International Focus: Big Picture Learning, USA

Despite significant policy and funding focus over the past 20 years to tackle the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, there is still a big disparity in education outcomes between different socio-economic groups.

Over the past decade, a growing number of educators believe part of the problem lies with the way the mainstream school system is designed. In the US, new approaches have emerged that offer more tailored, vocational schooling for pupils, many from disadvantaged backgrounds.


American high schools have been the focus of national attention for decades because of low graduation rates - particularly among non-white pupils - and performance that lags behind international peers. Amid widespread calls for education reform, there has been a growing rejection of the typical large, impersonal and bureaucratic comprehensive US high school, with more smaller schools being built.

New York City, for example, in 2002 began dividing its large urban high schools into smaller "schools within schools".

In addition to state funding, private organisations have invested significant sums in developing different approaches - for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $1.5bn in a variety of schools nationwide.


The first Big Picture Learning (BPL) school emerged in 1995 when two former educators were asked by a Rhode Island commissioner of education to design and open a new innovative high school. The new MET High School was an attempt to tackle widespread student disengagement and endemic educational inequalities, and to introduce new ways to prepare young people for changes in the labour market and wider society.

There is now a network of more than 65 BPL schools in the United States, and the concept has been adopted in other countries as a result of growing evidence of the beneficial impact the approach has for disadvantaged students.


The key principle that underpins BPL schools is that each student's learning experience is personalised to them and driven by their interests. An "individual learning plan" is created collaboratively, involving parents, adult mentors and advisers, and the student themselves. Students spend a significant amount of their learning time outside of school - in the community, undertaking internships that break down the traditional divisions between vocational and academic education. Significant emphasis is placed on Learning through Interest and Internships, which see students taking part in work placements for two days a week.

Learning goals underpin the BPL approach - these are captured under the headings of empirical reasoning, social reasoning, quantitative reasoning, social qualities and communication. Student progress against these goals is not evaluated solely on the basis of standardised tests. Instead, students are assessed on exhibitions of their work as practical demonstrations of achievement, and, much like in real life, on their understanding, motivation and behaviours.


Between 95 and 100 per cent of BPL students are accepted into two- or four-year university courses, with 70 to 97 per cent of students taking up a place each year (since 2006). Of those students who went straight to work after graduation, 74 per cent secured employment through their BPL internship.

These outcomes are despite 62 to 74 per cent of BPL students being from low-income families, having eligibility for free or reduced school lunch, and more than one third having an absent father.

A BPL school in Los Angeles, New Village Girls Academy is co-located with a large sheltered housing facility for foster children and young offenders. Students build deep and lasting relationships with their peers and adults within their 15-person, mixed-age advisory groups - structures that are designed to support rather than inhibit the development of trust and social capital. Despite their troubled and complex lives, 77 of New Village students passed the California High School Exit Examination in 2014, and 85 per cent went on to post-secondary education.

By Lizzie Insall, director of new ventures, Innovation Unit

At Innovation Unit, we are particularly interested in what a Big Picture-style education could do to help transform support for young people who have been excluded from mainstream schools and are being educated in Alternative Provision (AP).

We are currently working in partnership with Doncaster Council to set up Big Picture-style learning that will create better outcomes for the young people who are most disengaged. It is early days but we think that learning will be different for these young people in three key ways. They will experience:

  • A curriculum that goes far beyond the academic
  • Many opportunities for real world learning beyond the school walls
  • Positive relationships with several trusted adults inside and outside school

We hope the work in Doncaster will lay the groundwork to establish a national provider of Big Picture Learning that could support the transformation of AP elsewhere.

For more information contact

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