Raising the ‘chatter level’

If you will permit me a small plug for some work I’m doing, I’d like to tell you a bit about The Centre for School Design – a project that was launched on Monday evening by the British Council for School Environments (BCSE).

I’ve been very interested in Ty Goddard’s work for a while now – BCSE grew partly out of an idea called School Works – a project intended to promote a more participative approach to the design of schools.

The basic premise is a simple one: The more progressive architects have worked out that it is a sensible thing to do to involve residents in the design of their own neighbourhoods. Long before anyone had ever heard of Clay Shirky, there was ample evidence that the people outside an organisation have more knowledge on a particular subject than the people inside the organisation that – supposedly – have specialist skills.

The benefits of co-designing an environment with the people who are going to live in it are obvious.¬†As the blurb on this booklet on consensus design puts it, …“it can have an influence on social stability, crime-reduction, personal health and building longevity, all of which in turn have monetary and environmental cost implications.” Ty surmised that similar benefits could come from a more participative approach to the design of schools.

Now The Centre for School Design is not only – or even mainly – about consensus design. It is about raising the profile – or as counter-terrorism experts put it, the ‘chatter level‘ around the question of education, design and the built environment.

Ty and Ian from BCSE think that this is an important issue – that it has the potential to game-change the education debate. As long as the whole debate remains in narrow silos – dominated by higher-up civil servants, the think tanks that they commission and the commercial players that have the resources to gatecrash that conversation – then the quality of policymaking is likely to be lower. The dangers of regulatory capture and of budget maximisation are higher.

Think tanks, after all, do almost nothing to market the work that they are commissioned to do. Six or seven-figure research contracts that are handed out result in publications that are not disseminated widely or publicised effectively. They are rarely written to be read by parents, teachers, school governors or local councillors. They are written exclusively for the tiny clique of budget-holders that see the final result before handing a sanitised version to the ministers in question. It results in bad and expensive policymaking.

Jenni Russell in the Guardian summarised this beautifully here:

Clarke appeared to be a rare example of an education secretary who was prepared to entertain the possibility that the government wasn’t always right. He published a document encouraging primaries to be more creative and flexible in their teaching, but he moved on before he could lend political muscle to that instruction.

Since then, every education secretary and minister has been distinguished by an almost wilful determination to ignore the mass of research that does not suit their agenda. Politically, that is the easiest choice. They are encouraged in this by their senior civil servants, whose careers have been built around delivering a particular agenda, and who have nothing to gain by seeing it change course. What is truly alarming is that ministers rarely even glimpse the reports they dismiss. Last year I mentioned a particularly critical Ofsted report to one minister. “Oh, my people tell me there’s nothing new in that,” he said, breezily. In fact, it had a great deal that was new, and important, and the individuals who put thousands of man-hours into preparing it were probably writing it for an audience of three – of which the minister who never read it was the most important one.

Increasing the chatter around school design is what The Centre for School Design is all about. The site will make all of their pictures (and they have a vast bank of these) available to journalist under a creative commons licence (eventually – loading up and tagging the pics properly is not a trivial job). Any journo that wants a good quality pic to illustrate a story can use them freely.

Similarly, the C4SD will be paying out the huge bank of case-studies and experience that BCSE have picked up on a daily basis and making it all available under a suitable creative commons licence. The aim is to build up an open, inclusive and growing community that is interested in discussing and explaining the issues around school design to each other. If you want to re-use C4SD content to stoke up the debate, copyright worries won’t get in your way.

In short, I’ve been helping them develop a strategy that pushes their knowledge in an open-handed way to the public. Ty isn’t the classic geek by any means. He’s a highly interactive person as his track-record in promoting participation proves. But, up until now, he’s not used interactive technologies much.

This is the potential that’s going to emerge in the next few years. All of the non-techie-but-very-interactive people are finding these tools are easier and more rewarding to use. Organisations like the C4SD will raise the chatter level and make it harder for narrow cliques to capture and close down public policy discussions in future.

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