On Friday the 21st of August 2020, we said a sad goodbye to one of the greatest educators of our time. Of all time. Sir Ken Robinson.
His 2006 Ted Talk titled ‘Do schools kill creativity’ has been viewed over 60 million times in 160 countries. It is suggested that his talk has been seen by an estimated 380 million people. And yet, what has actually changed in our education systems around the globe?
A quick Google search will no doubt also list a whole host of speeches, talks and lectures from Sir Ken, and each one of them is as powerful as the last, and as comical. For me not only was Sir Ken a fantastic orator he was also one of the funniest stand up comedians not to be a stand up comedian that I have ever seen. I’ve embedded the link to the 2006 talk at the end of this blog.
I have never fallen out of love with learning, not ever, from when I first begun to learn and fell in love with knowledge gathering. Schooling on the other hand was something I was very critical over as a child and even more so as an adult. Before I continue espousing the qualities of Sir Ken I first want to highlight another educators work. Someone probably not as well known as Sir Ken wrote a book in 2012 with the title ‘Schooling the Estate Kids’. It was written by Carl Parsons and in his acknowledgements he says the following:
This book was researched and written in pursuit of a passion, an affection for an under-rated and overlooked area and its people and a deeply felt anger at enduring, institutional, politically contrived, deceitful injustice. The book owes most to the residents of the Newington and neighbouring estates in Ramsgate, Thanet in north-east Kent, and the professionals associated with the The Conyngham School which became The Ramsgate School and in 2005 The Marlowe Academy. I was made very welcome in the community, in homes, centres, offices and workplaces. I have intruded into people’s lives in a way I hope was at all times respectful. The many hours spent in the Marlowe Academy, shadowing students as they went from class to class, interviewing, either by appointment or through chance encounters, was a delight. I am most grateful for the forbearance, generosity and openness of staff and students…. Past pupils dug into memories which were hugely varied. It added valuably to my notes of visits to the school over ten years and resonated with how I was impressed with survival skills well beyond my own and sadness that things became so bad and were apparently so difficult to alter. Out of all these efforts to tell the story of the estates and the school which was to serve them…
The Conyngham School was my old senior school. The one I was excluded from in the 1983/84 season. Ivor Goodson, who at the time of the publication of the book was the Professor of Learning Theory in the Education Research Centre at the University of Brighton, wrote the preface for Parson’s book where he said the following:
Carl Parsons’ book is an important contribution to the education debate and fills one of the most salient and significant voids in much of the policy making of the current government. Although he evokes the origins, evolution and location of what was once The Conyngham School, became the Ramsgate School and began again as the Marlowe Academy, he places this historical trajectory in a wider context. This book is important because it addresses a vortex in the current educational discourse. The callous disregard of poverty is currently being vividly illustrated by the attempt to change child poverty statistics. Parsons’ book asks us once again to confront the continuing issue of how poor people are given substandard education. It was to address concerns such as this that welfare states were constructed and educational policies following the post- war settlement sought to provide equality of opportunity for all. In the current conjuncture, inequality is being massively sponsored and the pursuit of decent education for disadvantaged people is falling to the bottom of the ladder of priorities. Parsons’ book eloquently shows how, in his words, ‘the punitive “driving up standards” policy in England and the refusal to address family poverty as the root of underachievement of poor children’ is displacing any systematic attempt to provide decent education for poor people.
Through a painstaking analysis of one school we get a sense of how a particular neighbourhood can be systematically deprived of reasonable educational opportunities. What is most important about the book is the way that Parsons moves beyond this local and particular study to provide a series of more broadly applicable criteria and procedures for pursuing social justice. In his final chapter, he pulls together a set of policy proposals and guidelines which are of enormous import for those who continue to pursue social justice.
Chapter one of ‘Schooling the Estate Kids’ begins with the three paragraphs below:
There are many reasons for writing this book. One motive for taking my pension from my post as Professor of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University was to pursue this particular passion – no one would pay me to do it! The Conyngham/Ramsgate School and the Newington estate in Thanet, Kent saddened me, but I had an affection and respect for both. They battled in circumstances of inequality and neglect which were not of their making.
I grew up on a council estate in the 1950s and 60s. I went to the grammar school 12 miles away, stayed on to the sixth form and went to university, not knowing quite what either of those two steps involved. They were different times but there was still the strangeness for the working-class child joining with, and being relatively successful at, the education game.
At Canterbury Christ Church, still largely a teacher education college in the 1980s, The Conyngham School in Ramsgate was legendary as a really tough assignment for any secondary student teacher on placement. It was no less of a challenge in the 1990s when it became The Ramsgate School, but I had no direct experience of it until 1999 when we had a small project working with French university colleagues comparing provision for children at risk in Thanet and Lille. In 1997 and 2003, The Ramsgate School was in the national press as the worst secondary school in England with 1%, then 4% of pupils achieving the government benchmark of 5 A*-C GCSE grades.
“The Conyngham School in Ramsgate was legendary as a really tough assignment for any secondary student teacher on placement” If that was the case for teachers it shouldn’t take much imagination to get a feel of what it was like to be a child in that environment. No wonder prison didn’t cause me any lasting damage, the damage had already been done! Not so much ‘school to prison pipeline’ it was more like a training ground for prison. I’ve lost count over the years of how many school friends who I befriended in the corridors and classrooms of the education system only to become familiar faces on the landings and wings in the criminal justice system. Our school system really isn’t for everyone. It is there to sort the wheat from the chaff, plain and simple and God forbid if you fell into the chaff camp. I, and many of my contemporaries were indeed in the chaff camp. After reading ‘Schooling the Estate Kids’ it would need a strong argument to deny that the whole school itself was not used as a dumping ground for every other schools chaff. The Conyngham School wouldn’t have been many parents preferred choice.
Fortunately, not only did Sir Ken discuss ‘Do schools kill creativity’ in 2006 but in January 2014, along with many others over the years, Sir Ken, or just plain Ken as he was then, published a book called ‘Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life’. In his introduction to this book Ken tells a story of two young fish that goes like this:
Two young fish are swimming down a river and an older fish swims past them in the opposite direction. He says “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?”. They smile at him and swim on. Further up the river, one of the young fish turns to the other and says “What’s water?”.
The fish took his natural element so much for granted that he doesn’t even know he’s in it. Being in your own element is like that. It’s about doing something that feels so completely natural to you, that resonates so strongly with you, that you feel that this is who you really are.**
Thank you so much for showing me the way Sir Ken Robinson, no matter what my environment was.