Designing education #2: democratic principles

Today there’s a TEDx event at the Houses of Parliament with a focus on rebooting democracy. I’ve been asked to speak at a spin-off event at Hub Westminster with the Education Foundation.

It’s the perfect reason to think about the next mapping I want to do for looking at education design. How would we apply some key democratic principles if we were doing it from scratch?

First up, the principles. There are a few. Here are thirteen, that I lifted from


I’m going to keep this mapping thing simple, and take the first three of the above thirteen, outline what they entail, and how it could be applied in an education context. A lot of schools are engaging in this approach already. Which is neat. Even though I’m not a massive academies fan in principle, I do love what the UCL Academy are doing.

Definitions are all taken from


One of the most basic signposts of a democracy is citizen participation in government. Participation is the key role of citizens in democracy. It is not only their right, but it is their duty. Citizen participation may take many forms including standing for election, voting in elections, becoming informed, debating issues, attending community or civic meetings, being members of private voluntary organizations, paying taxes, and even protesting. Participation builds a better democracy.

How this can be applied to education: empower students to be active participants in shaping and curating what they want to learn, as well as becoming an active part of the school. Enable them to understand how to express their opinions, debate issues that affect them and their communities both in and out of the classroom, and take a proactive role in creating a school and an ethos that benefits them and their peers. More than just school councils.

How this can be applied to classroom teaching: this is easy! Down with the textbooks and the copying from the board. Out with the desks. Boom.


Democratic societies emphasize the principle that all people are equal. Equality means that all individuals are valued equally, have equal opportunities, and may not be discriminated against because of their race, religion, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation. In a democracy, individuals and groups still maintain their right to have different cultures, personalities, languages and beliefs.

How this can be applied to education: provide schools with equal and fair resources to support students, particularly those who come from less privileged circumstances, so that schools enable everybody to fulfil their potential by the time they leave compulsory education rather than just a few.

How this can be applied to classroom teaching: Make equality a fundamental tenet of every interaction in a school. Devise a range of activities that support multiple learning styles and that encourage the development of a range of skills, talents and interests equally, not just the academic ones.


Democratic societies are politically tolerant. This means that while the majority of the people rule in a democracy, the rights of the minority must be protected. People who are not in power must be allowed to organize and speak out. Minorities are sometimes referred to as the opposition because they may have ideas which are different from the majority. Individual citizens must also learn to be tolerant of each other. A democratic society is often composed of people from different cultures, racial, religious and ethnic groups who have viewpoints different from the majority of the population. A democratic society is enriched by diversity. If the majority deny rights to and destroy their opposition, then they also destroy democracy. One goal of democracy is to make the best possible  decision for the society. To achieve this, respect for all people and their points of view is needed. Decisions are more likely to be accepted, even by those who oppose them, if all citizens have been allowed to discuss, debate and question them.

How this can be applied to education: reestablish a genuinely comprehensive system that enables young people to interact with a diverse range of peers from as young as possible. Make schools porous, enabling local communities, businesses and individuals to engage with them.

How this can be applied to classroom teaching: Build opportunities for students to design and debate the learning objectives and outcomes that they want, while being respectful of the diversity of opinion. Teach consensus and compromise, as well as confidence to express own opinions.

Finally, here’s what I’m saying at the panel today. I’d love to know your thoughts.

I only became seriously interested in politics myself when, as a teacher in a south London school, I saw first hand the chasm of opportunity that exists in this country. What young people end up doing, or not doing, has nothing to do with their actual capabilities or potential, and everything to do with the lottery of circumstance.


There are four key issues at play that have an impact on young people’s engagement with the democratic process, especially marginalised young people

    1. In school, dissonance between what they are studying, what they need, and what jobs and education they will be able to access.
    2. Whenever you leave school, there are few jobs available—over a million young people are still unemployed
    3. “Soft” skills or aptitudes are rarely taught in schools—so the young people who don’t have effective, empathetic role models, are the ones who are failed.
    4. The UK has some of the worst levels of social mobility in the developed world—4% of policitians and business leaders come from one school in this country, Eton.

If we want young people to participate fully in, rather than to protest strongly against, society, then we have to prepare for a major social and cultural shift.

