School innovation in the time of the bean counters

David Holloway

David Holloway OBE has been a community education and youth arts facilitator for over 25 years. In 1993, he established Tolerance in Diversity, winner of the Stop Racism 2000 International Award. David was part of the team that developed the Tower Hamlets Summer University, which was rolled out nationally in 1998. His Millennium Award Schemes funded young people to develop and sustain their own projects across the UK. David is currently developing the Ideas College Creative & Media Alternative Provision Free School in south east London. In 2000 David was awarded the OBE and has an MA in Applied Anthropology.

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Hannah and Sophie sat at the back of the class, heads on the desk, chatting. The rest of the class were working on the brief. Hannah and Sophie were whom I was interested in, labelled and presenting as described: disengaged, badly behaved, badly turned out, but attending school - today. A kind of plus as far as the school was concerned. Myself, by their age, I was not attending. At first they looked indignant and bored in equal measure. Who was this old guy interrupting their conversation? I endeavoured to engage them. They looked irritated. I changed track “Did you see Skins last night?” They engaged. “Who was with who?” “Hey, do you reckon that Cassie will get off with Thomas....?”

"Sophie had set up her own drama company, while Hannah was working with young aborigines."

They were creative and got on the programme. The team said they were mouthy. They were, but they hung in there, worked hard and eventually got a placement at the top creative agency in the north west. They fell out with the school, badly. That was the last I heard of them until I tracked them down through Facebook seven years later for a book chapter I was writing. Sophie had set up her own drama company and was in teacher training, while Hannah was working with young disaffected aborigines in Australia. Sophie said:

I believe that if a student is disruptive then it is my responsibility to make sure they are stimulated enough to actively participate in the sessions, and not to brush them off like we were.

This was the catalyst and seven years on I am opening the Ideas College Creative & Media Alternative Provision Free School for young people who have fallen out with school. The seven years in between was spent on pilot projects, research, application, negotiation, failed attempts and eventually approval.

I have dreams of innovation, of an environment that nurtures, excites and inspires, a curriculum that responds to their interest and reengages and motivates them, democratic and participative teaching and learning. In short, a learning family. To actually achieve this in a time of teaching to exam, narrow subject areas, league tables and Progress 8, is a real challenge.

The ‘progress’ in Progress 8 is helpful if we can set new baselines for these students who may not has progressed at all since leaving Primary school. But the eight GCSEs will be problematic for the majority of our children. So what's the solution? We are negotiating with local schools to place our high ability students for Ebac subjects. But how to find GCSEs in our core English, Maths and Media subjects and how to deliver the new media ICT our student will need, when there aren’t the qualifications that fit their need and provide them with the skills they will need to enter careers in the creative industries?

There are times in meetings with education advisors, architects and officers that I feel like voice in the wilderness. I can see that I am an interference. They all know how to set up a school; they have templates, roster contractors, standard layouts for school buildings, standard assessment frameworks, stock furniture, governance and staffing plans. “Don't worry, this is how we do it.” Yes, this is how it is done, and why our students have been unable to achieve. They are not standard, they don't fit the box and they have often vehemently rejected all of it. They are creative, either intrinsically or in the way they have survived dysfunctional and often damaging early lives. They need commitment, care, trust and time to respond.

"I am dogged, tenacious and determined."

But for me sitting there thinking, at the time of Government approval for the school, that I was going to achieve my dream and 'my kids' would have a place... it was tough. I could give up, but how could I after all that effort and getting this far. I have been here before. I am dogged, tenacious and determined. I have learned when to push and when to hold back. A juggernaut does not turn easily. Sometimes it takes a just a little nudge, or a series of light nudges so it doesn't even know it has moved. Change by stealth.

Okay, so now we need teachers. Where are they? Where are teachers who can listen to these students? Teachers with courage, that are able to challenge, empathise, be honest and deliver the type of participative learning programme that these students will engage with? In Alternative Provision? It is doubtful. Few in the sector are qualified teachers, and those that are have often been compromised by low expectation of the pupil’s capability and a culture that has often provided a safe haven for these kids but has failed to meet the challenge to re-engage them in education. Will we find our teachers in mainstream? Has teaching in the current narrow pedagogic spectrum stunted their ability to teach creatively? Can they relearn? Can they be taught? Will they think our aspirations and methodology are just crazy, unrealistic and worse, progressive?

As we move into our recruitment stage, we wonder if that innovative, inspirational, dynamic, risk taking, enterprising Principal is out there. I am sure they are. They are bored with the daily grind, but have not given up. They are creatively subverting the curriculum, but sick of fighting against the system. They are out there and we need to connect. Will they find us? If you know someone like this send them our way, to innovate our school: Information and an application form can be found at

How would you create your ideal school? Let us know below!

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