On geography and systems change

I studied geography at university, not just because it was the one subject enjoyed the most but it was the one I found most fascinating. At its heart geography is about connections – and my particular interest was the interrelationships between people and places. More specifically, how they interact, with people shaping places, places shaping people… and so on, in a kind of ever-reinforcing circle. Today I was facilitating a conversation with a number of education leads on how to take a town-wide approach to a range of issues. We covered a lot of ground, from unpicking the specific challenges around attainment, to how to work with the wider public sector, from the impact of academisation to the implications of the devolution and growth agendas, from how to engage the wider community and employers to the constraints of the system.

It was soon apparent that performance is not where anyone would rationally want it to be. What could we do about it? Whilst the town is only served by one secondary school (academy) the provision from early years to Key Stage 2 at age 11 was mixed, including infant and junior schools. These in turn belonged to different academy chains. Some primaries drew the majority of their pupils from one of the most deprived estate in the county, others from more affluent areas. Structurally, there is no coherence. One the one hand this is of course fine, the pluralism of choice and delivery options intended to improve performance. But on the other we were looking at trends of worsening performance from EYFS to KS2; surely the system shouldn’t be stifling pupil performance along their journey? And when performance falls short, what is there that can realistically be done?

My geographical – and strategic – mind wanted to look at performance for the town as a whole, not for each individual school. What is the collective education system in this particular place delivering for its young people? What’s the aggregate performance, not just in terms of attainment numbers but in terms of value added and life chances? What does the journey of a child within the town look like? And throw into the mix planned growth of another 5,000 homes and increasing pressure on places and provision.

For example, it’s clear to me that transition holds pupils back, based on work I’ve been involved in over a number of years. Each point of transition is the point where institutions rub up against each other. This friction is a source of potential – and probable – change and disruption for young people as they try to navigate the education system. A system that should, to all intents and purposes, be a relatively simple one – at least for pupils that don’t need to access additional support or services. Yet the number of transition points between EYFS and finishing KS5 for even the simplest journey could be as many as 6, before subsequent transition into higher education, training or (un)employment. And at this point, were the town’s young people leaving equipped with the skills and aptitudes that local employers are crying out for?

I left pondering the paradox that what we really needed was fundamental system change, yet the system is inherently self-protective. Partly because there is no system leadership and partly because the system has disincentives built into it. The local authority is impotent to drive change as its powers have been eroded. No-one will vote for school merger or closure – even if this is in the best interests of the town, and even if large swathes of the public sector are undergoing downsizing, rationalisation and reconfiguration. Schools – like doctors – hold a special place in people’s hearts. Academy trusts are competing against each other to run schools. In an area of recruitment and retention difficulties, staff move around between local schools. Where’s the incentive to co-operate? To work together in the bests interests of a town? Of its young people, of its employers.To collectively work towards making the town a place where young people grow up and achieve in a school system designed around them? And in a locality, geographically located somewhere between the individual school and the Regional Schools Commissioner, who is going to lead this system change?

Because what we really needed to do is engage in a wide-ranging debate across the town about how the education system could be aligned more closely to the needs of its young people and the wider community. As though starting with a blank sheet of paper and figuring out, collectively, the best way of achieving this. With whatever attendant structural casualties there may be along the way. Is this a price worth paying to drive up the attainment levels of a town? And what if this was successful, a stand-out model in a county in desperate need of a stand-out model. This, to my mind, would be true ‘place-shaping’, where people actively help design and support the delivery of local public services in their town that meet their needs locally. Their place. Where they live, work and go about heir everyday lives. This truly would be an approach to keep my inner geographer happy. 

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