Free schools and computing skills

Ben Williamson

On 5 February Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, announced plans to open two new free schools that will focus specifically on computer programming skills. The schools are being founded by Ian Livingstone, the videogames entrepreneur who co-authored the report NextGen in 2010 with Nesta that advocated much stronger emphasis on computing education in schools. The report, and the NextGen Skills campaign that followed it, have been key influences in the recent introduction of computing programmes of study in the English National Curriculum.

The two Livingstone Academies, in Tower Hamlets and Bournemouth, are planned around the ‘creative application of digital technologies’:

Our aim is that all our students will be equipped with the skills and qualifications required to play an active and successful role in today’s knowledge-based, interdependent, highly competitive, fast-changing digital world.   Our new school will have a rich partnership with the digital industry to ensure that students gain the skills and knowledge that are central to a successful life as a digital citizen in modern Europe.

We believe that there is a role for a new local school specialising in computing, science and technology that will provide wider opportunities for future careers for a new generation of successful and confident citizens who will contribute to local, national and international economic success.

This will be a new school that will combine modern technology with specialist science labs, design studios and an on-site business hub for start-up and tech businesses to ensure that our students will combine excellent academic results with enterprising practical experience tailored to the needs of contemporary society.

The emphasis here on preparing young people for work and enterprise in the knowledge economy, for new forms of participatory digital citizenship, combined with its industry partnerships and in-house facilities for startup tech businesses, reiterate many of the key messages that Ian Livingstone himself has been promoting since overseeing NextGen. The Livingstone Academies can therefore be seen as institutional realizations of the NextGen campaign, and demonstrate the significant influence in contemporary education of technology entrepreneurs and lobbyists.

In the governmental press release announcing the new schools, Nicky Morgan said:

With leading entrepreneur Ian Livingstone stepping up to open 2 schools, the free schools programme is proving to be a vital outlet for our society’s most creative and innovative people to spread their excellence to future generations.

Ian Livingstone himself added:

It is the combination of computer programming skills and creativity by which today’s world-changing companies are built. I encourage other digital entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity offered by the free schools programme in helping to give children an authentic education for the jobs and opportunities of the digital world.

Although plans for the school have been circulating for a couple of years via the NextGen skills campaign, of which Livingstone himself is the chair, the governmental stamp of approval is significant in extending the reach of technology entrepreneurs into state education. It also signals further political reinforcement of computer programming skills as an educational priority, as well as illustrating the continuing importance and influence of ‘policy innovation labs’ such as Nesta in educational policy lobbying and reform.

Lobbying labs
In 2010 Ian Livingstone co-authored NextGen with researchers from Nesta, a report commissioned by Ed Vaizey, then Conservative Party Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, that demanded more ‘rigorous teaching of computing in schools’ and recommended putting computer science into the national curriculum for schools in England. The report did not originate, however, from a concern with the teaching of computing in schools. Rather, it was commissioned as a review of the skills needs of the videogames and visual effects industries, which have long been seen as economically valuable and innovative sectors of the UK economy.

After an initially slow political response, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt used the platform of the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh television festival in 2011 to express his dismay that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools. This was a message repeated by Google executives in a global lecture circuit urging governments to support young people to learn to code in order to produce a skilled workforce for a digital economy. Livingstone himself has argued explicitly that it was Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart Lecture that mobilized political support for Nesta’s report and its curriculum recommendations. The subsequent formation of a Next Gen Skills lobbying coalition consisting of members from Nesta, Google, Microsoft, Computing at School, the Education Foundation and others finally convinced the Department for Education to support the disapplication of ICT and its replacement by a new computing curriculum. The computing programmes of study came into effect in the National Curriculum in September 2014.

In the same month that Nicky Morgan announced Livingstone’s two new free schools, Nesta produced a celebratory account of the successes of NextGen over a five year period. According to this account:

Since its report launched five years ago, Next Gen has influenced policy, rallied industry and galvanised educators to improve computer science teaching.

The story is proof of the importance of building a rigorous evidence base on which to formulate policy, and the power of partnerships in affecting policy change. It has paved the way for a new generation of coders to reclaim our great computing heritage.

NextGen has even resulted in the establishment of a NextGen Skills Academy, an initiative bringing together the digital sector with educators to replicate ‘the studio work environment and project based learning working on industry based briefs.’

The establishment of the two Livingstone Academies provides continuing evidence of how policy innovation labs such as Nesta work in concert with both commercial sector entrepreneurs and government departments to broker new agreements on the organization and content of schooling. With the Livingstone Academies as an organizational manifestation of their ambitions around computer programming in the curriculum, Livingstone and Nesta have gone beyond the production of policy recommendations and lobbying campaigns to insert themselves directly in the management and governance of public education.

Shadow schools
In a previous piece I wrote about the current trend to develop ‘startup schools’ in Silicon Valley. New schools such as AltSchool (founded by an ex-Google executive), Salman Kahn’s Lab School, and the XQ Super School Project, are becoming new kinds of ‘shadow schools’ that operate as an alternative educational market and extend the development of charter schools in the US.

