Keep it simple, stupid

THE life of a columnist is not, as some may imagine, all glamour. Indeed the ever-present deadline pressure can be quite troubling if there is no obvious topic on which to wax eloquently upon. But as I write this one I am spoilt for choice by a plethora of options.

 (Picture by Deemwave/Shutterstock)
(Picture by Deemwave/Shutterstock)

Call me a cynic if you wish but I find these early days of 2020 have become very ‘political’ and I wonder if the oncoming and gloriously anticipated election may be encouraging the political class to come out of hibernation and begin to spread their important messages.

I was very tempted to write about the ‘Women in Public Life’ initiative or the possible uncertain future of Flybe, both of which are low hanging fruit and grist to this columnist’s mill.

However, both news items are but petals in the wind and in 30 years’ time will be long forgotten and any impact caused by them, no matter how significant, will not change the future for this island.

Which brings me to a weighty topic which I have previously consigned to the ‘too difficult’ pile but now shouts to me to be heard. And it is a topic which will change the future of this island and possibly the most important decision to be taken since zero-10.

Today I am going to be writing about our journey to a new world of education and it hasn’t been an easy one and it isn’t over yet.

In my own inimitable style I’m going to start with a completely non-related anecdote about a fake news story I heard decades ago.

The story went like this. NASA realised that ballpoint pens wouldn’t work in space and so invested countless millions to overcome the problem, eventually coming up with the most wonderful space pen. The road to that successful outcome, says the storyteller, was a long and expensive one with many false starts, but backed by the wealth of a great nation and the brains of its finest scientists the greatest, most wonderful pen that worked in space was eventually born.

Russian cosmonauts, on the other hand, simply used pencils in space.

Great story, shame it isn’t true, but it’s a great analogy for the ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ process for innovation. And one conclusion I have come to about our ‘one school on two sites’ plan is that it has not followed the principles of KISS.

The States of Guernsey made a decision, twice, to end selection and introduce a comprehensive system, replacing the Grammar and secondary schools. In reality, as the decision to adopt an 11-18 approach in the new school clearly demonstrated, the desire was to replicate the successful private colleges and offer what we all considered to be the best type of education to all island children.

Elizabeth and the Ladies’ College (possibly a future name for the establishment in the Grange) are perfect models for the new Lisia (still don’t like that name) College. Small enough to be a good cultural fit for Guernsey and yet large enough to meet the needs of most, not all, students – and I will come back to this important point later.

However, there was one flaw in that model. To replicate the colleges at their friendly, smallish size meant that not every A-level subject known to woman (that’s my shout out to Women in Public Life) would be available to every student at each of the three sub-schools in Lisia College. On the basis that ESC took the view that compromise was not an option for any student when choosing A-levels to study, the decision was made to move to the two super schools model.

Remember keeping things simple?

But for the decision that sixth forms of the size of those operated (successfully) by the private colleges cannot work in practice, the KISS mentality was thrown out of the window with the 11-plus.

Addressing this one ‘problem’ then created a myriad of real practical issues to overcome. Once the sixth form size dominated the planning, then only very large, culturally and practically unacceptable, schools would work.

The three-school model had one basic problem. Sixth forms would be too small for every pupil to be able to select and study all their preferred subjects at A-level at their school. Possibly a handful of children each year would have to compromise on possibly one of the subjects or be prepared to commute to another offering it.

The two-school model overcomes that problem and every year a handful of children will not have to give up their third choice art in favour of history because of timetable clashes. And in return for achieving this wonderful aim, thousands of children will be affected, including just getting to and from school along crowded roads, segregated starting times, suffering the loss of outside space, losing the pleasure of being educated in a ‘small’ school and being shoehorned into accommodation designed for fewer running along the corridors.

Now could it be that building an entire new education system around an immovable size of sixth form was not the best place to start this journey? How different things would be now if the immovable decision had been that no school must exceed, say, 800 pupils. Then the only real problem would be how to sort A-level timetable clashes in the sixth form?

Is the whole new two-school model just a community-dividing mess that has been caused by the rigid adoption of one well meaning academic principle? Seems to me that two schools is good, but three schools will be better in uniting the island and restoring confidence in our education system.

We must accept that a three-school model will mean the new schools will be clones of Elizabeth College. Is that really a bad thing?

Just popping back to the space pen, it was in fact designed by a private company, Fisher, who invested about $1m. in its design and manufacture and supplied it to both NASA and the Russians, as well as making a great return on its investment by selling it to the public.

Perhaps sometimes the public sector should look to the private sector for inspiration and if the two private colleges can do it with small sixth forms, why does the States of Guernsey think it can’t work for Lisia?

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