    • We need to involve young people in the democratic process, and to make that involvement feel authentic rather than photo-oppy.
    • We need to design an education system that empowers teachers and students to explore what is important and relevant to them; making them feel connected to society rather than cut off from it.
      • Students discuss issues and concerns and hopes
      • Teachers help them to connect these to wider societal patterns
    • We need to create opportunities for intergenerational and cross-class communication and collaboration.

It’s understandable that there’s a tendency for a lot of people just to look out for themselves, if they live in a society that doesn’t seem to look out for them. If we want young people to engage with democracy, we first need them to experience the benefits of being part of a positive, empowered, effective community—one that is both respectful and respected.


In other words, we need to start by making strong ties stronger.


The anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that the optimal group size for stable stable interaction and collaboration is 150 people. Where’s a community that size to be found in this country? On a street, in a block of flats, in a school year, in a pub? If we want to reboot democracy and engage young people, I suggest that’s these are the places where we start.


Super entrepreneurs: ditch the ego and don some pants.

What makes a successful entrepreneur?

It would be so great to know the answer to that. And then there was me, being asked to give an answer to that question, in front of a bunch of brilliant young people. Last week. At The Company—a new project run by ever-awesome London youth centre The Winch.


Man. Me? Answer THIS?

First up, I run a CHARITY. Success has a different meaning in my world. If only I knew more about it in the corporate, for-profit sense. Seriously. My idea of success is not everyone’s, at the same time I need to know more about theirs.

Smug Face

Second up, I don’t really bill myself as an ENTREPRENEUR. I’ve now been trying to run Spark+Mettle for the last two years, and I’m a bit tired of all the ego-stroking, trumpet-blowing that can go on in Entrepreneur Land. It can get even WORSE when you stop off in Social Entrepreneursville for a while, because there, dotted amongst the helium egos and loud trumpets, are all the very high moral pedestals on which many of these people sit, thinking that having a social purpose makes all their other character flaws okay.

Cassie Robinson

Awesome Human

I’m kinda over all that shit. I don’t have time. I have time for people who think beyond themselves and see themselves as one dot among many. Not falsely humble, but just aware of what they can do, and how they can fit alongside others. People like Cassie Robinson (see pic). I’d quite like her to run things for a bit.

So, back to me and The Company. What did I say to these young people?

Firstly, that I was ill-equipped to answer the question. I posed a number of questions instead. Classic teacher. And I brought superheroes into play. Because that’s always fun. And likely not all that original. Ah well.


Here’s the guts of what I said, minus the gesticulations and stupid asides:

  1. Entrepreneurs are like superheroes [I brought along copies of crummy superhero kids’ magazines]. They have their key strength or power, but they also have their vice. And, crucially, they have a purpose, a reason for doing what they’re doing. That’s them. But then there’s also the world that they are in. They have a sense about the opportunities that they can take, as well as the enemies or threats that exist. I asked them all some questions:
    1. What’s your key strength?
    2. And vice?
    3. And purpose?
    4. Where’s your opportunity to do super awesome stuff?
    5. What enemies or threats exist that will thwart you?
  2. Entrepreneurs, like superheroes, need a utility belt. Different people need different things on theirs. But pretty much all of us need this one thing: insight and understanding into who we are and how we fit and what we can do. My question: what else other than this insight do you want to strap onto your utility belt? Different tools that I suggested might be useful for some entrepreneur superheroes could include [note how I try to make this as non-prescriptive as possible, but still somehow wind up creating a list]:
    1. Energy
    2. Grit or mettle or determination or whaddevveryawannacallit
    3. Vision
    4. Humour [PLEEEEASE]
    5. Self-esteem (not ego)
    6. A pressing urge to do something different
    7. Ability to make lists, and then revise them [I just added this point in, about five hours after publishing the original post].
  3. There are two types of superhero. Firstly, there are the lone avengers—the Supermans—out fighting Bad Stuff all by themselves. They’re into saving people. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how gender neutral/equal rights they are.  They’re pretty combative and competitive. Then there are the teams—the X-Men—all of whom have different strength and vices, but when they work collectively they are rad to the power of sick [stole that phrase from Dil Lalloo]. These guys, they are collaborative, their skills complementary. And, lo!, I asked of the crowd:
    1. What type of superhero are you?
    2. How can you work best with others? What powers do you lack that you could find in others?
  4. And then to my grand, sweeping conclusion: superheroes—and entrepreneurs—aren’t born but made. They are made by themselves, and they are also made by the people around them. The skills and strengths we need to be successful aren’t extraordinary, but just ordinary stuff we’ve worked damned hard to improve. Encouragement and support from others is a bit like the added bonus of a cape: not entirely necessary, but it makes us feel good, look good and maybe even go a bit faster. My final thought? That if there were less ego, and more let’s go figure this out together, then this world would be WONDERFUL. Until then, let’s just go put our pants outside our trousers.



