspection that tend to ‘drive out initiative, discretion and local innovation.’

Policy challenge
Asserting that government needs to promote a set of policies that will make it much more likely children will be able to find and develop relationships for learning across schools, in their family, at home and in the community, Leadbeater recommends:

  • individual budgets and directed support plans for families at risk
  • making social and emotional skills for learning central to the curriculum for children between the ages of 10 and 13
  • more home-based learning that is monitored from school
  • a national peer-learner programme that allows children to become learning mentors to other children and, in the process, gain credits towards their qualifications
  • breaking large secondary schools up into organisational units of no more than 450 students
  • all pupils in their first three years of secondary school spending at least part of the summer engaged in a personal challenge which they choose and collaborate with others to undertake
  • every child having their own learning plan and portfolio to record their achievements both inside and outside school
  • every child having access to one-one-one mentoring to build up their learning skills
  • all schools being the base for a productive social enterprise. so that students come to associate learning with work and get pleasure from working productively together
  • more spaces for learning between home and school.

Innovating schools

  • Bridgemary, Gosport: pupils are often taught by ability rather than age, with accelerated learning for some and longer catch-up sessions for others; vertical tutor groups allow older children to look after younger children; there is an intensive system of pastoral care and social support that includes one-to-one mentoring of pupils.
  • Cramlington Community High School, Northumberland: new buildings create many different settings for learning; personal learning plans allow children scope to record and present work they are proud of ; learning to learn skills are fostered so that students are able to plan and reflect on their learning.
  • Darlington Education Village: a federation that serves 1,400 children from a secondary, primary and special school on a single campus.
  • Winsford Educaion Partnership: an all years school which pools different skills and resources to provide learning where and when it is appropriate to any family in the town.
  • Eastfeast: a collaboration between 16 schools that use a mix of gardening, art and food to create open, shared learning.
  • Yewlands: a family of several primary schools which have developed a shared curriculum around key competencies and social skills.

What’s Next?: 21 Ideas for 21st Century Learning by Charles Leadbeater