Journey of a Social Entrepreneur – The Philosophy Foundation

| No responses | Posted by: Malcolm Dean | Theme: Social Innovation & Investment, Youth & Education

Social entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes as the previous six profiles in this series vividly demonstrate. This month’s profile looks at a couple seeking to change the school curriculum. Initially they wanted to add a fourth ‘R’ to the traditional three. They have even considered making it the first R – the pursuit of thinking and Reasoning through philosophy – which is more basic and underpins reading, writing and arithmetic.


Philosophy foundation laughing picIt all began more than a decade ago through music lessons. Peter Worley, a philosophy graduate, was teaching music to primary school children in Lewisham, London, when he observed the ‘ensemble effect’: the overall music of five children playing instruments together was far better than five children playing solos successively. One day he was musing with a primary school headteacher whether the same principle might apply to teaching young children philosophy. Obviously most young children would not have the range of intellectual responses to engage for long in a one-to-one philosophical exchange with a teacher. But with a group that would be possible.

The headteacher, whose degree included philosophy, was enthusiastic, At a subsequent school party, she asked Peter what was happening to his idea. Peter had not realised just how committed she was and went to work. He drew up a pilot programme, which in 2002 he delivered for an hour a week for free to a small group of children for a term. Pupils, teachers and the head were won over. Instead of using a small group of children, the scheme began with a full primary class. He explained:”We found with the teacher present and all the children together, the lesson was more effective.” Thirty minds bring 30 different perspectives to an issue, idea, or problem. Using specially selected short stories, Peter used his teaching skills to engage them all, drawing out contributions with his questions and invitations for comments.
From this small beginning, the Philosophy Foundation emerged. Just over a decade later it is providing lessons in 38 primaries and six secondary schools in the Lewisham area; has run intensive two-day training courses with follows up for 160 philosophy graduates on how to teach primary school children; and now has philosophy graduates using their techniques in schools in Manchester and Birmingham. They have also produced five books – with two more in the pipeline – for teachers to follow. The first book, ‘The If machine’ is a collection of philosophically-inspired stories and thought experiments with children described by Professor Michael Hand as ‘the best book of its kind currently available.’ Four subsequent works have been equally well received and won awards including ‘best education book’ of the year.
Philosophy lessons are no longer restricted to the older age classes in primary schools. Peter has tried it out for all six age groups and found all ages obtain some benefits. In each age group the more able become models for the less able.
While Peter has been teaching and writing books, his wife Emma became chief operating officer and plunged into building up and expanding the organisation since its formal launch in 2007. A former seasoned actor, she learned her enviable administrative skills through office work between stage engagements. (She even tried her hand as a stand up comedian taking a City Lit course in the art and inviting all her guests to a large 30th birthday party to bring an act with them.) In 2012 she was selected by the Young Foundation to be one of the 10 participants in its first accelerator programme designed to help small social innovation projects expand. The curriculum includes marketing, finance, winning new work, customer relations and demonstrating impact. But she also praises the ‘brilliant’ strategic analysis made of her project by the mentor provided by the programme and the lessons learned from other participants.

She is the first to admit that not everything in the past has gone smoothly and mistakes have been made on the journey. Initially they set up as a limited company in 2007 and then as a CIC (Community Interest Company ) in 2009, not realising that both barred them from becoming a charity, After expensive legal expenses they switched to charitable status relabeling their Philosophy Shop as the Philosophy Foundation. Currently they are mostly funded from payments made by schools for lessons provided; fees from philosophy graduates taking their training and accreditation courses; and proceeds from their books and training manuals. But they are in talks with funders.
One exciting new project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation last year, was seeking a way to ease the move from primary to secondary school. Research suggests that as high a proportion as 40 per cent of children make little or no improvement in their first year in secondary school. The new Transition project focused on 10 classes in 5 schools across London with a high intake of children eligible for free school meals and with many having English as a second language. It was aimed at training these children in their first year of secondary school to enable them to go back into a primary school, stand up before a class and guide a philosophy discussion.

The project manager Georgina Donati was amazed at how readily the year 7s took to the task of becoming facilitators: “The responsibility of helping their younger peers to think through issues they were concerned by, such as ‘are some people born evil’, seemed to engage and motivate the students to work together in a constructive and supportive manner.” The feedback from teachers was equally promising reporting pupils had gained higher-order thinking skills, confidence and social skills as well as moving up in ability sets in other subjects. Some of the pupils reported that were using their newly learned skills to resolve playground disputes and communicate with their parents.
Let the last quote come from Peter: “Skills gained from engaging in philosophy at primary level remain with the children long after they stopped doing philosophy. They continue to use the reasoning skills they learned through philosophy as well as being better listeners and learners.” He ought to know. He left school at 16 with few qualifications. He was a bit of a tearaway at school: questioning everything and getting into quite a lot of fights. It was philosophy that harnessed the questioning and argumentation. It did wonders for him providing him with a degree from University College, London, one of the most prestigious philosophy schools; and he thought it would work for others like him (disengaged from education and antagonistic). Peter has gone on to be a visiting professor at St Mary’s University, London and run courses for philosophy graduates at Edinburgh, Birmingham, Oxford Brooks and Warwick universities.


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