Why are literacy and numeracy rates in this country lagging so far behind nations such as Japan and Finland?by Annalies Winny / October 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Well, it’s happening again. Another damming judgment of the English education systems has been delivered, this time by the global policy forum the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. England’s special friend the United States hasn’t done so well either. The takeaway is one we’ve all heard before: when it comes to the three “R”s the kids are not alright.
A recent OECD survey of educational standards in 24 nations ranked England near the bottom (21) and the United States dead last—for numeracy, and they fared little better for literacy coming in at 19 and 20 respectively. As heads shake in dismay, the never-ending English education debate returns to its perennial question: how do we fix it?
Finland and Japan traded off the top spots in the OECD tables, with the Netherlands and South Korea biting at their heels. Countries that consistently come top in international rankings don’t have everything in common. Standardised testing is, if you will, “big in Japan”, while Finland’s holistic approach shuns it until the end of secondary school. We know there is no magic bullet, so everyone has an idea on how to achieve educational excellence.
Scrap the unions. Scrap Michael Gove. Test more. Test less. Close failing schools. Diversify schools. Unite schools. Create choice. Eliminate choice.
Recently, Dominic Cummings has made some particularly uncomfortable suggestions. In his 250-page farewell letter to Whitehall, Michael Gove’s outgoing special adviser throws a number of educational institutions under the bus. Cummings bills Sure Start—the drive to establish educational centres for deprived children—as a waste of billions of pounds with “no real gains.” He identifies mediocrity as the norm in teaching and suggests we plan accordingly.
Marvelling at the blanket assumption that attainment is based on nurture, not nature, he insists that education policy has endangered schools by failing to acknowledge and act upon the real variable: genetics. And the sooner we admit it, the better. This isn’t just natural intelligence but character traits such as conscientiousness and self-control. Lacking the latter, he says, is linked to health problems, being poor, being an addict and being a criminal. The more we can study and identify these traits, the better we can prevent their negative byproducts.
Adopting a system that is “personalised to get the best out of children with different genetic aptitudes will increase, not decrease, gaps in performance,” says Cummings. In other words, the ultra-talented will fly past the rest, and those less genetically able will know why they lost the race.
Politically, this is a terrifying notion—one mustn’t be seen in Whitehall undermining the sheer power of hard work and perseverance. It’s no great coincidence that Cummings has timed this sermon to coincide with his exit from public service. What remains inside, wrote Phillip Collins in Prospect last month, is the stubborn “political consensus” that education is the key to lifting up the socially immobile. This, says Collins, is a myth, but nonetheless it is treated as a top policymaking ideal.
Enter the 2011 Education Act.
This latest social mobility project aims to embed the spirit of autonomy, competition and enterprise across England’s schools. As of 2011, any new school opened must be an academy or a free school, which can be proposed by anyone and sit outside of local authority control. So far 178 such institutions have been opened across England, with the plan being to open 180 more by 2015-16. In these schools, the removal of the requirement for heads and teachers to hold qualified teacher status in the name of building “dynamism” has infuriated teacher’s unions, and apparently rattled Nick Clegg, too. On Thursday, the deputy prime minister will criticise Gove’s “ideological” policy and call for free schools to employ only qualified teachers.
The deputy prime minister’s apparent U-turn comes after a series of high profile free school failures including the possible closure of the Al-Madinah school in Derby which was declared “dysfunctional” in a recent Ofsted report. The school is responding to no less than 17 areas of concern including discrimination against women and girls, and a failure to carry out background checks on staff.
Reversing course doesn’t seem at all likely. Labour’s new education spokesman Tristram Hunt has confirmed that “parent-led” free schools would continue to open under a Labour government.
One of the Act’s central goals is to “ensure that we measure ourselves against the best in the world.” With one in five Finns and Japanese reading at the highest levels (Level 4 or 5 on the Survey of Adult Skills), and England turning out “some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world”—we are coming up short.
Don’t blame the act – it’s only two years old. But has it got potential?
In the government’s best-case scenario, it brings energy and innovation to schools and communities that need it, and fast. At its worst, it opens the door to an equity nightmare; a wonky patchwork of curricula, teaching styles and experience built on the premise of experimentation.
What the top performing education systems share is a balance between quality and equity in schools. Failing to achieve this is a major reason countries fall behind. While Cummings rails against centralised control of teacher training, he notes that Finland, which has highly centralised training, shows that “huge performance variance can be avoided: The most striking result from Finland is not just its high average performance but that, with only five per cent of student performance variation between schools, every school succeeds.”
Cummings also touches on the value, but in his opinion scarcity of, good teachers. In this country TeachFirst, which asks its participants for just two years of teaching in exchange for on-the-job training, has been credited with making the profession “cool.” The social enterprise is now third in the Times list of top graduate employers, with participant numbers growing year-on-year since its inception in 2002. But, its very name implies all its core criticisms: teach first, then do something else.
In Finland, the profession is a national treasure, and there’s only one way in. The required master’s degree for Finnish teachers is government-funded and research-based, and is one of the most desirable and competitive degrees available. Once Finnish teachers are qualified, the concept of trust is at the centre of the profession. There is no government inspection body, little testing and minimal homework. They managed to taper out private schools without starting a middle-class revolution.
Finnish educational activist and author Pasi Sahlberg tours the globe spilling the secrets of his country’s perceived edutopia. His resounding message is: admire us, but don’t copy us. “Education reform ideas are not good travellers,” he has warned, insisting Finland’s remarkable rise wasn’t based on a plot to dominate the global education market. They “just wanted to be better than the Swedes.”
Regardless of whether genetics or poor teaching are to blame, the OECD report explains that even very literate nations have “significant liabilities in their talent pool.” Ninety per cent of the overall variation in literacy skills observed “lie within, rather than between, countries.” According to the OECD, the gap is linked to income and social background. In the US and the UK more so than elsewhere, where the children of less educated parents had significantly lower proficiency. This may not come as a shock—as a person educated in both England and the US, it’s a sad fact I take as a given. What’s more surprising is that it’s not a given.
As expert consumers, we are used to—indeed we demand—choice and competition among our services. We can barely conceive of another way of living. The principles of the Education Act have tapped into our inherited consumer DNA, making swallowing it a frighteningly natural transition. But with the contagious habits of global education reform, it’s all the more important to remember that somewhere, they’re doing something different. And it’s working.