The Learning Curve report ‘Lessons in Country Performance in Education’ has already attracted a huge degree of interest in the 12 hours since it has been published, and the headline figure that the UK is placed 6th in a list of countries for global index of cognitive skills and educational attainment has become the main focus for discussion. Some have seen this as a positive, whilst others, bizarrely have daubed it a failure, apparently the result of Marxist insurgents!!!! Whilst this is no doubt an important piece of data, I think the headline conclusions of the report are even more interesting. The five lessons for policymakers state (p.11):
1. There are no magic bullets - ‘education requires long-term, coherent and focused system-wide attention to achieve improvement.’
2. Respect teachers - ‘teachers need to be treated as the valuable
professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.’
3. Culture can be changed - ‘The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.’
4. Parents are neither enemies nor saviours of education - ‘Education systems
should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.’
5. Educate for the future, not just for the present - ‘Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach
These ideas seem to me to be every bit as important as the position the UK inhabits at present, as they are in some ways a fantastic critique of the present move in education policy, not only in England, but in other systems around the world, to see quick, ill-considered, and often non-existent gains as the cornerstone of school improvement.
The idea that any single policy mantra, such as academies, can of themselves bring positive change, or that any school not reaching ‘the mark’ can turn itself around in 6 months, are false. What is required is a steady, considered and consensual approach to change, a view the report sets out clearly. And this idea isn’t new, Stigler and Hiebert (1999) in The Teaching Gap, consider the failings of the American school system. One of the sections in their book makes the point that,
‘Improvement will not happen by itself. It will require designing and building a research-and-development system that explicitly targets steady, gradual improvement of teaching and learning….What kind of system will allow us to do so in the future?’ (p.131)
They then go on to outline six principles for gradual, measurable improvement:
1. Expect Improvement to Be Continual, Gradual and Incremental
2. Maintain a Constant Focus on Student Learning Goals
3. Focus on Teaching, Not Teachers
4. Make Improvements in Context
5. Make Improvement the Work of Teachers
6. Build a System That Can Learn for its Own Experience
The underlying foundations of a system which will create world-class outcomes are based on teaching, rather than structures, and local contexts, rather than national targets, whilst retaining coherence across the system. But importantly, the changes need to be coordinated, considered and must emerge over a period of time!
Singapore and Finland, both systems which excel in this report (and all other international comparisons), show these traits. Finland has developed to its current position over 30 years, has developed genuine, planned interactions and shared responsibilities between schools and universities, and has put learning and teaching, not structures, at its centre. Likewise, Singapore has followed a similar long term change if somewhat more rapid. In 1965 the majority of the population was illiterate, but planned change and development has brought it to its present position.
In both Singapore and Finland, teachers are highly respected, and are part of long-term career development programmes which start with university input, including a grounding in theory, to allow the emergence of praxis-based decision-making, followed by engagement with ideas, professional dialogue and a focus on teaching and learning whilst working in schools. It is these characteristics which allow for the five key points of the Learning Curve report to be met, and which also fulfil the ideas put forward by Stigler and Hiebert.
What of England? The present experiment of the Coalition government has been attacked today by many arguing that if we are 6th in the world, why fix what is not broken? I would broadly agree with this, but we need a clearer, more detailed debate. To argue merely about positions is to fall into the trap of seeing the number, rather than the process, as important.
Taking teacher education as an element of the debate, there appears to be a strong argument for close partnership within a planned, nationally coherent system which enhances the professional standing and academic education of those entering the sector. Instead, Schools Direct offers a market solution with no stability and no coherence. The number of places offered will vary from year to year from area to area, resulting in HE partners never being able to plan strategically, leading to possible withdrawal from the system. In addition, it is increasingly based on a ‘craft’ model. Many may think this unimportant, but it begins to debase the work of teachers. If you disagree with this ask why academies now don’t need to employ qualified teachers. The argument is effectively that the job of a teacher can be fulfilled by a graduate without a sustained exposure to the processes and knowledge of the role of the teacher other than what is picked up as they go along. Where is the respect for teachers in this process, a central element of the Learning Curve report?
What is interesting to me is that we are being thrown headlong into an experiment in marketisation and rapid privatisation of the English system. This is an experiment which may eventually reach a point of no return. What is most interesting is that all the evidence points to a very different model, one of social partnership, led but not dictated from the centre, and which enhances the standing of teachers, not which undermines them at every turn.