School it Yourself: Review of The Edupunks’ Guide and How to Set Up a Free School

Covers of The Edupunks' Guide and How to Set Up a Free Schoo

We’re in one of those periods when real change in education might be possible. This doesn’t happen very often. Here’s why. Education is probably the single most powerful means by which our societies and our cultures reproduce themselves — institutions, values, character and differentials… the works. Hence the number of interest groups with a stake in education is enormous. Of all the culture-breeding channels available to those in power, education is in principle the one that lends itself most readily to engineering and design. However, in practice, everyone sticks the oar in and change is piecemeal, compromised and fragile.

So it’s rare for sufficient powerful forces to align and overcome the drag of inertia. Now is such a time, and I think we’re just seeing the beginnings of changes that may take a decade or two to work through. Donald Clark writes of technology enabling “more pedagogic change in 10 years than in the last 1,000 years“. Then there’s the impact of economic retrenchment and austerity on learning, which I’ve been writing about on and off for over two years, arguing that cases where people have to “make do” in their learning may have something to teach us about how to improve more “advanced” techniques.

On top of factors like these (the full set would be a whole essay in itself), there’s a cultural mood that has arisen from year-upon-year of different kinds of disruption — from hurricanes and ash clouds, through financial punch-drunkenness to the effects of technology reaching the professional middle classes for the first time. We don’t believe in the return of business-as-usual any more; we don’t trust the age-old educational conveyor belts to drop us off at the right spot in the factory.

In different ways we’re questioning the educational provision that’s been handed down, and wondering if we couldn’t do better ourselves. Let’s explore what I mean by that by looking at two “How To” e-books about education, published in recent months. In many ways they’re chalk and cheese. One’s American, the other British. One is a student’s-eye view, the other a parent and school-builder. One is very “2.0” in its sensibility, arguing that students can remix their learning experiences from multiple sources. The other is, well, the mischief in me would like to call it Web 0.0, but really it’s from a place as yet uncolonised by either software or version numbers, so let’s christen it “RLP” (Received Learning Practice or Revised Latin Primer). In one of the very few passages where Young articulates what he thinks should actually go on inside a school, he describes a visit to an independently run Swedish school,

[The Children] were assembled in rows behind wooden desks and… the teacher was standing at the front of the class clutching a piece of chalk. It was as if we’d stepped through a portal in space and time and found ourselves in a typical English grammar school in the 1950s… it was exactly what we wanted the West London Free School to be.

But these texts — The Edupunks Guide to a DIY Credential by Anya Kamenetz and How to Set Up a Free School by Toby Young — also share many things in common. Both are digital-only, which is just as well since their (virtual) shelf life could be measured in weeks rather than years. That both are tied so specifically to their national contexts in late 2011 — respectively, the structure of college education and nascent alternatives in the USA, and current policy and personnel at the UK Department for Education — may be testament to how tightly education is bound into society when you want to tinker with it. It also makes it a challenge to articulate where the two books might intersect. But let me try.

The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential

Anya Kamenetz arrives at DIY alternatives to traditional education via her study of student loan debt. Two thirds of college graduates in the US, 36 million people, owe an average of $27,000 to pay back the costs of their education. Her books Generation Debt and DIY U persuaded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund Kamenetz to write a practical guide for would-be students who don’t want to run up such big liabilities.

And that’s what she’s delivered. There’s no mention of pedagogical theory, of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, Paulo Freire or Thomas Jefferson, as there was in DIY U. The Edupunks’ Guide gives short, journalistic portraits of a range of alternative ways to get some formal or informal accreditation. Some of them are fairly orthodox: there’s a section on “How to Find a College”. A few are well-established such as the Western Governors University approach to accreditation based on competence rather than any compulsory study (incidentally this is exactly the model that the Thatcher government was aiming for when it created National Vocational Qualifications in the UK via its 1986 White Paper).

The most interesting case studies in the Guide, though, are the recently established, experimental, pathfinder initiatives like College Unbound, P2PU (Peer to Peer University) and Uncollege. These are grassroots organisations, invariably driven by small numbers of passionately committed individuals. When the founders move on, the initiatives may fade, to be replaced by new ones. And that’s OK. Edupunks aren’t setting out to create the new Oxford University, or even Open University. Still, it’s hard to escape the impression that this field is still very new.

