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Schools are engines of aspiration

“Learning is not a phase of life, it is a way of life.”  So declared Dr Helen Stringer, Vice Principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation, at last week’s “What is learning for?” conference hosted by the school.  It became very clear during the course of the day that there really is a debate to be had about learning, beyond the histrionics associated with Michael Gove’s reform agenda; that learning is integral to who we are, our well-being, our life’s journey.

So what about my own learning journey? What did I learn from the conference?  I realised that the hunger for proper, grown up conversations about learning exists and is craving platforms such as this.  And it is not only teacher engagement – the conference attracted people from different areas of education, local businesses, entrepreneurs and our own parent body who themselves had distinctive interests.  Everyone was keen to share and learn.

Which casts into stark relief the current national debate in education about “standards”, “rigour”, “league tables”. How often have we been challenged about learning?   Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, spoke compellingly about how schools must be engines of aspiration.  Education is for the long term and not just about the now.  Professor Guy Claxton, a pioneer of the concept of building learning power, neatly summarised the purpose of learning – the challenge is not preparing for a life of tests but the tests of life.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz was among speakers at the conference

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz was among speakers at the conference

In this world where learning is the lode star, the possibilities for educators are transformational.  The agenda for education shifts from the mono focus on measuring to pedagogy itself.  At the conference, staff from St Mark’s Academy in South London shared their experience of teacher practitioner research and how it improved learning for their students.  Their focus was the individual.  It was truly inspiring to learn how, within a school community, teachers can engage in a meaningful way with innovation and be offered the opportunity to do things differently.  I was fortunate to speak to St Mark’s teachers over lunch and it was clear that the enlightened approach of their Headteacher had empowered them as learners themselves. Their enthusiasm, energy and determination to improve the life chances of their students challenged us all to be better.  This was the teacher as learner in practice.

At the end of the conference Professor Claxton asked me – what now?  On reflection, my response to this is best encapsulated in the words of Professor David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shared at the conference by Dr Helen Stringer: “I can hardly think of anything more worth learning than learning to learn.” This must be our mission not just for our schooling but for our lives.