Knowsley is a small metropolitan local authority in the northwest of England. In 2007, Knowsley began to transform its secondary school system, transitioning 11 traditional schools into seven state-of-the-art Centres for Learning. The resultant success around the Knowsley’s project demonstrates the adoption of innovation as an organizing principle within a system-wide approach to education transformation._______________________________________
Case Study: Knowsley Schools
Knowsley is a small metropolitan local authority near Liverpool, in the northwest of England. A successful change in Knowsley’s secondary school system demonstrates the adoption of innovation as an organizing principle within a system-wide approach to education transformation.
The Transformation Begins
Knowsley’s transformation began in 2002, when the borough established an independent schools commission to assess the capacity of the existing secondary system to deliver a 21st-century education. The council’s recommendations included a number of principles and propositions around systems reform, and those formed the initial basis of our plan to reshape education locally in Knowsley.Coincidentally, the U.K. government launched the “Building Schools for the Future” grant program in 2004, and many of its tenets were aligned with what we’d already outlined through our independent schools commission. Therefore, we were able to respond quickly to the government, putting forth proposals not just to rebuild the schools’ physical facilities but also to effectively rebuild the local education system from scratch. Our plan was bold and ambitious, covering within its scope governance, leadership, management, pedagogy, the role of the community, and the “Every Child Matters” agenda, which looks at wider social outcomes for children. A key to our challenge was to determine how new learning environments could support authentic reforms.
An Excess of Capacity
In working with the government, we began by looking closely at system capacity, as the U.K. has a number of regulatory expectations around school reorganization. Knowsley had 11 secondary schools, and within those schools there were “surplus places,” meaning places that were funded but not filled by pupils for a number of reasons—such as the school wasn’t popular, was perceived as an under-performer. In fact, all 11 of the Knowsley secondary schools at that time were below national averages in terms of performance, and that was an issue in terms of attracting parents. This wasn’t surprising given that Knowsley was the third most “deprived” borough in the country, which, by the way, was material in the sense that this “deprivation” was one of the criteria for accessing government funding.
More than Schools
So a key requirement for our proposals was to look at removing surplus capacity, but—looking to the findings of our commission—we wanted to look more broadly at the role of education to transform not just education outcomes but also wider life outcomes, taking into account the socioeconomic circumstances within the borough. We wanted to go beyond replacing the 11 schools with new old schools—we wanted to create something that was more than schools, supporting services beyond education—schools that would service the wider community on many levels.We called our new new schools “Centres for Learning,” a term we coined to indicate a breaking of the mold of the old factory model for secondary schools. Instead of 11 secondary schools, Knowsley would remove its surplus capacity and create seven Centres for Learning. These Centres would be based on an ecological model that was more in tune with its environment and adaptable for future change.
In managing change, one needs to proper planning, organization, and research—especially in education, as no one wants to randomly experiment with changes to education to the detriment of the children. Therefore, we put together a proposal that illustrated work streams. Instead of just looking at a stream to create new buildings, we also looked at strategic governance. We had an intelligence stream. We had a stakeholder engagements stream. We looked at key elements such as pedagogy, governance, leadership, building design and use. We took a very inclusive approach to define the scope of the program, adopting innovation as the core organizing principle. And to clarify, innovation is not simply creativity; innovation is scaling up and replicating creativity so that it has an impact.
Thinking Systemically, Acting Systematically
We also took steps to learn from best, next, and back practices, from local to international sources. We wanted to think systemically and act systematically, and therefore some of the principles of “systems thinking” infused our approach. We created short feedback loops and test models so we could address any challenges around “You’re experimenting with our children’s future.” No, we were not; we were test-modeling concepts so we could see if they would be replicable at scale. And because we did some of this testing within the existing system, we garnered commitment and capacity from existing teachers. All of this demonstrates our high-level strategy for the construction of a large-scale program for change.
A Blueprint for Design
We received government approval to move forward with the Knowsley project in 2004. We went to market in 2005. Prior to that, we conceptualized the design via “design festivals” with children from all of the Knowsley secondary schools—as well as the primary schools, as they’d be moving into the new schools eventually. The resultant designs went into a funnel to create a design blueprint with input from a whole range of influencers, including residents, teachers, parents, and pupils. What came out of the funnel was our output specification—a conceptual framework. We had 12 focus groups that we trained in “design quality indicators.” They reviewed and tested the suggestions from the final three bidders for the construction of the schools, tossing back challenges to which the bidders would respond with competitive solutions.