Led by technology entrepreneurs, staffed by tech experts, and financed by venture capital sources usually associated with tech innovation, these new institutions represent a technocratic mode of corporatized education reform. They move beyond the implantation of educational technology in schools to bring schools directly into private hands as testbeds for a model of schooling that is rooted first and foremost in the embedded technological knowledges, assumptions, and practices of corporate technology culture and less so in the values and purposes of public education. I concluded the piece on startup schools by suggesting that:

the UK government ‘free schools’ program might accommodate a … model like that of AltSchool … and there is more commercial involvement in the curriculum through the academies program. The opening of startup schools outside of the US would allow Silicon Valley to govern education at a distance, projecting its values and ambitions through its globally distributed networks of HQs and infrastructures into schools from afar.

As UK-based realizations of the startup school movement, the two new computing-focused free schools founded by Ian Livingstone can be seen similarly as new kinds of technocratic shadow schools that emerge from and reinforce the interests of the digital economy and the digital entrepreneurs that drive it. The emphasis is on computing skills and creativity for the digital sector, and ultimately moves the existing priorities of the ‘learning to code’ movement directly into the school classroom itself. Recent learning to code initiatives such as Nesta’s Make Things Do Stuff are premised at least in part on the idea that coding is an economically valuable skill to be developed in children before they reach working age. Much of the commentary around learning to code, digital making and related computing projects reflect a modern political preoccupation with sculpting an enterprising mind and body with the technical skills, knowledge and capacity for entrepreneurship and value-creation in the digital economy.

In this sense, the Livingstone Academies might be seen as inducting young people into the commercial culture of coding associated with the software development industry, as well as introducing them to the systems of thought associated with the professional regime of programmers that approach the world in computational terms rather than in relation to cultural, economic or political contexts. As shadow schools, the Livingstone Academies emphasize and prize the production of economically valuable assets over other culturally valued forms of knowledge. Their business model, ultimately, is concerned with the production of human capital for the digital economy.

The Livingstone Academies are also tightly woven into the existing commercial interest surrounding the learning to code movement. There are already concerns that the computing curriculum is being treated as a massive commercial opportunity, as demonstrated in a statement by the chief executive of Codecademy, who has claimed to have ‘struck oil’ as the computing curriculum is ‘forcing an entire country to learn programming’. Many of the teaching and training materials to support the computing curriculum are being produced by major commercial computing companies such as Microsoft and Google, organizations that have already been involved in the NextGen lobbying campaign headed up by Livingstone.

Policy edupreneurship
Notably, Livingstone’s free schools were developed under the the Livingstone Foundation Academies Trust, and will be governed under the Aspirations Academies Trust. Significant research in recent years has focused on the transferral of power away from public institutions, such as Local Education Authorities, to philanthropic foundations, trusts and other business-backed charities. The origins of the Livingstone Academies in the Livingstone Foundation builds on Ian Livingstone’s position as a videogames and digital economy entrepreneur, as well as a significant policy influencer in relation to education and the digital economy, and extends it to direct philanthropic governance of schools.

According to Sarah Reckhow, the new ‘Boardroom Progressives’ represented by corporate philanthropists in the US (many from successful technology companies) have become impatient with public bureaucracies and have focused instead on creating a broad network of private and nonprofit alternatives for developing and running schools. These new ‘policy entrepreneurs’ emphasize the collection and analysis of data as a way of evaluating school effectiveness, advocate enhanced school choice, educational markets and competitiveness, and have gone beyond the realm of charity and into the realm of education policy and politics, able to shape the direction of education reform.

Livingstone himself might be accurately characterized as a boardroom progressive and a policy entrepreneur, or, better, an edupreneur, one whose ambitions to create skilled human capital for the digital sector are to be realized through the free schools movement and supported by influential policy lobbying organizations like Nesta, as well as through his continuing influence on the computing programmes of study in the National Curriculum.

The convergence of a culture of code associated with the digital sector, business philanthropy, policy innovation labs, edupreneurship and the free schools movement opens up a number of possible critical lines of analysis. From a policy studies perspective, it raises issues about the governance of schools by philanthropic and business-backed organizations, non-governmental policy intermediaries, lobbying groups, entrepreneurs and technical experts. From an educational sociology and curriculum studies perspective, questions about power and influence over the curriculum are brought to the fore, particularly in relation to the selection of curriculum content and materials and the role of commercial organizations in their production and circulation. For critical researchers of educational technology, it raises questions about the embedding of new technologies and practices of computer programming and digital making in the classroom.

Of course, it’s premature to predict what might happen ‘on the ground’ once the Livingstone Academies open in 2017. But the discursive packaging around their announcement suggests a strengthening of tech-entrepreneurial and business-friendly interests in public education, and the increasing influence over schools policy, direction and management of prominent digital economy figures working with both lobbying groups and commercial supporters.

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