Chapter Seven



Schools do not exist in a vacuum: they are part of a community, often in a network of schools, and overseen by local government or similar authority. Their learners will eventually seek to take up places in higher education or in employment. This means that lasting, impactful change is best implemented in the larger system. We propose that the components of this larger whole be thought of as an ecosystem, rather than a hierarchical series of superstructures imposed one on top of the other.

Because we are focusing on a general design here rather than specific implementation, this chapter will discuss the elements of this ecosystem in generic terms. We will outline how each element can support our new direction for learning, and how they should interact if the transition is to be successful and sustainable. The specific details of any particular implementation will need to be adapted to local conditions and governance.

The specific desired outcomes of the learning journey must be determined through mechanisms that include all stakeholders. That means making the goals explicit to students, teachers, parents and caregivers. Since the end goals of high school education will almost certainly change, similar discussions outside the school must engage local employers, industries and higher education establishments with our vision of the new type of learner as a more desirable employee, entrepreneur, community member and student in higher education.

Components of the Learning Ecosystem

Partnership Council

Each school, or group of regional schools, should be overseen by a committee of stakeholders representing parents and caregivers, primary, higher and further education professionals, community groups and leaders, student voice and local employers. This local oversight is essential to our goal of linking schools tightly with the communities in which they exist. This Partnership Council, together with the school itself, helps determine the school’s unique “flavor,” pushing, challenging, and supporting learning within that community.

The council takes responsibility for ensuring that the school is running well, maintaining its autonomy, protected from inappropriate government or school board interference and delivering the kinds of learning opportunities for which it was established. The council will also help establish and provide critical feedback on the appropriate school calendar and day structure. Though the rich variety of local contexts and requirements prevents us from making explicit recommendations, this will almost certainly differ from the structures presently in place – though not necessarily from the structures that have been recommended.

In 2012 the RSA pointed out, that in the UK, the case for school-based curriculum design “seems to have been won. Politicians and headteachers appear to agree that the nationally prescribed body of knowledge contained in the National Curriculum should provide a minimum entitlement, but should not define everything that is taught in schools.”74 In the UK, the national curriculum was only meant to take 80% of time in school, providing a minimum requirement. The remaining 20% was intended as time directed by the school working as an autonomous body, focused on giving wider experience, often directed by aspects of the local community. In a 2011 review, Tim Oates, Chair of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review, reported that this “vital” distinction has been generally lost.75 However, where it applies, schools appear to be more successful, according to an OECD analysis.76

Another OECD analysis, published in 2004, declares that a “focus on improving school quality, particularly in terms of improved student performance, is closely aligned with school autonomy.”77 The report goes on to state that “In most of the countries that performed well in PISA 2000, local authorities and schools now have substantial freedom to adapt and implement educational content and/or to allocate and manage resources” and “In PISA countries, there is a clear positive relationship between certain aspects of autonomy and performance, most notably the choice of which courses are offered, and to a lesser extent autonomy over budget allocation.” Giving principals the authority to recruit teachers that they sense will work best in their school is another area of autonomy that has significant positive impact. Studies have shown that an effective principal can create a significant improvement in the overall effectiveness of the teaching body in the school.78

The Partnership Council will operate its accountability measures towards the school management/principal, and towards the government/school board, and will have authority to reject specific measures suggested from either direction without risk of losing funding essential to maintaining the smooth and continual learning opportunities the school offers.

Governance/School Board

According to a World Bank report, “School autonomy and accountability are key components to ensure education quality. The transfer of core managerial responsibilities to schools promotes local accountability, helps reflect local priorities, values, and needs, and gives teachers the opportunity to establish a personal commitment to students and their parents.”79

The government or school board should continue to set the learning goals for its schools – the detailed list of skills and competencies, breadth and depth requirements for graduation and suggested subject areas for projects. However, the autonomy of schools is key to fostering localized innovations. Schools should be free to implement strategies to achieve the learning goals as they see fit. Being accountable to the government/school board means there will be checks and balances in place to ensure this is a positive change. According to the World Bank, one place this system has worked well is Finland. Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute of Education, University of London, says that, as long as it occurs within a coherent education system, “the evidence from the world’s most successful systems is that school autonomy is part of what is needed.” 80

It is worth emphasizing that the chief role of the school board is in ensuring standards are being met. As the OECD points out, where accountability measures fail, autonomous schools provide far lower quality of education. “In countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better, says a 2011 report. However, in countries where schools do not post achievement data publicly, “schools with greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to perform worse.” In short, the report says, school autonomy in allocating resources tends to be associated with good performance in those education systems where most schools post achievement data publicly. This suggests that creating a combination of several autonomy and accountability policies, not just a single, isolated policy, is related to better student outcomes.”81