Evolution of men

Screw social mobility

In recent weeks there has been a fantastic upswing around programmes and ideas to support struggling young people find engaging education and employment opportunities. And there’s been a neat connection to digital technology in the mix too.

For me, it’s a particularly exciting time. I’ve been ruminating on and sandboxing ideas and iterations over the last twelve months, and with the Spark+Mettle team and co-creators, we have come up with some findings that might be useful for others who are now attempting to support young people fulfill their potential both online and in the real world.

I wanted to put down some thoughts I’ve had on routes forward for supporting young people that have surfaced after a number of news stories on latest the research and policy strategies circulated in the UK last week.

A quick note on our approach to our work.

In many ways, Spark+Mettle is an intersection, a joint, a broker between two or more different groups or approaches or spaces. When it comes to how we work, this connecting holds true. We work in a spirit of praxis: taking findings from the worlds of academia, research, theory and policy and applying them to our programme structure, delivery and evaluation. This is our process. And this means that although our core mission and vision is steadfast (that we want to help people flourish, especially young people; that we want the UK to be happier, more cohesive, and egalitarian), we acknowledge that our approach to achieving this is not fixed, but adaptive and responsive to the changeable circumstances young people find themselves in.

Four key routes to providing support for young people

1. Help get the foot in the door where families have no access

An interesting blog post from Miles Corak, a professor at the Univeristy of Ottawa, highlights the importance of the inheritance of employers in Canada and Denmark—even in these socially mobile countries up to 40% of young men have worked for employers that their fathers also worked for. “[Our research] raises the importance of recognizing that child outcomes are related not just to the quality of the early years, but also to the structure of labour markets, and the resources parents have—through information, networks, or direct control of the hiring process—to influence the final transition children make in becoming self-sufficient and successful adults.”

What then for the young in the UK whose parents are either unemployed, or employed in jobs that the young themselves do not want to follow? More youth organisations need to find ways of brokering relationships with employers. There are some exciting examples already that work within the school system (such as Future First). But for those young people who are not in school? We do what we can but we are a small potato. A very small potato.

2.    Provide enriching, extra-curricular support for all young people.

There are many chasms of opportunity between the young who have easy lives in the UK and those who do not. Arts organisations have long supported young people and provided inspirational projects to those who can’t afford to attend expensive after-school activities. With funding draining away from state schools, teachers are left with even less to provide high quality support to all young people. I agree with the Deputy Prime minister when he suggested last week that universities should take students from less privileged backgrounds with lower A-levels. Tim Hands, chair elect of the Headmasters and Headmistress’ Conference, did not. In fact, he accused Nick Clegg of “old-style communist creation of a closed market” and suggested that such an approach is tantamount to “capping the achievements” of privately-educated students.

He is wrong. With just 7% of all students at independent schools, the country should not revolve around nor hinge on their achievements. We need to build strong partnerships between arts groups, schools and other youth organisations, online and offline, so that the vast majority of young people in the UK are able to access enriching, extra-curricular programmes.

3.    Enable the development of soft skills and social skills

A key piece that emerged from the Work Foundation’s ‘Lost in Transition’ report last week is that there is urgent need to support the development of soft and social skills in young people who are about to enter the jobs market. The report highlighted the growing number of “customer-facing” occupations. It also highlighted the fact that no experience of paid work creates a substantive barrier to finding more work. For young people to get their foot on the first rung of the jobs ladder, they need to be equipped with the soft and social skills beforehand. And although explicit soft skills coaching is a good way forward, it is often exposure to a number of different (supportive) social and professional settings, and the gradual realisation of how to respond to them successfully, that can lay strong foundations for individuals’ personal development.

