Self Managed Learning College is part of a global movement bringing traditional 19th century education into the 21st century by paying attention to solid evidence of better ways of educating young people.

The case I will make here is that the role of adults and of schools should be to support young people in taking charge of their own lives and, centrally, of their own learning. I will mention a few examples of solid evidence about learning before indicating how to respond to this evidence.


All young people are different. Specifically all the research shows that people (young and old) learn in different ways. Learning styles vary enormously and any sensible educational approach has to respond to this fact.

What is taught is not what is learned. Indeed in our research on people in organisations we find that most cannot think of many things that they learned in school after the age of 11 that are of value to them. From other research – by a number of universities – the evidence is that all the investment in education and training combined contributes at most 10-20% of what makes a professional person successful. Most useful learning has occurred outside formal settings.

Research on the determinants of life satisfaction in those over 25 shows that emotional health when young is the most important factor predicting life satisfaction. Academic success has very little relevance, despite Government rhetoric. Indeed there is interesting evidence about the relationship of academic performance to mental health. Our college has been helping to set up an alternative school in Shanghai. The reason is that Shanghai is the top performer in international league tables of school performance. But it is also top of international league tables for suicides in young people. There is a relationship between these two facts. Hence the interest there to do something different.

Bullying is rife in large secondary schools. A local school was boasting that it had reduced bullying to 15% of students being bullied in any one term. The school has over 1000 students so that means 150 young people per term being bullied – that does not seem something to be proud of. The research evidence is that young people who suffer traumas such as bad bullying are three times more likely to suffer psychosis is later adult life than those that don’t.

The evidence is that small schools (less than 150 students) have much better relationships between staff and students and also between student and student. Bullying is less likely in such settings and both staff and students are, on average, much happier.

Summer born children typically underperform in school settings. For instance the Government’s own figures indicate that at least 10,000 young people every year get worse results at GCSE just because of their birth date. By putting school students who are almost a year different in age in the same classroom school automatically discriminates in favour of the older students. Indeed the summer born are more likely to be categorised as ‘special needs’ and to have problems in school. These effects are cumulative. For instance summer born young people are less likely to go to university.

All the credible research from employers indicates that they are critical of the learning in schools. Specifically they say that they want young people who are better in teams, more self managing, more creative and more reliable. The school curriculum and its ways of working often actively discourage the qualities needed in the world of work.

The major growth of jobs in the UK is either in the creative sector or in creative jobs in more traditional organisations. There are also more opportunities in small organisations than in the old-fashioned large organisations. Yet schools seem to be intent on preparing people for a world that does not exist. Many schools have, for instance, reduced opportunities for real creativity with the emphasis on exam passing.

A major need is for the ability to learn rapidly and to exploit work opportunities that come up unplanned. For instance no apps existed just over six years ago. It is now estimated that well over 1 million people worldwide are working in this industry. You can’t forecast these changes. People who can benefit from new opportunities are those who can learn rapidly and effectively – and previous qualifications are generally irrelevant.

Some responses to this evidence

The 19th century model of the classroom where it is assumed all learn in the same way has to give way to personalised approaches that allow students to learn in different ways. New technology is one way that this can be achieved but it is not the only one. In our research we have identified at least 55 different ways that young people can learn – and the classroom is generally the least cost effective. Our students (aged 10-16) learn by using community resources, by working together on projects, by bringing in experts to assist in advanced learning as well as by using books, worksheets and other standard approaches. The mode of learning is driven by what it is that needs to be learned. Sometimes a book is better than the internet – and sometimes it isn’t. The important thing is to allow the learner to choose as they need.

Developing the team skills and creativity that are needed in the world of work happens best through the learning process. It’s important to emphasise community working and the freedom to be creative. A democratic way of working gives young people a genuine chance to learn to work with others for real. In our community meetings, where collective decisions are made, all have an equal say and the chairing is by rotation – a meeting could be chaired by a staff member or by a 10 year old. Students learn the ability to run real meetings by doing it.

Having small schools is necessary – though not sufficient – to ensure the emotional health of all within them. I say it’s not sufficient as such schools have also to create a caring, open and supportive culture that genuinely values every single student equally – not just those who are good at passing exams.

None of the changes to existing schooling will come easy. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.


Dr Ian Cunningham, SML College, Brighton