Innovative Thinking at Every Level
To encourage this sharp critique and competitive dialogue, we extended the bidding process by six weeks, and that extension led to savings in the form of value in terms of design quality and materials. We changed the evaluation criteria for the award of contract, too. Normally about 5% of the score goes toward design and build, but we wanted to focus more on the physical design as linked to pedagogy, and so we increased it to about 15%. The process was overwhelmingly successful, and by September 2006, we had three incredibly competitive design-led bids.This innovative thinking touched every level of the project, including financial. We wanted to start building in May 2007, but we were not to reach financial close until December 2007. I persuaded the council to start early despite the financial risk, and that enabled us to finalize the deal with better value to the council. By December 2007, before the contracts had been signed, the first of the seven Centres for Learning already had all of its steelwork up. By summer 2008, every Centre had construction staff on site. The first Centre opened in January 2009, and the last opened in January 2010—a rapid-cycle build facilitated in part by our strategic decision to build on existing school sites.
Most important, despite this major transition, there was minimal disruption for the students. The children literally went out of one old building at the beginning of summer break and back into a new building at end of summer. This is the only project of its kind in the U.K.—we knocked down the whole secondary sector and replaced it with new builds—quite a novel approach in terms of conceptualization of system-level change. But don’t forget, it’s not just the knocking down of building. We also had to legally close down the old schools and transition 2500 staff into seven new institutions, creating seven new governing bodies and establishing a staffing commission independently chaired to represent various interest groups—unions, professionals associations. Normally, this is a painful process, but thanks to our strategic planning and systems approach, we had no union disputes.And beyond buildings and staffing of said buildings, there were issues of staff development and student familiarity. We had to train the teachers for new technologies, pedagogy styles, and curriculum to prepare them to teach in the new spaces. That is, the Centres for Learning are completely different from traditional schools. Instead of classrooms and halls, the Centres are open and flexible—a series of ‘homehub bases’ linked to learning spaces. Before officially opening the new Centres, we took ownership of the buildings and cycled all the existing staff and students through to ensure their success in the face of the cultural shift.
Enfranchisement and Engagement
We continued development support for teachers throughout implementation, as well as evaluation to determine if students are getting the learning they expect from the new environment. We have young advisors (age 16-20) who are observing and interviewing teachers and pupils—evaluation by young people for young people, to engage the young people as participants and beneficiaries in a way not available under the old system.We wanted to enfranchise the students’ families and community, as well. We had low engagement in previous schools as many parents had had negative school experiences. We wanted to break down these prejudices and make the buildings inherently attractive to the community. For example, each Centre has a central atrium—one space, many uses. We were able to create this space despite funding constraints by reducing circulation space. Most schools have 25% circulation space, which is dead space, used simply to move kids around while the teachers stay put. The Centres for Learning have 5% circulation space because I wanted all of the space to be learning space. This enabled us to reconfigure some different spaces like the large atrium. Before, we had no performance spaces in Knowsley. Now, we have not just one but seven spaces for performance and events not necessarily related to education but related to the community—benefitting the community and making them advocates for the schools.
21st-Century Technology in Education
A final key piece to the puzzle—to meet our goal of 21st-century education standards—was the embedding of technology. The whole pedagogical concept that inspired the physical design was heavily dependent on an ICT strategy. We were very fortunate to have started up in the early 2000s, which enabled us within the funding envelope to spend less on infrastructure and more on what I consider a requirement: the personalized learning environment. We went to market with a separate contract for ICT and a very clear view of what we wanted for PLE. Off-the-shelf solutions did not meet our needs, and so we challenged the market to put in some development time. The result is wireless—inside and out—buildings, a 1:1 ratio of devices to pupils, whiteboards—overall, a rich IT environment.It’s been only a year since the last Centre for Learning opened, and we’ve already seen improved performance in the new schools. The fact that there was no performance drop despite the transition is a testament to the learners and teachers in the system. Knowsley’s success is possible because the students and educators believed in what they were doing. We’re very proud of what we’ve helped to achieve, but we’ve only just started. We’ve created the template of potentiality. It’s up to the system now—the community, the staff, the students—to continue the process.Read More
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