Michael Gove has divulged the name of his hero: “Lord Harris of Peckham”. Harris is a ‘Conservative millionaire who is saving schools’. In the piece Gove claims that Harris Academies are: ‘led by traditionalist teachers who refused to accept excuses for failure,’ and that: ‘traditional teaching, the celebration of knowledge, discipline, respect for adults, a refusal to accept background as an excuse for underperformance, and academic and sporting competition are all approaches that help working-class children most.’ Gove finishes with a flourish wondering what the Labour party feel: ‘as it finds that a millionaire Conservative is more progressive and practical than its own leaders? All one hears is the silence of consciences unexamined.’ Here the word progressive is not being used as a pejorative but as an example of the progressive ideal of releasing the working class from their lot. Gove implies that by instilling traditional education values and methods a meritocratic society will come into being and the sons and daughters of the horny handed labourers of toil will enter Oxbridge, assorted Russell Group Universities and become Lawyers, Journalists, Cricketers, MPs and even Education Secretaries. I am not going to argue against this but I thought I would examine a certain assumption in Gove’s piece, where he says that Harris Academies use ‘traditional teaching‘. I live in South London and know a little of the ethos behind Harris Academies and though on the outside they might seem traditional, I was under the impression that they used quite a few techniques and ideas in teaching that some would equate more with ‘progressive ideology’. I wonder whether a quick search on Google would confirm my impression?
In this piece I make a couple of assumptions: Firstly that what is said on websites etc. reflects what is going on in the classrooms, and Secondly I make assumptions about what is ‘traditional’ and what is ‘progressive’ rather than undertake an examination as to what these terms might mean, so this blog is but a little bit of fun rather than an in depth survey as to what really goes on beyond the pristine carpets in the foyer of a Harris Academy.
I wonder, despite saying to the Telegraph in 2009 that all they do is traditional are Harris Academies hotbeds of progressivism in traditional clothing?
On the much vaunted progressive desire for transferable skills the Geography department at Harris Academy Bermondsey write that students: “Will become an expert at map reading, problem solving, creative thinking, data collection and the use of ICT. [You} will equally develop (sic) your teamwork as well as your independent enquiry skills and acquire an in-depth understanding of current events from the local to the national and global level…” In ‘Enterprise‘ at Harris Academy in Purley “In Year 8 and 9 Students study a number of units that aim to develop and promote students personal employability by exploring the enterprise process and how it can be applied in different contexts. Students will explore what capabilities are required to be enterprising and the impact and the skills and knowledge they need to demonstrate to become employable.”
Project based learning seems to be a feature at the Harris Girls Academy in Dulwich and in year 7 pupils at the Harris Academy in Merton take part in a cross curricular project. The Gifted & Talented department at Harris Academy Peckham celebrate that they enable students to: “experience a broader curriculum and a deeper learning experience through extended and project based learning.”
The student zone at the Harris Academy in South Norwood wants to equip students for life in the 21st Century: “The Academy is a confident and caring community that will equip students for life in the 21st century,” through Enterprise: “actively developing the skills of self presentation, initiative taking, creative problem solving, decision making, team working and interpersonal skills in a variety of contexts, so building self esteem and confidence.” The whole school is set up to: “Develop an invaluable set of life and employability skills essential for success in the 21st century.” The sixth form at Harris Academy Falconwood emphasise a “commitment to nurture our young people so they are ready to act as citizens of the 21st century world,” through a “range of opportunities to develop skills such as enterprise; financial awareness; team work and problem solving.”
Student voice/student led and co-construction seemed in 2009 to be a focus of Harris Academies, as the lauded Dr Dan Moynihan put it on their ‘Student Commission‘: “This goes much deeper than traditional Student Council work, which often gives very little voice to students on the really important issue of their own learning. Our Commission is about students and teachers working side by side to investigate what makes for the most effective learning and then testing out these approaches to see what works…” Perhaps this is summed up by student voice page at Harris Academy at Chafford Hundred, where students will be ‘entitled to build learning partnerships with teachers to improve learning through feedback, co-planning and co-design.’
In fact it is interesting to note that the bete noir of many traditionalists, Guy Claxton, was involved in Harris Academies Student Commission and that last year he was presenting to Harris Principals his work on Building learning Power. Harris Girl’s Academy feature in a project Claxton carried out from 2004-10 called “A Handbook of Strategies for Increasing Learning Power” In fact so enamoured by the work Harris Academies have been doing with Claxton that in 2011 The King’s School Peterborough set up their own Learning Commission.
Much work at Harris Academies seems to have gone into the idea of experimenting with co-construction of the curriculum, whether it be at Harris City Academy in Crystal Palace where students have been having an ‘active role in producing learning’, or at Harris Boy’s Academy where students enquired into whether they were ‘ able to develop as more successful autonomous learners and help teachers to develop lessons that enable independent learning to be more effective and successful.” All this would seem to be an anathema to ‘traditional teaching’.
There are many more examples of ‘progressive’ ideas taking place in Harris Academies but how well do Harris schools do in that measure of the number of students who take and ‘pass’ traditional, academic subjects: the Ebacc? In order to have traditional values surely this will be an area where Harris Academies excel? Here are the results from 2013 GCSEs for some Harris Academies in Southeast London: Harris Academy Greenwich got 11%, Harris Academy Bromley got 23%, Harris Academy Beckenham got 12%, Harris Academy South Norwood got 31%, Harris Academy Crystal Palace got 40%, Harris Academy Purley got 6%, Harris Academy Bermondsey got 9%, Harris Girl’s Academy East Dulwich got 16%, Harris Academy Peckham got 14%, and Harris Academy Falconwood got 29%.
A short stroll around Harris Academies reveal that far from just being places of purist traditionalist dogma, they seem to have been infected by some progressive teaching ideas. Now, far be it for me to draw any conclusions from this beyond saying when it comes to what a progressive school or a traditionalist school looks like should we sometimes look beyond the uniforms and the discipline policies? And that when an Education Secretary wants to extoll the virtues of ‘traditionalist teaching’ he might want to do a bit more homework first about what really goes on in the classrooms? (Or at least on the websites…)