Is the UK in Need of a Micro School Revolution?

New, classroom sized schools are demonstrating the right change, under the right circumstances, at the right time — Tom Beresford, Innovation Unit

The right kind of change for our time

It’s a tough time to be on the side of change in education. There’s been so much of it over the past decade — especially in the English system — and it’s not all been good.

Thinking about new solutions for how we ‘do’ education, schools and learning has never been more important (for why, watch Valerie Hannon’s talk here), but neither has it been more difficult. Schools, and especially state schools in England, are required to focus on meeting ever shifting and higher standards bound by and within the traditional model of school. Those who want innovation are typically either seeing it as a last resort, or looking to retrofit a new pedagogy, tool or scheme into the existing (and by definition rigid) industrial set-up. Neither tends to end well.

The English education context is just not conducive to innovation: based on a narrow, inflexible and unadaptive definition of success, and a single-track pursuit of ‘more of the same’ but at a higher standard, and requiring greater levels of intensity. The dominance of this improvement paradigm paradoxically limits opportunities for the dramatic improvements that can be achieved through the creation of new solutions to the age-old problems of our school system. The promise of free schools as engines of innovation have yet to materialise at any kind of scale, with most (there are of course some beautiful exceptions) opting to forgo the opportunity to innovate.

So in a time when innovation at the level that’s required is a pretty hard sell to English schools and system leaders, we take a look at some glimmers of light — new kinds of school that are demonstrating the right change, under the right circumstances, at the right time.

The emergence of the micro-school

The US has seen a wave of small, new low-cost private schools, as well as new ‘schools-within-schools’. These ‘micro-schools’ serve a small number of students while explicitly offering a way to test and refine alternative approaches to traditional models. They offer an opportunity to open new schools quickly, at low capital investment.

Starting small, in a protected environment which is often outside of traditional accountability measures, enables educators to shake off risk-aversion and pursue both innovative practice and new school designs. These educators are able to be more creative and nimble about what type of data they gather, and more responsive with how they adapt what they’re testing. Typically micro-schools will start with evidence-informed designs that can then take a shape that suits a local context or specific need.

Leveraging new investment in new school designs

Many high-profile figures are hedging their bets on the micro-school approach as a way to innovate in a typically traditional and rigid system.

Sal Khan, ‘the world’s best-known teacher’, founded the Khan Lab School — a micro-school dedicated to research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education. It develops new, personalised practices that centre around the student, all within a teaching philosophy that encourages meaningful inquiry and interdisciplinary work, and utilises blended learning to meet the needs of each student.

Alt Schools, founded by Max Ventilla — previously Head of Personalisation at Google — and backed by venture funding totalling over $133 million, is a small, technology-enabled network of micro-schools delivering a personalised, whole-child-focused education. Leaders at Alt School have been iterating and developing their learning model during it’s start-up period by mobilising a network of educators to work towards a sort of blueprint that can be scaled beyond their network of schools.

But micro-schools are not only the preserve of silicon valley. In Texas, outfits like A+ Unlimited Potential in Houston have opened flexible middle schools that partner with museums and universities. These schools serve as incubators of what they call G.R.E.A.T Personalised Learning — building classroom community, strengthening student engagement and ownership, prioritising relationships, and incorporating online and community resources. Over the last few years they’ve tested this framework and have been able to demonstrate significant impact — to the tune of 2.7 and 2.3 years’ growth in reading and math skills, respectively. The A+ UP micro-school was initially opened as a tuition-free private school to maximise the innovation opportunity, but has now expanded to become a charter network.

Talent Unbound — another Houston-based outfit — is adapting a version of the Acton Academy model in a micro-school setting. Working from a local church complex, their Learner Driven Communities are run by their students, or ‘Heroes’, with teachers acting as guides through curriculum designed to focus on “Learning to Do” and “Learning to Be” as much as “Learning to Know.” The folks at Talent Unbound are regularly refining their model, recently adapting it to work for their first High School cohort.

Is England being left behind?

Micro-schools are pushing the boundary of how we think about instigating change in a time of limited scope and opportunity. They can act as an education sandbox — a step further than charter schools or the English system’s academisation equivalent — by testing and demonstrating new school designs and practice. They can provide a space free from familiar constraints in which change can be a bottom up effort, led from within by educators. Could they also ease some of the pressure in urban settings like London, where more school places are needed but Free Schools are struggling to open because of a lack of sites?

This sort of approach is gaining recognition and credence as a tool for transforming school and learning: a way to reconsider the purpose of education; a way to make it work for all our young people; and a way to build appetite and capacity for solving the systemic problems that we face. Organisations such as the Stanford d.school and their sister School Retool programme, 4.0 Schools and Innovation Unit’s recently launched School Design Lab, are all finding ways to support educators to explore emergent paths to change.

We don’t know how transformative micro-schools might be for education systems globally. There’s a real risk that they become a sort of boutique alternative for a select few. The question must be; can these models grow against the grain of the system, towards a critical mass, while also scaling the impact that they achieved at their respective ‘ground zeros’?

Tom Beresford is a Project Co-ordinator and Researcher at Innovation Unit, and co-leads Innovation Unit’s School Design Lab.

Tom recently embarked on a research fellowship to the US, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, to look at how innovative models of personalised learning scale successfully beyond their site of origin. His Human-scale at Scale report is due in 2017.