The Evening Standard reports that former Tech City Investment Organisation deputy chief executive Ben Southworth is planning to open a free school to produce “digitally savvy, business savvy wannabe entrepreneurs”. Free schools, for the uninitiated, are new kind of school that is funded by the taxpayer but free from the meddling of local authority bureaucrats.
The school will take 30 16 to 19-year-olds and will be run according to the Harkness model of education, says Mr Southworth.
The provisional name of this new institution, the Ada Lovelace Academy, is wince-inducing. Gender relations have never been more fraught in the technology industry, mainly because “women in tech” advocates won’t shut up about perceived inequalities. The only discernible effect of the women in tech movement is to reduce the number of women coming in to the industry, as a number of recent studies have confirmed.
Which is not to say that Southworth’s academy shouldn’t perhaps have a gender quota. (I’ve no doubt that it will enforce one somehow.) That might come as a surprise to readers of this column, but addressing structural problems at the educational level is precisely the way to open up new opportunities for girls with an engineering bent.
With any luck, Southworth will avoid the do-gooding blowhards who orbit Bletchley Park and social media conferences and concentrate on building deep connections with the business schools at Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. It would be a terrible waste of potential should his school’s curriculum edge away from business and technology skills in the direction of a liberal arts college that cares more for “equality and diversity” than learning and success.
Southworth has no credentials to speak of as an educationalist, but neither did Spectator columnist Toby Young when he spearheaded what is perhaps the best known free school in the country. That project has been a terrific success and is about to snowball into a small chain.
Details of how success might be measured at the Academy are not yet clear. That is perhaps to be expected. One thing Southworth will want to ensure is that he avoids the Singularity University route of “TED talks as education” and focuses on hard skills that employers actually want. There is no market in the UK for an army of blue-sky marketing douchebags expecting massive salaries.
But there certainly is space for academic institutions that can address the hideous paucity of technology and entrepreneurship teaching in the state sector. Not everyone can afford the lavish courses offered by companies like General Assembly, so projects like this are precisely the sort of structural investment the Government ought to be making.
What Southworth lacks in expertise he makes up for in good will from the startup community, which is another set of problems entirely. But if he can draft in a respected headteacher and create a plausible curriculum, there’s no reason not to support the endeavour, particularly since he says he will be targeting children from underprivileged backgrounds.
With one small caveat. Mr Southworth really must learn the art of personal branding. Over-selling himself to the Standard as a former advisor to David Cameron is forgiveable; gifting them the epithet “beardy, sweary, non-suit-wearing upstart” most certainly is not.
That sort of hipster crap might play well in EC2, but, to get his school off the ground, Southworth will need to dial down the maverick attitude that made his tenure at Tech City unsustainable and develop an aura of credibility so parents trust him with their charge’s enrichment.
Shaving off the majority of that beard, which he did a few months ago, was a good start.