4.    Inform about emerging employment trends, growing occupations etc, entrepreneurship

All young people should know which sectors are growing and which are in decline so that they can begin to make informed choices. So share the knowledge.  According to ‘Lost in Transition’, the growing sectors include:

  • professional
  • managerial
  • associate professional
  • technical
  • caring
  • leisure
  • service (but not administrative or secretarial)

It’s also important that young people know what their rights are, about internships (it is illegal for organisations not to pay regular workers). And about other employee rights too. In fact, the Beecroft report published last week was a useful reminder of employee rights, principally because it included “a bonfire” of many of the traditional ones. Among these was the suggestion that it should be easier for micro-businesses to fire people at will.

A final note on social mobility:

Evolution of men

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced a set of ‘social trackers’ to measure fairness in society, to monitor the impact of the Government’s policies to tackle social mobility every year. It’s an interesting idea and one that may just begin to hold the government to account more quickly and with greater effect. But who knows.

In my mind, the routes mentioned above and Spark+Mettle’s whole approach tries to veer away from improved social mobility as the ultimate goal. It’s a fine line to distinguish, and I often find myself using the phrase ‘social mobility’ as shorthand for the sort of work that we do, because if I start harping on about egalitarianism and pride I end up on a soap box, talking mostly at myself.  But I think it’s important to stress it here because a lot of the routes suggested could be seen as ways of plugging the social capital gap or middle-class ‘upskilling’ for the less privileged. That is not what I intended.

For there to be any sort of sustained, systemic social change in this country, if ever there comes a time when we become less precious about class and more open to flexible, non-hierarchical structures, right now we need to create spaces that encourage diverse groups of people to meet, interact and learn from each other—online as well as offline.

This should be happening in schools, but the fracturing of the education system means that the differences between rich and poor, privileged and not, are widening further still. This should be happening in universities, but the ghosts of school ties linger still, especially amongst Russell Group universities. Those, like Tim Hands, who suggest that allowing less privileged young people to enter universities with lower results is tantamount to capping the achievements of the privately-educated, are wrong. By the time young people sit for their exams, there have been close on eighteen years of discrepancies between the privileged and the not: discrepancies that can ring through the exams. It’s not unlike challenging two kids to get to the examination room starting off at different points. One has to walk through sunny meadows, with a clearly marked map, food on demand, and a host of people to give advice, guidance and support. The other must wade through mud, in fog, with few people to direct them to where they need to go.

People can’t flourish in mud.

I believe that good youth initiatives should not be about helping young people to become more socially mobile or supporting a few ‘exceptional’ young people get a leg up on the social ladder. Instead I’m keen on getting rid of the idea of the ladder altogether. We need to think about success in new, lateral ways. Why should success only be measured in terms of strength of academic achievements, or distance travelled when climbing up out of the working class? Why not measure success instead in terms of level of pride about who they are, what they do, where they are from? Forget exam results, sod the colour of their collar. Screw social mobility.

People can’t flourish in a vacuum. I want to find ways of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds to listen to the ideas of others as well as to share their own, to offer opportunities for insight and experience, and to do all this in a spirit of openness and curiosity rather than rigidity and conformity. That’s what we’re trying to do through Spark+Mettle, albeit on a teeny-tiny scale. And if others are doing this too, then I am thrilled. Let’s forge on.

Spark+Mettle hangout session

Digital Technology and Youth Engagement

The following blog post originally appeared on the Social Reporters site. It’s reproduced here with the kind permission of David Wilcox.

One of the people we really wanted to come to our DTYE event – on how digital technologies can support young people to engage socially and economically with their communities – was Eugenie Teasley, who set up Spark+Mettle. It is a highly innovative aspirations agency focussed on “preparing young people who do not have the connections or the resources themselves to map and launch a career that they will love”. The young people aren’t participants – they are co-creators of the programme.

Unfortunately for us Eugenie was in South Carolina at the time, so on her return we invited her to review the top ten messages from the event in the light of her experience.

Here’s a video in which Eugenie explains how the Spark+Mettle Star Track programme blends Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement programme with an understanding of flourishing as determined by Cambridge University’s Institute of Wellbeing … and then her reflections.

I’m really energised by the messages that have emerged from the Young People and Digital Technology exploration project so far. Too often online interaction for young people is either narrowly social or unengagingly pragmatic; I’m thinking Facebook and Blackboard. The digital space is a thriving one—in fact one of the only bustling, growing ecosystems during these economic doldrums. So to encourage fresh approaches to connect young people and technology is something I value and champion.

