School 21 – A 21st Century School

What works in education? That’s the million dollar question. The problem that educators, policy makers and entrepreneurs alike are scrambling to solve.

One school that seems to be getting it right is School 21 — a state funded, mixed free school in the UK with one mission in mind: to prepare its students for the 21st century. What started as the pipe dream of three people around a kitchen table in 2012 is now one of the UK’s most innovative and exciting schools.

In this article by Dani Mancini, Emerge Education’s Communities manager, speaks with Ed Fidoe, Director and Co-Founder of School 21.

School 21 is the UK’s first school to design learning specifically for Generation Y — those born after the year 2000. The premise of School 21 centres around the idea that the legacy education system that Generation Y is born into is no longer fit for purpose. It simply doesn’t prepare millennials for the jobs that are likely to exist when they have flown the proverbial school nest. Literacy and numeracy skills are no longer enough to develop well rounded adults of the future, they need much more besides.

For this reason, School 21 has completely reimagined the school experience, designing a 21st century approach for the 21st century child. As well as ensuring that children secure the basics through exceptional teaching, School 21 places an acute focus on developing the speaking skills, confidence, emotional resilience and work-pride of every child.

This personal development is hinged on a set of 6 attributes for success in the 21st century: Professionalism, Expertise, Craftsmanship, Eloquence, Grit and Spark. These attributes have been designed to equip every child in School 21 with the tools they will need to become well rounded, exceptional adults of the future.

Why are these values so important? Quite simply because they are the skills employers need in the real world. These 6 attributes enable School 21 students to learn how to master the basics of learning; make beautiful work; find their voice; overcome set-backs; and how to have a real world impact.

All work flows from these values and is reflected in everything the students are asked to produce. Through a unique blend of cross-subject, multi-disciplinary, project-based learning, pupils achieve standards of work skills at levels well beyond those expected for their age group.

One example of School 21’s project-based approach to learning is the following year 8 project on WW1, for which students were asked to produce artwork to form part of an opening exhibition based on the enquiry title ‘What were the conflicts in WW1? For this project alone, students were required to assume the role of an exhibition designer, artist, historian and a tour guide, enabling them to develop a multitude of skill and knowledge areas.

All School 21 projects are an iterative process; students expect to hand in multiple drafts based on feedback from their teachers and peers. Why? Because School 21 instills a growth mind-set in its students from day 1.

School 21’s unique set of attributes have been designed to develop a generation of students that are ready for the world of employment. And it’s working. Just two years into their journey, were deemed ‘Outstanding’ across all areas by Ofsted.

One of School 21’s most compelling USPs is its dedicated speaking skills curriculum. Ed talked me through the concept of this curriculum, which is called VOICE 21.

Ed spoke passionately about how important it is for today’s children to develop the ability to speak and to find their unique voice in the world. Because of this, speaking skills are at the heart of everything they do. For example, at the end of every academic year, each child will present an e-portfolio of their very best work to their parents, coach (tutor) and a governor, a little bit like a viva. So, from age 11 children are encouraged to think critically about their own work and to present themselves and their achievements in a confident and reflective way. Not only does this enable School 21 students to develop their speaking skills, but also pushes the boundaries of their resilience, confidence and ownership of the work they’ve produced.

I quizzed Ed on how School 21 plans to assess the non academic qualities and attributes its students are guided to develop.

“Some of the biggest changes in life will be difficult to measure — that doesn’t mean they’re not important”, Ed responded. “A child’s grit and spark will be harder to measure than their literacy levels, for sure. But we have a view of the teaching that needs to happen to develop those attributes. We don’t know exactly what assessment will look like, but we are observing teacher practice to inform those assessment decisions.”

Self reflection and growth-mindset, it seems, are not just mantras, but are deeply embedded in the school’s philosophy.

It was clear from our conversation that Ed is an exceptionally visionary educational thought-leader. I was curious to know just how difficult it is to turn a vision into reality when it comes to schooling. Ed talked me through the most difficult aspects of setting up a school from scratch, and I was surprised by what I heard.

“It’s a little bit like looking for a house”, Ed revealed, “finding a site is very stressful. Until you do you have to convince parents to believe in a school that doesn’t even have a site, and that’s tough.”

Despite the challenges they faced, School 21 was oversubscribed before they even had a location, thanks to the clarity of vision from the founding team. And an impressive founding team it is too. Ed’s co-founders comprise of Peter Hyman — former strategist to Tony Blair — and Oli de Botton — ex Government education strategy advisor.

Another challenge the founding team faced was finding staff that had the right attitude both towards their own practice, and towards developing and sharing best practice with others. At School 21, teachers are not just expected to achieve great results, but to set themselves and their students exceptionally high expectations.

Ed and I spoke at some length about how the role of the teacher is changing, and how those changes are reflected in School 21. Ed talked me through his view that the role of the teacher is no longer didactic. Instead, a teacher needs to be a facilitator, coach, creator of dynamic content, and to have the ability to teach speaking skills, not just reading and writing.

In order to meet this demand, School 21 is developing its own teacher training programme in conjunction with other forward thinking schools. The programme is still at a very embryonic stage, but will be the first of its kind in the UK, developing future classroom leaders who are self-reflective, can collaborate, have a growth mindset and are able to publicly discuss and challenge each other’s approaches, constantly.

As a final point I asked Ed what he felt the biggest opportunity for school innovation over the next 5 years is likely to be.

“The single biggest impact would be if universities turned around and asked for different entry requirements that are based on the skills people will need in life, rather than their ability to hit top grades in an exam.”

“Teachers also need to be trained in a way that is more sophisticated than they currently are. Teacher training should be en par with the excellence demanded in medicine, and should be a process of ongoing professional development. That’s something we’re striving to achieve through our teacher training programme.”

School 21 is still in the proof of concept stage, it doesn’t yet have exam results to evidence the difference this approach is making. However if Ed’s conviction and clarity of vision are anything to go by, it’s clear that School 21 is developing a blueprint for an education system that is bravely shaking up the status quo, to arm students with a toolkit of knowledge, ideas, attributes and skills to succeed in the 21st century.

To sum up from Ed himself, “School 21 is trying to produce beautiful work that has an impact in the world — work for the good of others; work that has value from day one.”

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