Why we’re bringing Big Picture Learning to the UK

Words Louise Thomas

School drop-out rates have never been a focus in England in the same way as they are in the US. So why has Innovation Unit been so interested in bringing Big Picture Learning across the pond?

Big Picture Learning is an impressive network of schools that have been transforming outcomes for students across the US since the early 2000s. They grew from a frustration with the drop-out crisis, and a belief that with the right school design, every young person can finish school with a meaningful path ahead of them.  

Big Picture Learning UK was established this year through a partnership between Innovation Unit and a local authority in the north of England determined to meet the needs of young people in its area, despite huge economic challenges. Over time we hope there will be many schools across the UK using the Big Picture Learning design principles. For now we are working hard towards opening the first Big Picture school in the UK in January 2019. But why?

One reason for England’s relatively high attendance rates is that historically education has been compulsory only to age 16. After age 16 non-participation don’t count as ‘dropping out’. Only recently was mandatory participation in some kind of training or education extended to 18, but in practice it has been difficult to enforce.

Instead of ‘drop-out’, those who leave school at 16 and don’t immediately get a job earn the label ‘NEET’ (Not in Education Employment or Training), an epithet conjuring similar negative images. The key difference is that non-participation of this group does not land at the door of schools or of education ministers. The school system is accountable for students getting certificates (GCSEs) at age 16 and after that it’s really up to the young people to choose the next step. If they’ve secured the right grades, they could progress to A Levels that might secure them a university place, or an alternative (often ‘vocational’) qualification that might land them directly in a career. If not, they might start working somewhere with sufficient training provision to ‘count’ as participation in learning – or to become ‘NEET’.

Not surprisingly, patterns of exit from formal education at age 16 and 18 mirror economic and social divides. And the hidden patterns of disengagement that young people experience before age 16 appear to do the same.

But increasingly these patterns of disengagement are not so well hidden. This summer has seen something of an awakening to the problem of exclusion from school in England, with story after story revealing the vast difference in fixed term and permanent exclusions between different localities and different education providers. The number of permanent exclusions nationally rose by 1,000 between 2016 and 2017, now equating to 40 young people expelled from school each day.

Some blame the school choice system and high stakes competitive league tables which produce incentives for school chains (“Academy Trusts”) to exclude children who they think will not perform well in exams. Others blame persistent poverty and unemployment in certain parts of the country, with its attendant issues of high crime, poor housing, and families who struggle to cope. Still others cite ‘parental aspiration’ as the problem, and seek to rescue children from families who are seen to be restricting their children’s futures through their own low expectations. Further arguments report a lack of teacher and headteacher powers to discipline students as reason why young people are out of control in our schools, or perhaps social media and violent video games are at fault.

Whichever your pet theory about the reasons, what is true in almost all cases is that it is the behaviour of young people that triggers an exclusion, so it is, in essence, a punishment for poor behaviour. Like all institutions, schools seek to establish norms for and to police behaviour. You don’t have to be a Foucauldian to recognize that poor behaviour in schools is just the most visible manifestation of an unwillingness or inability to conform to the norms of schooling.

Many of these students end up in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs): locally run institutions for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools. I once visited one of the largest PRUs in the country. Like many it was doing a valiant job under extreme circumstances (PRUs are funded per pupil, who arrive at various points in various volumes throughout the year, making budget planning near impossible). It serves a wide range of vulnerable students from recently arrived asylum seekers to gang members. It made me realise that behavioural issues in school are an indicator of a wide range of things, ranging from significant trauma as a result of experiences outside of school, through an inability to participate in school routines due to known and unknown learning or health issues, to simple inability to see the point of what they’re being asked to do.

But too often schools find out about all of these things through behaviour, and the consequence of poor behaviour is further punishment of the child. Often it is only later when a child lands in a place better equipped to understand their needs, that the underlying issues get addressed. The PRU I visited told me that 100% of the children coming to them from local schools had an undiagnosed learning or speech and language need. It seems that local systems requires children to be punished through exclusion in order to access the right support that would enable them to learn in the first place. Put another way, they have to behave poorly in order to get an education.

So, we have a choice: we can fund intensive treatment centres for poorly behaved kids, to get them diagnosed and patched up and sent back into the schooling system that they have had such a poor experience of. Such re-entry is what passes for success in our alternative provision system.

Or, we can provide a real alternative: a school in which knowing young people deeply is core to the professional roles of staff, in which the interests, aspirations and dreams of young people are the building blocks of curriculum. The hallmarks of the design of Big Picture UK are fifteen students in an ‘advisory’ group, learning opportunities for all students with adult mentors in the community, and a teacher who stays with you year on year.

We think the choice is clear. The case for introducing Big Picture Learning to the UK has never been stronger.