It was in the Young Foundation’s report Plugged in, untapped (2010) that I first came across the phrase ‘digital homophily’—something I’d seen time and time again but not named. There’s this tension about the internet: although it has the capability of being a democratising tool, it is currently not bridging many socio-cultural chasms. In fact—for the most part unwittingly—it has a tendency to widen them. Those who’ve learned how to develop broad networks, to research thoroughly and to engage meaningfully online are in a happy place. But for young people who don’t have extensive networks, the internet is a place to reinforce their offline peer community, and to engage with the brands that influence them.

I launched Spark+Mettle a year ago to explore ways to turn this tendency on its head. My aim was to work with young people from tough backgrounds to help them flourish and fulfil their potential. Star Track is a year-long incubator programme that shapes, supports and accelerates the emerging talent in young people. Unlike many similar programmes, the method for the pilot has been to harness digital technology and, working collaboratively with young people, to understand how it can enable them to fulfil their potential.

Spark+Mettle hangout session

I confess this method came out of practical, personal considerations: I had just had a baby and was ensconced in Brighton, not much able to trundle around the country. But I desperately didn’t wanted the programme to be confined to where I was—the need in Brighton for this sort of programme is considerable, but still considerably less than elsewhere. Going a digital route then seemed to be a wholly practical one—a risk, but one that’s paid off. It’s been great for co-creators: one pair “hangout” each week (as above) when one’s in Essex and the other Edinburgh; we’ve teamed young people in York and Bristol with London counterparts. That’s pretty liberating. The fact that it is not location-based has been a huge plus for our team and volunteers too—people are able to commit to us and to the other logistics of their lives. We’ve had team members dial into their sessions from Singapore and New Zealand.

Out of the ten messages that have emerged from the DTYE conversations, there are three that resonate particularly strongly with what we’ve been doing over the last few months.

The first is around the concept of blending online and offline. All our co-creators and team members met, in person, during an assessment day in October. That formed a strong basis for the developing online relationships. We have quarterly lunch parlays during which we all meet, and bring in a number of volunteers to connect with our young people on a variety of projects. The most recent one we held was a huge success. The online/offline blend is mutually reinforcing. And in fact, although I appreciate the benefits of game-based approaches, for the group of young people we target (those who have spark and some degree of mettle but lack the connections and resources to get to where they deserve to go) it is the human-to-human interaction (online or offline) that is key.

I’m also borderline fanatical about co-design – whether it’s with the users or other providers, a multi-brain mash-up is surely an intuitive approach for generating successful online content and design. We were looking for a title for the young people on our Star Track programme: ‘participants’ was too passive for us. The title ‘co-creators‘ came from them. “As we learn from it, we are also shaping it,” said Suraj Rai. I can’t say it any better. For each session I provide a learning aim, a flourishing theme and a suggested list of questions, discussion points and (online) sources of information. I share these with the agents and co-creators and they are left to adapt the discussion to their particular needs, interests, experiences or aspirations. Beyond the session, there are suggested research and reflective activities, but again these are highly adaptive. They blog their responses which we aggregate on our Tumblr. At every stage the co-creators are feeding back to us about the programme design—what’s working and what isn’t. We adapt accordingly. If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work. We’re excited to be in a state of flux, and to keep that flexibility integral to our structure, however we grow.

The final message that I connect with is around network literacy. It comes back to my earlier point on digital homophily. We shared the Young Foundation’s finding with our co-creators. They agreed with it. Now they’re conscious of it. And our programme deliberately strives not only to reinforce the strong, beneficial peer-to-peer connections but also to help our young people develop the means of connecting with a much wider group, including people from different generations, backgrounds and places. It’s one of the elements of the programme that they enjoy the most and get the most from. What’s key, for me and for the organisation, is that the benefit goes two ways. The UK is shamefully silo-ed. I don’t aim to improve social mobility—not because I like class schisms, quite the opposite. Improved social mobility, to me, means allowing a small number of people to climb the ladder. I’d like to get rid of the ladder.

The digital space seems to be the perfect environment to foster a new, non-hierarchical, complex and interwoven society. But it’s not there yet. Getting young people involved in harnessing technology to fulfil their potential is vital to breaking down the hidden social, cultural and economic barriers that prevent them from doing so offline. Spark+Mettle is a small potato, but we’re excited about what we’ve achieved so far, and we’re keen to engage with anyone who has similar aspirations. Together maybe we can really do something.

More videos from Spark+Mettle