There's only one David Cameron for educators, and he's no MP. Douglas Blane reports
One secret of successful innovation is the ability to connect people, says David Cameron (pictured above). "It's about building a consensus between the creative and the powerful, recognising the value of each of those groups – which are not of course mutually exclusive – and being accepted by both of them."
It's a brokering role that David has performed for much of his working life, he now recognises – a life devoted to Scottish and more recently international education (see video below). "I've been saying similar things for years," he adds, "but people's responses change depending on whether you're a teacher or a director of education."
Employed as each of these, at either end of a 40-year career that shows no signs of slowing, David is now a highly regarded education consultant and conference speaker. In the past three years he has operated in a dozen different countries, from Argentina and Bosnia to Spain, Thailand and every one of the nations in the United Kingdom.
A natural performer on the large stage, David's conference speeches are most often described as "inspirational". They are always thought-provoking and often very funny. One-to-one, when discussing education, the tall 63-year-old is more serious, but just as convincing. The humour is a tool to help get his message across, not an end in itself.
"England's teachers are wonderful," he says. "I see fantastic practice there, as good as anything in Scotland, but in a much more challenging political climate. In Scotland we have all the permissions to be innovative and creative, but many of us fail to believe that these are real. My aim in England is to build collaborative cultures and mechanisms in a system that is vulnerable to fragmentation."
The work of the York Education Partnership, which he chairs, is a good example, he says. "It's a partnership with sufficient strength that even those schools that have become academies are willing to invest in collective development. Within that partnership they discuss what can be done to benefit the wider community. That's the direction we need to go. I'm currently working in Wakefield and aiming to build collaborative networks and collective activity there too."
What makes schools and teaching effective has been known for decades, David says. "There hasn't been a huge amount added to the fundamental elements of school effectiveness and improvement research since the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s – the Peter Mortimores, David Reynolds (see video below), the whole ICSEI movement [International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement]. Often what we're doing is just creating new vocabulary around that powerful evidential base for good practice.
"Assessment for learning has generated consistently sound practice. There has been a lot of discussion recently about Hattie's work on feedback. It's good to talk to kids. It's even better to listen to them. It's good to talk to them again, once you've listened to them, and for what you say to be conditioned by what you've heard."
Technology brings a new dimension to learning without altering the bedrock on which good practice rests, David believes. "One of the key principles for me is rootedness. To be truly successful, innovation – while bringing something fresh and new – has to be rooted in current practice. There have to be elements that relate to the fundamental aspects of good-quality teaching and learning."
'It should be about seeing technology as a springboard rather than a solution'
At the same time, looking at new technologies through the lens of current practice can constrain creativity, he says. "I've realised in recent years that there's a divide in the reaction of people to technology. On the one hand are those who know what they want to do and look for technology to help them do it. Then you have the people – often but not always younger people – who look at new technology and go, 'Wow! What does this enable me to do?'"
It should be about seeing technology as a springboard rather than a solution, he says. "A good example would be my initial reaction to social networks. I had no idea of the potential when I began using Twitter. I suddenly found I had a tool that opened up a whole world of debate, discussion, learning and collaboration.
"That's made me think differently about the whole concept of online communities. Where I once saw social networking as a way of communicating more effectively with established networks, I can now see its capacity for creating networks that are organic, self-generating and regenerating. A great example is the way Pedagoo works on Twitter – I had never conceived of that as a possibility."
Innovation and new technologies can alter how education works. But the why – the values and principles – are enduring, David believes. "I try to stay questioning. The experiences you have, the reading you do, the research you open up to – all these have an influence. But there are beliefs that date back to when I first started teaching that have been reinforced in recent years."
Supportive press for Michael Gove and his own discussions with government advisers encouraged David recently to re-examine his thinking on education policy. "It didn't take long. That whole agenda of fragmentation and destruction is just wrong.
"Michael Gove fundamentally misunderstands the nature of modern poverty, I believe. He sees his own heroic rise from difficult circumstances being possible for far more people than it actually is. Unlike him, lots of young people today are assailed by multiple and complex difficulties – abuse, drugs, alcohol, family disruption, poverty of aspiration.
"The current level of destruction in England's educational system will make it very difficult in future years to promote both excellence and equity. We may see increasing instances of excellence. But it will come at the cost of a serious reduction of the possibilities for increased equity."
None of this diminishes David's enthusiasm for his efforts in education. "I love what I do," he says. "I draw my inspiration and energy from a wide variety of sources. You struggle to find a man in most primary schools, but I was in a primary school in Wakefield yesterday, where the management team looked like front-row forwards. The head talked to me about courage and about doing the right thing. When he spoke to the children he gave them value and dignity.
"Tim Brighouse inspires me, but he is on the large stage at an operatic level. I love the guys who are doing pop records, day in and day out, and doing them brilliantly for the right reasons."
Conditions for innovation
- Trust is huge - people need to feel trusted and to be trusted.
- Commitment to evaluation - you have to look at the impact of the innovation and be able to demonstrate how it enhances practice.
- Rootedness is important - being able to relate the innovation to things people recognise and see a purpose in.
- Passion, energy and purpose - lots of leadership is about imparting energy to people.
- Collaboration - you need to allow as many people as possible to help shape the innovation, look at its purpose, assess its potential and help to develop it.
- Tolerance - we shouldn't dismiss those who don't buy into the innovation immediately. We need to work with them to enhance their purpose as well as ours.
- Brokering - we need more people who can build a consensus between the creative and the powerful.
Sources of inspiration
- I'm old-school. I was inspired by Orwell, the Independent Labour Party movement and people like John Wheatley, who were able to work effectively between ideology and implementation.
- I'm inspired by flawed people, such as Martin Luther King, who fail by their own standards but are capable of greatness, and by writers such as William McIlvanney. There are elements of his that I go back to time and again.
- John Thomson, the headteacher at York inspires me, and Kenny Pieper and Fearghal Kelly. There are lots of people out there who are inspirational. You only have to look for them and listen to them.
David Cameron on Twitter: @realdavidcameron
David Cameron profile and contact for speaking engagements
Douglas Blane is a journalist and writer
Innovators to come: