New building, old ideas?

I spent the past week delivering a enterprise course at The London Academy.  An interesting and challenging time, with a fantastic finale.  The course I was facilitating was designed for 14 – 19 year olds, these participants were 14, and so at the youngest end, and it showed through their lack of concentration and tendency to disrespect each other and the trainers.

Throughout the course there was an effort to encourage self-responsibility, shared goals and collaborative learning.  This approach seemed foreign to many of the participants and they clearly struggled to function appropriately without being told exactly what to do and how to do it.  However over the week the young people made dramatic improvements and without exception every single one of them showed what they where capable of, producing considered, well-rounded business proposals, which they presented with professionalism and enthusiasm.

The school was fantastically accommodating, truly great hosts, and they went out of their way to make us feel at home and ensure the course was a success.  The building, accommodating over 1300 students, however and the ensuing general atmosphere, in my opinion, left much to be desired.  A multi-million pound project in North London designed by Foster and Partners.  Having grown up in the area and experienced first hand the violent and failing old Edgware School, I was expecting a state of the art, lively, creative, inspiring centre of education.  Instead I was confronted with an outside resembling an airport, and inside like a penitentiary, fully equipped with very visible 24 hour security, (possibly as a result of the fatal stabbing of student Kiyan Prince in 2006) , resulting is a grey, drab, sparse, uninspired block of concrete.

There was no colour, no external signs of learning, creativity or inclusiveness, and little to no greenery.  The outdoor play space was a large car park like fenced-in rectangle, the canteen an over-crowded room with fixed tables and chairs, and the atrium a large, bare hall which encouraged little else than to walk through it as quickly as possible.

From what I observed the relationship between the young people and the teachers appeared authoritarian, hierarchical and plain old-fashioned.  There was much shouting and finger pointing, stern looking teachers walking around with their hands locked firmly behind their backs and teeth gritted waiting expectantly for the inevitable misbehaviour that they will have to reprimand.  I believe that the consequence of this approach showed with the group of young people that I was working with when they were provided with some freedom and the need to be self-reliant.

During my week at the school the only evidence of any inclusive, forward-thinking approaches I discovered was a restorative justice scheme, however it was the Principal who spoke to me about this, the students unfortunately seemed largely unaware of what it meant.

This is of course just an initial impression, I was only there a week and didn’t have the opportunity to observe classes, but as with many other academies it comes across as doctrinaire and possibly even autocratic.  Now, it may be the case that the academy is actually very adaptable, functioning a successful practice of engagement, participation and mutual respect between students and teachers, but if this is indeed the case it keeps it well hidden, and at the very least I would suggest that it could benefit from working much harder at ensuring any progressiveness is made visible to both visitors and, more importantly, students.

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