School Leadership

The most important role of the school principal is to be the chief risk-taker for the school – a role rather different from the principal’s role today in most systems. They will manage a system that constantly innovates through trial and error. They are freed from a system where the performance of their institution is consistently measured against the performance of other, fundamentally different institutions. Yet they are still concerned with results and outcomes. The job description, therefore, is one of an entrepreneur who must steer learning professionals and learners towards successful integration of learners into the next stage of their learning journey. It has been compared, in one excellent book on transformational school leadership, to rebuilding a passenger jet – while the jet is flying and full of passengers.82

The principal will be a partner of the Partnership Council of parents and caregivers, local industry, and community members. The principal will also be a partner of the school board or government that feeds and supports the school. The principal’s performance will not be measured on grades or numbers entering higher education, but on reports compiled by the stakeholder group comprising factors such as learner engagement, teacher and other learning professional engagement, community reactions to school graduates’ performance (in education, community roles, professional work and so on). The school’s reputation will not be built on achieved grades or even grade improvement over a learner’s time at the school, but on its graduates’ success in post- secondary life, as measured by feedback from employers and higher education institutes to the stakeholder committee and other groups.

This is clearly an enormous shift, and runs the risk of allowing under-performance to go unchallenged for long periods of time. Known issues include “social loafing,” where students under-perform because of the absence of high-stakes testing; it also means parents can’t put pressure on students to study in “exam season,” making it perhaps more difficult for them to know how to engage with their children’s learning. However, the self-motivation in our vision of learning will be much higher than in traditional forms of education, and these issues are unlikely to manifest as problems. Nonetheless, assessment criteria and pathways for performance-checking and ongoing improvement of the school and its principal should be introduced and established. As these will depend on local context, we consider it beyond our scope to lay out details of such measures here. However, such measures do exist, and more are being developed.83

Employers and Tertiary Education Institutions

The change will be similarly significant for those who will partner with these learners after they leave high school. It cannot be denied that employers and higher education institutions will have some adapting to do in order to sift candidates with new-style assessment portfolios. However, many among them are already moving in this direction, having realized that traditional grades provide an unreliable measure of the skills and qualities of those who are coming their way. The College Board, for example, has instigated a project that tests analytical, practical and creative skills to supplement the SAT scores traditionally used for college entrance testing.84 This has had the effect of reducing disparity between ethnic groups in terms of college acceptance.85

Similarly, employers have shifted their criteria for employee selection. In a national survey of business and nonprofit leaders in the US, 93% said they valued “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” over a candidate’s undergraduate major.86 95% said they are looking for employees who will be able to innovate in the workplace and demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills and the capacity for continued new learning. Though it is not yet clear how employers will assess these skills, there are moves to make that possible. For example, the Australian organization, ATC21S, is developing assessment techniques for 21st century skills.87 Employers who have already incorporated skills-based hiring into their practices have seen a 25–75% reduction in staff turnover, 50–70% reduction in time to hire, 70% reduction in cost-to-hire and a 50% reduction in time to train, according to research by Gates Foundation-funded research.88 In short, skills-based hiring is five times more predictive of success on the job than hiring by degree alone. The improved performance of the lifelong learners emerging from these shifted learning environments equipped with powerful Habits of Mind will be significant enough to raise engagement and make the inconvenience of re-thinking entry criteria worthwhile.


The specific path that needs to be taken to reach the learning goals should be determined inside individual places of learning, rather than imposed from a higher level. Though government and school boards will set learning goals, teachers and other learning professionals will be free to draw on their own experience and understanding to help guide learners towards the best way of reaching their learning goals. To this end, school principals should work with teachers and learners to find the best learning methods for each context.

We see teachers fitting very comfortably into such an ecosystem and enjoying respect and freedom while understanding what it is they are expected to deliver. Research carried out in British Columbia, Canada, and elsewhere has shown that teachers become most engaged when they see themselves as key contributors to students’ learning and development.89 What is more, working with colleagues in schools while given high levels of autonomy “provided high satisfaction and increased teacher engagement.” Conversely, where these factors are absent or negative, “teacher attrition is likely to increase.” Freed from teaching methodologies imposed from above, teachers in our system are likely to experience a large increase in engagement. However, given the radically different environment, it is worth noting that training for teaching within this ecosystem will need significant shifts, and should include specific training on the way the ecosystem works – especially in the efficient use of knowledge networks we will introduce shortly. We address wider issues of teacher training in Chapter 4.


Learners will see an increase in their influence on how learning happens and what they are to learn, which should create a huge upswing in engagement. It is an essential consequence of our Learners’ Charter of Rights (see Appendix) that student voice should be heard and appreciated at every level of decision-making in the learning ecosystem. This voice should not be sought as an afterthought that rubber stamps decisions that have already been made, but as part of the process of sifting evidence and opinion in pursuit of optimal learning strategies. Our new system puts the learner at the centre of the learning process and it is vital that the large size of the educational infrastructure does not dilute the influence and involvement of the learner in determining what that infrastructure allows to happen. Student voice has been shown to be a key contributor to individual academic success and resilience, and to institutional success.90

Community (Including Parents and Caregivers)

With the right implementation, the learners’ parents and caregivers, and the local members of the public, will have an increased role to play in this learning ecosystem. The new setup involves as many members of the school’s community as can be arranged taking on roles as supporters of learning, whether through school visits, home-based support, hosting work experience or project support roles. It is only natural that members of the community will have some skepticism towards such a shift in education provision, but the results will quickly speak for themselves.