Today’s Edupunks are very much pioneers. Perhaps aware of that, Kamenetz often can’t seem to decide whether she’s writing for the tiny vanguard who are asserting full control of their own learning, or for the rather larger hinterland of students who just want to do college on a tight budget with a savvy attitude. As an example of the former, Kamenetz profiles Weezie Yancey-Siegel, who wants to “try out more of a self-designed, experiential approach to learning…to create something new and spark further social change in the area of education, social media, global citizenship, and general do-gooding”. Her chosen path to achieving this includes, inter alia, watching TED videos and reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I met Weezie, at a London DIY University event, and got the strong impression that she was crafting a genuinely challenging and pioneering education for herself out of these disparate experiences. She’s exceptional, and a great role model for other self-directed learners, who, Kamenetz acknowledges, need to be self-motivated with good time management skills. But one thing Weezie is not: she’s not a template that any significant number of students will be reproducing any time soon.

I like Kamenetz’s division, in DIY U, of educational innovators into artisans, merchants and monks. The artisans gradually change things from within. The merchants are the people who see Higher Education’s strife as an opportunity to make money. The monks write blog posts packed with old movie clips and argue late into the night in pubs after conference sessions. They want to liberate knowledge from the university altogether. With The Edupunks’ Guide Kamenetz took a fair bit of flak from the monks. When she announced the title, months before publication, the academic credited with coining the term “Edupunk” publicly washed his hands of it, decrying a “vision of education as a wholesale gutting of publicly funded institutions and replacing them with some groovy YouTube vidoes [sic]… and powerpoint slides”.

Stephen Downes argued that Kamenetz has “a very naive understanding of education” while her How To guides are “superficial and misleading”. She is very evidently a journalist, not an educator or theorist. I defended her against some of Stephen’s criticisms, however, on the basis that, if DIY education is ever going to be more than a handful of exceptional individuals, it needs journalists to have a shot at explaining it, and bringing home the practical implications without the full theoretical and historical baggage. I wrote then, “That seems to be part of the natural cycle of how change happens: how radical ideas gain traction, get absorbed into the mainstream, but lose some of their radicalism in the process.” On the evidence of this guide, however, the Edupunks still have some way to go before their influence on the mainstream is felt.

How to Set Up a Free School

Toby Young is a celebrity journalist who was lead proposer and co-founder of the West London Free School, the standard bearer for UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s Free Schools initiative. Young’s How to Set Up a Free School is part of a new series of Penguin Shorts ebooks. Also in the series is a title, How to be a Rogue Trader, which raises the question of whether we’re dealing with practical guidance here or just diverting, makes-a-change-from-a-night-at-the-theatre, School of Life-style entertainments.

Young’s text convinces that he is sincere, and that all the tart barbs at individuals (mainly fellow journalist Fiona Millar) and groups (unions, civil servants) are there for flavour. Furthermore he wants to encourage us to follow in his footsteps. At the end of the book he writes, “I hope I haven’t put you off” and offers to come and talk to parent groups to advise and encourage.

Still, reflecting on Young’s 25,000 words left me pretty pessimistic about the merits of parents aiming to follow in his footsteps (and this isn’t just an abstract question for me: I have a child approaching school age and don’t think much of the state or private schools in our area). Firstly, the successful campaign that Young and his team mounted feels like a one-off. Secondly, the rewards of success seem likely to be short-lived.

As with most successful pioneers, the defining genius of Young and the team behind West London Free School was timing. He astutely piloted a slalom course between an outgoing Labour government — luke warm about the idea but helpful in getting to know the terrain — and an incoming Conservative administration who saw Free Schools as a flagship policy and were correspondingly keen to have a showcase up and running as soon as. (It can’t have done any harm that there is barely a thin sheet of vellum between Toby Young’s RLP pedagogy and Michael Gove’s Authorised King James Version, notwithstanding the latter’s protestations about liking technology as much as he likes Tennyson.) So keen were they, and so short of alternative credible proposals, that a little bit of extra facilitation and fast-tracking would surely have been the order of the day.

