A recipe for success?

There is an alternative to the regimentation of the national curriculum that promotes independent th

It was designed to make teaching balanced and consistent, so that every child left school having experienced the same opportunities and chances to succeed. But somewhere along the way it all went awry for the national curriculum and the children it was supposed to reach.

Frameworks intended to guide teachers on method and content became, in the 21 years since its launch, the rope which tied their hands, making learning over-prescriptive, lacking in creativity, and for the 30,000 or so pupils who leave school every year without any qualifications, irrelevant and disengaging.

Ten years ago, RSA, an independent think tank set up in 1754 to promote the arts, commerce and manufactures, identified the need for a more practical curriculum combining academic, vocational and personal skills in its report Redefining Work. The study acknowledged changing workplace practices, an end to the concept of a career for life and the need for workers to become life-long learners who continuously update their skills.

It published a list of five key competences - skills or abilities - that pupils should acquire at school. Its findings drew enthusiasm from schools. "Straight away we had dozens of offers from schools wanting to pilot this new way of teaching, even though we hadn't yet prepared anything," says Lesley James, the RSA's head of education.

The competences, which now form the bedrock of its Opening Minds (OM) curriculum, are learning to learn, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information.

"They might seem straightforward, but teachers found it quite difficult to devise ways of teaching them," James says. "The only way to develop this style of learning was to practise it in the classroom. It was no longer a case of standing in front of the class and talking at pupils."

Individual schools tailor Opening Minds to meet their own requirements, but broadly speaking the teaching of different subjects is integrated into units or modules, where the competences are developed through the exploration of common themes which tie subjects in together. These encourage independent thinking, the use of initiative and teamwork.

Some of the 180 schools using the programme have readjusted their timetables to make lessons longer - up to three hours in duration - to give the most able students enough time to research a subject adequately and to allow the less able the time to grasp what they are learning.

In September, a brand new school will open in Tipton, West Midlands, using the OM philosophy.

Being taught by fewer teachers also makes the transition from primary to secondary school less daunting, and has removed the need for pupils to wander from one classroom to another every 40 minutes or so, leaving more time for learning.

Bemrose Community School, in inner city Derby, where less than one in three pupils achieved five A-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, introduced OM for half of its Year 7 pupils two years ago, and monitored attainment against a control group of pupils following the traditional curriculum.

Teachers merged English, history, geography, religious studies, personal, health and social education (PHSE) and citizenship teaching into a single curriculum, with other subjects taught separately. Lessons were planned collectively by subject specialists around a series of themes, such as identity and footprints.

Joanne Ward, the headteacher, says the outcome was significant. "Over the year, we found far fewer referrals for bad behaviour among the group doing OM, and there was better engagement and attitudes to learning. These pupils have just finished Year 8 and over the past year have been following a normal curriculum, but the impact of OM continues to be evident. We tested them at the end of this year using SATs-style English tests and found that 46 per cent of those who did OM had made significant progress in English compared with 28 per cent of those in the control group.

"We believe this is because we have given them the skills and tools to help them to learn and engage better, even when they reverted to a traditional timetable."

One of the pioneers of OM was St John's School and Community College, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, where the national curriculum is effectively suspended for Year 7 and 8. Headteacher Patrick Hazlewood describes the national curriculum as a relic, which took schools back to the 1950s rather than anticipating what life might be like in the 21st century.

St John's, which draws pupils from a wide range of rural social backgrounds, was one of the pioneers of OM when it was formally launched in 2001, with a pilot group of 87 Year 7 pupils originally trialling the scheme.

All pupils in Years 7 and 8 now follow the OM model, with six-week long units of themed work, before reverting back to a traditional timetable for key stage 4 and GCSEs. Any national curriculum material not covered in the first two years is completed by the end of Year 9, to fulfil statutory requirements.

"There is an erroneous baseline assumption by teachers that young people know how to learn, when in reality they don't," Hazelwood says.

"Unless young people feel confident, capable and engaged in their learning they are not going to succeed."

Similarly to Bemrose, the impact of OM continues to be felt long after students stop doing it. When the 2001 pilot group did their GCSEs two years' ago, 80 per cent gained five or more top grade GCSEs, compared with 65 per cent of the control group.

"OM has been a very successful journey for us. We have a school of happy, motivated pupils who are engaged and willing to learn," Hazlewood adds.

"Group activities in the classroom have helped social cohesion, as pupils learn outside their friendship groups and those students who start off as less gregarious develop a confidence of their own. Pupils appreciate the value of their classmates' contributions."

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of RSA, says: "Pupils don't need to be taught how to draw a graph in maths, science and geography separately. They need to learn this once, but how to adapt it to different situations and see its generic value. This is how Opening Minds works."

He said the scheme is providing the workplace with young people who are knowledgeable, motivated and know how to use their initiative.

"Good schools are those where children learn how to get on with others, to manage their lives and to become active citizens. Creativity, imagination and communication skills should be valued as highly as being able to write an essay," he says.

Dorothy Lepkowska is an education correspondent

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood