Assessment, Curriculum, EdTech & Design, Promising Practices

Whole Education: Provoking a Movement for Change in the UK

The gulf between what education systems provide and what children and young people need is widening. Schools and colleges rightly try to ensure that young people are literate, numerate, and gain academic qualifications. But the emphasis on testing and passing exams often squeezes out the development of other skills and qualities that are just as vital in today’s world.

Whole Education began in England in 2010 in response to this challenge. Its seeds can be traced back to 2008, when the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacture and Commerce brought together a large number of organizations to develop and sign a “Charter for 21st Century Education.”[1] A number of organizations involved in this process were keen to move beyond a simple charter to take action; thus Whole Education was born as an independent, non-political, non-profit organization committed to ensuring all young people develop the range of skills, qualities, and knowledge they will need for the future. At our heart is a list of partner organizations that share our views. Together, we are working with a growing number of schools that – despite the pressures of league tables (school rankings) – remain committed to helping young people develop in a more holistic way.

Most schools committed to providing what we would call a “whole education” tend to be led by the brave leaders who swim against the tide. They have a clear vision of learning and a strong moral purpose to do what is best for their students, not simply to get the school high up on league tables. They appear to be in the minority. We intend to change that.

In the English education system, the most important assessment of students and schools occurs when, at age 16, students pursue their General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs). A key measure of school and system success is the number of students who attain five good GCSEs (A-C grade) and are thereby eligible to obtain the A-level qualification necessary for university.

When Tony Blair’s Labour government came into power in 1997, it heralded a fundamental change in the role of government in education. Despite the introduction of a National Curriculum in 1992, implementation had been left largely in the hands of local education authorities. Under Tony Blair, government assumed greater responsibility for delivery by setting targets and monitoring outcomes, effectively diminishing the role of local authorities. Their role was further diminished by the introduction of the Academies Program, with academies funded by central government and independent of local government control.

Despite some undoubted achievements, the Labour government was criticized for excessive centralized micromanagement and overburdening schools with a constant stream of initiatives; encouraging a culture of “teaching to the test”; failing to tackle the divide between academic and vocational education; failing to deliver the knowledge, skills, and qualities employers need; and presiding over an escalation in the number of young people not in education, employment, or training (NEET).

The coalition government of David Cameron, which came into power in May 2010, has introduced its own reforms. Most notably they have rapidly expanded the Academies Program, with some estimates suggesting over 80 percent of all secondaries will be academies by 2013. The general direction of reform of the current government is to give greater autonomy to schools over what to teach and what to include in the curriculum – albeit with increased accountability for results.

While the context of the system has changed, Whole Education sees a number of longstanding challenges that need to be addressed:

  • Lack of workplace skills. Employers continue to express concerns about the lack of employability skills in young people. A recent report by the Confederation of British Industry entitled “Building for Growth” highlighted a number of issues regarding the skills and qualities businesses need but are not finding in too many school leavers.[2]
  • High levels of disengagement with learning. The number of young people “not in education, employment or training” has escalated to a record high, from 600,000 in 2000 to almost one million in 2010.[3] In addition, record numbers of young people are dropping out of university, struggling to cope as independent learners after years in “exam-factory” schools.
  • Well-being and mental health concerns. In UNICEF’s investigation into child well-being across the world’s industrialized nations, the UK came in at the bottom, below countries with significantly lower levels of GDP and higher levels of poverty.[4]
  • Dominant assessment system. We have an assessment system that has rewarded schools for teaching to the test, at both the primary and secondary levels, rather than nurturing the potential of the child. A report from the Education Select Committee on the newly introduced English Baccalaureate – which places schools on a league table based on numbers of students achieving A-C grades in English, Maths, Science, Languages, Humanities – has provided some damning conclusions about the impact of such a measure young peoples’ ability to pursue a broad and balanced education.[5]

In short, we have created a system in England – which other countries appear to be following – that is very high on targets and league tables based on exam results. This trajectory is being continued with the current government, with promises of increased data transparency and more local discretion on what pupils should learn. However, local discretion may not work in favour of a more balanced curriculum; many head teachers (particularly those who have become heads in the last ten years) have become accustomed to top down prescription and “playing the exam factory game.”

Of course, helping young people succeed academically is – and should be – a top priority for all schools. But there is a growing feeling in the profession that too much focus on the “system measures” is squeezing out a wider set of skills (leadership, teamwork, communication) and qualities (resilience, empathy, creativity). It is in response to this challenge – and the current policy environment – that Whole Education has emerged. We are seeking to be a constructive partner to work with schools, policymakers, and a wide range of stakeholders to help young people develop the full range of skills, qualities, and knowledge they will need for life and work in the 21st century.

There is a growing feeling in the profession that too much focus on the “system measures” is squeezing out a wider set of skills (leadership, teamwork, communication) and qualities (resilience, empathy, creativity).

Our work is evolving in the context of David Cameron’s “Big Society” agenda. Instead of relying on local authorities, officials, or central government to respond to issues they face daily, individuals and communities are to have more power and responsibility for improving their own neighbourhoods and local services. This creates a conducive environment for Whole Education to support schools, and in doing so to support reform in the system.

Whole Education’s eleven common beliefs that all stakeholders and partners adhere to can be distilled down into three key points:

  • Helping young people develop a range of skills, qualities, and knowledge they will need for the future;
  • Making learning more relevant and engaging, with young people at the centre of their own learning, balancing practical and theoretical learning;
  • Recognizing that learning does not just take place within the school or the classroom, and that the best schools engage with the wider community to raise aspirations and opportunities for learning.

About 30 partner organizations are already working with young people to help provide a “whole education”. Any organization or project wishing to be a partner has to show how its offer to schools or young people relates to the above points. Some partners focus on specific issues. For example Speakers Trust helps develop communication skills, and UK Sports Leaders helps develop leadership skills through sport. Some focus on specific qualities, such as Channel 4, which has developed online games that help foster resilience and well-being in young people. Others focus on making subject knowledge areas more engaging, such as Discovering Language. Some of our partners offer alternative forms of assessment. One example is the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness from ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network). Another is the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) – a tool that measures young people’s “learning power” along seven dimensions. Some of our partners – like Building Learning Power, RSA Opening Minds, and Learning Futures – encompass many of the points above (see footer).

All but a few of our partners are non-profit organizations, and their projects range in size from the largest, ASDAN, which works with over two thirds of all secondary schools in England to smaller, innovative projects and organizations doing very exciting work in a few schools. All share a passionate commitment to the beliefs and mission of Whole Education.

That mission is to ensure that all young people have access to a holistic education, as reflected in the above three points, within ten years. In pursuit of that goal, we have three operational aims we are focused on in the next three years:

  • To support the development and spread of “whole education” practice in schools;
  • To engage schools and a wider group of stakeholders (i.e. young people, parents, local communities and employers) to collectively influence policy;
  • To create a sustainable organization capable of delivering against our mission.

In December 2010, our first annual conference (entitled What Are Schools For?) was a sellout. School leaders, academics, and employers in attendance all agreed that we need to provide young people with a more rounded education, and that the skills and qualities employers are seeking are the same skills and qualities that young people need for life, to build relationships, and to be happy. This led to a full-page article in The Times.[6] Since then, we have embarked on a series of events (entitled Whose Curriculum Is It Anyway?) targeted specifically at school leaders. These events allowed school leaders to engage with our 30 partner organizations in one place, encouraged them to be creative with their curriculum and to “look out, not up” (to government) when planning the curriculum.

At these events, we encourage schools to join the Whole Education Network so that they can continue to learn and engage with our partners and – more importantly – with each other. Within less than six months more than 200 schools have signed up. We aim to have 1,250 by August 2012 and 3,000 by August 2013. Key nodes in the network will be “champion schools” that are high performing on league tables, but also passionately committed to providing a holistic education and supporting other schools to do so. An initial analysis of the 150 secondary schools in the network so far shows their academic results exceed the national average by approximately 10 percent, and 90 percent are showing an upward trajectory in results. It appears that the schools attracted to Whole Education so far are those that might be seen to be leading the system.

Our aim is to spread whole education practices among and within all schools. However, focusing on that alone will not help us achieve our mission. Early focus group research showed that young people, parents, teachers, and employers already agree with our views. So, in a sense, within the education community we are preaching to the converted. We need to influence the wider system to recognize that education is more than getting the exam results you need to get into the best university – important though that is for most young people.

This is where our second aim is key – engaging a much wider group of stakeholders. If we can add growing numbers of young people, parents, community members, and employers making the same case, this will become a movement.

The early signs are positive. We are working with a few large businesses that are keen to engage with Whole Education Network schools to offer work experience opportunities. Through one of our partners, Space Unlimited, we will be working with young people to help “refresh” these businesses’ work experience programs to improve the experience for all. We are also discussing plans to support the development of Whole Education towns and villages, to explore what it will look like to have local communities working together – young people, scouts, girl guides, sports teams, local employers, parents…and more – to help all young people develop the skills, qualities, and knowledge they will need for the future.

Our main aim in the next three years around influencing policy is to be both “unignorable” and a constructive partner with government. Our activities so far have been mainly reactive. We are coordinating a campaign in response to the English Baccalaureate, which we believe will have an overall negative impact. However, rather than negative campaigning, we are building on a groundswell of opposition to focus on what “A Better Baccalaureate” would look like.[7]

If we meet our goals – if in three years we have 3,000 schools actively engaged in our network, with 30 champion schools at the heart of that network that are deemed by the system to be outstanding – our ability to influence government and policymakers will grow. If we have large numbers of young people and parents supporting our beliefs, we will be a powerful voice that government cannot ignore. If we can show what towns and villages can achieve by working together in support of young people, we will be demonstrating the Big Society in action. And if we have big employers actively endorsing what we are doing, will have a significant impact on those who make decisions about the policies governing our education system.

If we have large numbers of young people and parents supporting our beliefs, we will be a powerful voice that government cannot ignore.

For now though, most of our focus is on supporting schools committed to providing a whole education and – through the Whole Education Network – helping them to do so. If you want to follow us on our journey visit www.wholeeducation.org or email douglas@wholeeducation.org

EN BREF – Le fossé entre ce que procurent les systèmes d’éducation et ce qu’il faut aux enfants et aux jeunes s’élargit. L’accent mis sur les tests et la réussite aux examens nuit au développement d’autres compétences et qualités qui sont tout aussi vitales aujourd’hui. Le réseau Whole Education (éducation entière) a vu le jour en Angleterre en 2010 afin de relever ce défi. Il s’agit essentiellement d’un groupe d’organisations partenaires qui travaillent avec un nombre croissant d’écoles qui désirent aider les jeunes à se développer de façon plus holistique. Whole Education vise à constituer un partenaire constructif qui collabore avec les écoles, les responsables de politiques et un large éventail de parties prenantes afin d’aider les jeunes à acquérir toute la gamme des compétences, qualités et connaissances qu’il leur faut pour vivre et travailler au 21e siècle. Son objectif plus large consiste à exercer de l’influence sur la société et à lancer un « mouvement » qui se répercutera sur les responsables de politiques.

Whole Education Partners at Work

RSA Opening Minds is an imaginative competency-based curriculum that meets the requirements of the national curriculum and examining bodies. Teachers design and develop a curriculum for their own schools based around the development of five key competences: citizenship, learning, managing information, managing situations, and relating to people. It offers students a more holistic and coherent way of learning which allows them to make connections and apply knowledge across different subject areas. http://www.rsaopeningminds.org.uk/

Learning Futures focuses on learner engagement. Students are encouraged to have a “deep engagement” with learning, caring both about the outcome and the development of their learning. The belief is that learning should connect students’ academic and personal lives; foster a sense of value and agency; extend beyond examinations to independent informal learning; appeal and matter to students.

Learning Futures schools have co-constructed four principles for enhanced school engagement:

  • Enquiry based learning, often within an extended project.
  • School as “base camp” where learning is organized, taking students into their communities and further afield.
  • Extended, reciprocal learning relationships­ – peer to peer, student-teacher, or involving parents, external mentors, businesses, external experts, and others.
  • School as a “common ground”, with all its users sharing access to its resources and responsibility for its development


Building Learning Power (BLP) helps young people become better learners, both in school and out, by systematically cultivating habits and attitudes that enable young people to face difficulty and uncertainty. These include the 4R’s: resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, and reciprocity. BLP offers a wide range of practical seeds and frameworks that stimulate and guide the development of culture change in the classroom. 

[1] http://www.thersa.org/projects/past-projects/education-campaign/education-for-the-21st-century-a-charter

[2] CBI Building for Growth: business priorities for education and skills; Education and Skills Survey (2011)

[3] Department for Education (2010) – www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/STR/d000987/index.shtml; www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/feb/24/neets-statistics

[4] Unicef, Child Well Being in Rich Countries

[5] House of Commons Education Select Committee Report: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/851/85102.htm

[6] “How a Holistic Approach to Education can Help Business,” The Times, 10 December 2010.

[7] www.abetterbaccalaureate.org

Meet the Expert(s)

Douglas Archibald

Douglas Archibald is Director of Whole Education. His early career focused on supporting large-scale organizational change in private sector organizations. He is a Partner at the Innovation Unit, which supports innovation in education and was recently published in Harvard Business Review (March 2010) on the power of networks to spread practice.

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