And I don’t begrudge that. But I strongly suspect that the West London course is no longer navigable: that, faced with a rising tide of proposals, the opposite of fast-tracking applies. The Author’s Note that precedes the main text more or less lays this out: “Given how complex the set-up process has become, I’m worried that the policy will be hijacked by large, professional organisations and my reason for writing this book is to try and give parent groups a fighting chance.” What follows this note is a candid and often shrewd assessment of all the barriers and hazards that stand in the way of Free School proposers. It suggests that parent groups will be fighting against extraordinary odds. Or in the author’s wife’s words, ‘Most people reading this will think, “Bugger me, I had no idea it was so difficult.”‘

Yet if they succeed? Young also sets out what Free Schoolers can do to insulate their creations from interference by less sympathetic politicians whose time will surely come. Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) were the Tories’ last attempt to take a part of the learning infrastructure and liberate it from the cloying hands of the state it into local private governance. TECs lasted eleven years (1990-2001) before those same hands clawed them back. My hunch is that free schools will last longer, but not a lot longer. Yet during their lifespan they will have their wings clipped and their differences elided in the name of benchmarking and best practice.

The catch is that it’s not the politicians going through their revolving doors that will suck the life out of Free Schools; it’s the inescapable logic of bureaucratic rationality that applies as much under a market-inclined administration as a state-inclined one. The Tories would struggle to sanction, with a straight face, the expansion of the Department for Education that would be required to give every Free School application the West London treatment. So, with more free school applications to deal with, the Department must either make the rules less flexible and negotiable, or take multiple identikit applications from larger entities, or both.

TECs were actually prohibited by John Major’s government from merging into chains or franchises. It seems inevitable that Free Schools will do exactly that as the big, well-backed operations absorb smaller ones when the latter find themselves struggling with cashflow. They will lose the individual character of their founders’ vision. Diversity and sensitivity to local context will give way to corporate standards and block negotiating power. For, unlike the rest of the state sector, Free Schools contract directly with the Department for Education, rather than via intermediate layers. They are are tethered to the government on a tighter leash than any other kind of school. And they call them Free? Bugger me, after all that, it turned out to be pointless.

Really free schooling

I’m sceptical about the prospects for either Edupunks or Free Schools to become the kind of systemic change that I speculated about at the start of this piece. The Edupunk path, at least in practice and for the moment, is one of exceptionalism. The Edupunk pioneers are by and large the lone rangers of learning, and confine themselves to the margins rather than the mainstream almost by definition. Free Schools are an odd mix: ostensibly a welcome shift towards a more self-reliant culture in education, they turn out to be anything but free, and quite possibly just the latest in a series of vain attempts to reform public services through managerialist tinkering (something the UK has suffered from Conservatives and Labour for two decades now).

Both Edupunks and Free Schools polarise opinion. That’s a good way to get written about in blogs and other media, but it’s a terrible way to change education because it alerts and mobilises the opposition. Cue gridlock and inertia. Much better to advance quietly and without ruffling feathers, as the Open University has done over the last 40 years, and as home educators may be doing now.

So what can we salvage from these two How Tos? The most interesting ideas are those embedded in some of the start-up social enterprises in the Edupunks’ Guide — from College Unbound and P2PU, mentioned above, to those with serious financial backing, such as the University of the People and the Saylor Foundation (with a $100 million bequest from entrepreneur Michael Saylor). Many of them combine the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootlaces approach of peer learning with creative use of Open Educational Resources (of which those produced by the likes of MIT and the OU are best known).

If we call this “hacking” the education system, then we polarise opinion again, so can we just agree that it makes sense for new educational forms to feed on the fruits of old ones? Can we further agree with the thrust of the present government’s policy that innovation in education is too important to be left to government? So, while we’re at it, how about reclaiming the word “free” and building schools that don’t depend on government contracts to survive?

This would be anathema to the likes of Toby Young, of course. That’s OK, he’s got a contract to keep him busy for at least seven years. No need to throw out everything in his guide, though. I have in mind a syncretic melding of the neighbourhood independence of Free Schools with the agile marshalling of ever more sophisticated (and often free) learning tools and resources.

Ideally these really free schools would require neither the capital funding of fixed, dedicated premises nor the near-full-time parental commitment of home education. They might evolve, quietly, out of the self-organised after-school activities that teach parents the whys and wherefores of building simple, powerful learning environments. Lightweight and easy to assemble, really free schools might pop up and fade away according to local demand, contracting in specialist tuition when needed, via a School of Everything-style network. They’d repurpose educational resources in ways that their creators did not foresee. “Schooling as in fish, not as in meting out discipline,” as I wrote in one of my rare tweets.

Ecology and disaster relief professionals already have a low-cost village construction set and village in a box. Free school edupunks should turn their attention to building a school-in-a-box kit. Anyone like to see if we can make one?

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