The Learning Network

An essential part of the learning ecosystem will be the networks through which students, teachers, schools and leaders share methodologies and experience. Though each school runs its own show, there is no reason, in this age of easy communication, for individual establishments and individuals to re-invent the wheel or spend time researching methodologies that others in their network are already aware of. We see the ecosystem to be one of knowledge-sharing for mutual and global benefit. Communities of learning professionals are already heading into this sphere, and the learning ecosystem should include structures that make it ever easier. Reports of failures, as well as successes, must be transmitted through the networks of the learning ecosystem without fear of derision or censure. Encouraging experimentation, innovation, use of data and research

Our Blueprint does not guarantee success in every detail in every school. Indeed, we confidently predict that the adaptation and implementation of our recommendations will fall short of our goals from time to time. Schools will need to embrace this risk by encouraging learning methodologies and learning environments that know how to fail “smartly.” It is vital that schools welcome occasional failure as an opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Reports of failures, as well as successes, must be transmitted through the networks of the learning ecosystem without fear of derision or censure. Failure should be analyzed, and analyses transmitted to others, in order to shorten the innovation cycle that leads to improved learning experiences.

We do not advocate the supremacy of data in all situations, but when relevant, high quality data sets are available, they should be informing open, transparent decision-making processes. In an age where information is so easily available, and where so much high-quality research into learning has been carried out, it is negligent to base any decisions that will affect learning outcomes on vague senses of what is the right thing to do in a given situation. Where high-quality evidence points to the benefits of a particular methodology or practice, all inhabitants of the learning ecosystem must be prepared to ask serious questions of any ideologies, gut feelings, traditions or cultural proclivities that stand in opposition to its conclusions.

An example might be in scheduling the school day. Research suggests that, if improved engagement in learning is a goal, school hours might be better set with reference to our understanding of circadian rhythms in the brain rather than by existing bus timetables or typical business hours. For example, a 25-minute delay in the start of the school day has been shown to increase sleep duration on a school night and improve the mood and attentiveness of students.91 Members of the learning ecosystem will have the freedom to allow the learning goals to drive the format of the system. That is not to say data will always trump cultural considerations, but a strong network will allow dissemination and discussion of evidence and suggestions for putting its lessons to work. Individual experience can inform adaptations of this evidence’s conclusions to particular situations, again, through networking loops.


A school should exist within an ecosystem that makes local employers, higher education institutions, community groups, parents and caregivers all partners in the learning experience. Schools should operate with autonomy as far as budget allocation, teaching methodologies, trials of new practices and specific learning goals are concerned, but must remain accountable to an oversight group composed of representatives from the various groups within the learning ecosystem. The skills and abilities of the school principal are central to the successful operation of this model for learning.


74. Rhomas L, 2012. “Thinking About an Area Based Curriculum: A Guide for Practitioners,” RSA

75. NAHT, 2011. “Way Beyond ‘Just Knowledge’ – the Direction of the National Curriculum Review.”

76. OECD 2009. “Education at a Glance 2009” 

77.  OECD, 2004. “What Makes School Systems Perform?” 

78. Center for Public Education. “The Principal Perspective: Full Report.”

79. World Bank. 2012. “Finland – School Autonomy and Accountability. Systems Approach for Better Education results (SABER) Country Report.” 

80. Institute of Education, University of London. “School Autonomy Must Sit Within A Coherent System, IOE Director tells Conservative Party Conference Fringe meeting.” 

81, OECD, 2011. “School Autonomy and Accountability: Are they Related to Student Performance?” PISA in Focus 2011/9 (October).

82. Tony Wagner et al, 2005. Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools, John Wiley & Sons (2010)

83. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation‘s approach.

84. STenberg, R, 2006. “The Rainbow Project: Enhancing the SAT through Assessments of Analytical, Practical, and Creative Skills.” 

85. Jaschik, s, 2010. “College Admission for the 21st Century.” 

86. Hart Research Associates, 2013. “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.”

87. Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (Atc21s).

88. Cobb, A, 2013. “Solving the Hiring Disconnect: Focus on Skills.” 

89. C. naylor and M. White, 2009. “The Worklife of BC Teachers in 2009: A BCTF Study of Working And Learning Condition.” Vancouver, BC: BC Teachers‘ Federation, 2010.

90. Fox, K. et al, 2013. “Student Voice and Resilience in Learning.” 

91. Boergers, J et al, 2014. “Later School Start Time is Associated with Improved Sleep and Daytime Functioning in Adolescents.” 2014 Jan;35(1):11-7.

“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”

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