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"If British schools and universities are genuinely world class then we cannot keep trading on tradition"

David James, Deputy Head (Academic) at Bryanston School, discusses what we can learn from America and says British education needs to step forward to shape the future.

Posted on: 23 May 2016
Posted by: David James

In political, military and economic terms, the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom is heavily weighted towards Washington rather than London. The same is true in education.

American educationalists, and the policies that they have designed, dominate recent and current thinking in the UK. Free schools and academies might have influences from Scandinavia, but the move towards state schools being increasingly independent and unapologetically academic can be found in KIPP and charter school movements that originated across the Atlantic. Martin Seligman, Howard Gardner, ED Hirsch, Doug Lemov, Carol Dweck, Dan Willingham, Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth, among many others, have shaped the debates around positive psychology, core knowledge, teaching practice, growth mindsets, research-informed teaching and character education.

What are the big ideas to have come out of Britain’s schools in recent years? Who are the original thinkers writing about teaching and learning in a British context? Even those who are influential in radically different ways (such as Ken Robinson and Dylan Wiliam) now live and work in the States.

If British schools and universities are genuinely world class (which I think they are) then we cannot keep trading on tradition. Sooner rather than later, we have to innovate and influence the deep trends in education that are flowing our way.

This is as true in the independent sector as it is in the maintained sector. We have enviable resources, and a mature market that according to the recent ISC census, is attracting more students than ever to study here. As a school inspector, I know that, overall, the standard of teaching and learning in independent schools is higher than it has been at any time I can remember (and a significant part of that is due to inspection).

I believe that, perhaps more than ever, there is a real opportunity for our leading independent schools to be the incubators of new ideas that will benefit all children in the UK. There are some signs that this is happening already: initiatives such as the London Schools Excellence Fund, and the Tony Little Research Centre at Eton College, are serious commitments to creating long-term partnerships across sectors that address profoundly important challenges affecting all teachers. We will all benefit from their work. But more can be done, and we can learn how it can be done, partly, from independent schools in the States.

I’ve written elsewhere about my recent experiences of working at Riverdale Country School in New York as the first Zagat Global Fellow. Riverdale is an outstanding independent school that is actively engaged in developing new ideas and translating them to their classrooms and beyond.

Whether it is through working with a design-thinking company like IDEO to reassess how and where students learn, to testing the work that is done in their classrooms against empirical research undertaken by CharacterLab. There is, in this school, and in other American independent schools I have visited, an established exchange between teachers, school leaders, and external partners (including private businesses).

British independent schools have done much in the last ten years to fight back against politically-inspired attacks in the media. The sector increasingly contributes to educational debate from a position of self-confidence and legitimacy. I would like to see influences moving outwards, ever wider, so that the many ideas that we develop can begin to inform and shape the debate on the other side of the Atlantic.

British education needs to be producing our own Doug Lemovs, championing the work that we do here. They are there in the classrooms of our independent schools; now we need to give them voice, and listen to them.


About David James

Dr David James is Deputy Head (Academic) of Bryanston School, a coeducational day and boarding school in Dorset.