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Do private schools give children a head start in life?

James Blunt

Recently, the British public was treated to the dubious spectacle of shadow culture minister Chris Bryant and superstar balladeer James Blunt trading verbal blows.

In a nutshell, Bryant name-checked Blunt (along with Eton-educated actor Eddie Redmayne) in remarks he made about the arts being dominated by those from posh schools.

Blunt fired back with some questionable swearing, whilst accusing Bryant of ‘classism’, and retorted that no one at his boarding school encouraged him to go into the music business.

Nonetheless, privately educated people are disproportionately represented in many areas of British life, be it music and acting as in the cases of Blunt and Redmayne, or politics, with 36% of the cabinet having attended private school (compared with just 7% of the population).

Even if, as Blunt says, he was given no specific encouragement to pursue music, is there something about a private school education that means your child is more likely to pen the next ‘You’re Beautiful’ (or, perhaps more pertinently, lead the government of the United Kingdom)?

Aside from the commonly cited benefits of academic competitiveness and lower class sizes, there are a number of ‘soft’ factors that could contribute to the success of children from private schools.

For instance, many private schools place great emphasis on their history. Children who attend lessons in venerable old buildings, watched over benevolently by portraits of former head teachers are subtly encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to a tradition. Not only does this confer a sense of ‘specialness’, but it also exposes students to the language and iconography of power early in life. A child who has attended an old private school is likely to feel more attuned to the ceremony and pomp of Oxbridge than one who has attended a modern comprehensive.

The same could be said of the speech patterns children pick up in private school. Received Pronunciation remains ubiquitous on our screens and airwaves, and, unfair though it may be, surveys continue to show that posh accents are regarded as more intelligent, honest and charming by the public. So our ingrained preconceptions means we’re more likely believe being told ‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt than, say, Alan Sugar.

Young Blunt and Redmayne undoubtedly benefitted from after school activities too. Many private schools offer all sorts of clubs and societies, offering students valuable opportunities for personal growth and exploration. An Eton boy like Redmayne could see as many as thirty plays per year performed by his peers – that kind of cultural capital is priceless.

Then there’s the culture of expectation. Many private schools regularly achieve rafts of outstanding grades, and it’s far less remarkable for students to apply for places at Oxbridge. In an atmosphere where this kind of success is expected, children tend to rise to meet those expectations. Perhaps James Blunt inherited a drive to rise to the top of the charts from this kind of competitive environment.

Of course, it’s often argued that this can turn private schools into hot houses, where children are put under immense pressure to achieve top grades, at the expense of their individuality.

Critics also point to the lack of diversity in many private schools as compared to their state counterparts. Learning respect and emotional intelligence when dealing with people from all backgrounds is a vital life skill that is perhaps more readily achieved in the state sector than the more homogenous private demographic.

Furthermore, the success of Blunts and Redmaynes may be attributable not to anything special about their schooling but simply their parents’ connections. Parents from more privileged socio-economic groups tend to have the financial and cultural capital that gives their children an advantage, and the luxury of time, when it comes to pursuing their calling.

The fact remains that private schooling is typically part of a more complex picture. The likelihood is that if you can afford to send your child to a private school, you can afford to help them in many other ways too – many of them hard to quantify. Blunt may not like to admit it, but a private education remains the most reliable marker of a head start in life.

The issues of ‘Progressive Education’

Everything is subject to trends, even education. A recent book by Robert Peal, Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, examines one such trend, and claims that this trend has, almost single-handedly, ruined education for generations of British students.

The trend in question is called ‘progressive education’. The word ‘trend’ may, in fact, be a bit of a misnomer, as progressive education began to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s, and has remained somewhat prominent. Without knowing it, many students and parents will have come into contact with at least some aspects of the progressive theory of education. Progressive education is formulated around the idea that children are better learners when they are given the freedom to experiment, explore, and discover things for themselves. This view holds that teachers are most effective when they avoid a didactic method, wherein they stand in front of a class presenting knowledge to students to commit to memory. Rather, teachers should be more like facilitators, setting the stage for students to learn on their own.

Peal claims that the lackadaisical approach to building bodies of knowledge espoused by this teaching ideology, as well as a permissive approach to behaviour in schools, has led to increasingly poor outcomes for students, a persistent ‘dumbing-down’ of the curriculum, increasingly bad discipline, and high turnover rates for teachers, to name but a few.

JV, a primary teacher in Brent, notes that things have changed quite a bit in the past few years, “ Every school I’ve ever taught in has recommended a blend of child-centred and more formal teaching, but I know from some of the older teachers that I’ve worked with that this is a new-ish development. But I do think that the progressive approach might be clinging on a bit more when it comes to discipline, and maybe even expectations.”

The merits, or not, of progressive education will not be discussed here. As with most things, implementing education policies and practices that tread the middle path between progressive education and more traditional ideas, taking elements from each, seems the best way to serve students, and Peal makes this argument as well. However, Peal’s book inspires some interesting questions in regards to private tuition.

The pervasiveness of progressive ideas in education may also help to explain why tutors can be such an effective tool in increasing a student’s ability levels. While the one-on-one atmosphere most certainly helps, the true driver behind success may very well lie in the fact that many tutors use more traditional, didactic teaching styles with their pupils.

Private tutors don’t have access to resources or funds for complex, interactive lessons, nor are these types of activities particularly useful without an entire class to work with. Rather, tutors focus on imparting the key information and knowledge that unlocks subjects for students, helping their students remember and apply that knowledge, and deploy that knowledge across a range of skill sets. Additionally, time constraints mean that tutors must teach in the way that is going to achieve the greatest impact in the shortest time, regardless of whether that method is necessarily the most fun.

For instance, at Hampstead and Frognal, our tutors who work with students preparing for the 7+ use phonics to increase literacy, rather than the whole-word teaching style recommended by advocates of progressive education. While phonics is often perceived as tedious and boring, students progress much more quickly when this style of instruction is used.

Indeed, Peal points to a shocking statistic that our tutors are too familiar with. Nearly 20% of students in British schools are classified as having Special Educational Needs. This figure stands well above the numbers for any other OECD nation. For our tutors, discussions of children being ‘dyslexic or borderline dyslexic’ are quite common. When tutoring is undertaken, and progress is made, it becomes clear that Peal’s analysis holds quite a bit of weight; the majority of the students classified as having Special Educational Needs, don’t, in fact, have Special Educational Needs. Rather, they are being failed by the educational practices of their teachers and schools.

The same may be said of students who are diagnosed, somewhat casually, as having ADHD. When students, from the time they enter schooling, are never required to focus on a teacher or lesson for an extended period, because lessons are designed, always, to be child-centred, interactive, groupwork-based, or discursive, they never develop the skills necessary to sit still, maintain attention, or follow instructions closely.

In a one-on-one setting, where tutors are better able to exercise discipline over an individual pupil, the problems with attention tend to fade. This is, of course, due in no small part to the more personalised attention. However, if a student can focus in a one-on-one environment, it throws into question any ADHD labels, and leads to a questioning of the classroom environment instead.

In reality, the best way to instruct students is by using a combination of teaching styles, a variety of lesson structures, and a range to techniques. In recent years, it appears as though more schools have been moving away from a strictly progressive teaching and administration style, and towards something a more around the middle ground. This benefits students immensely, and underlines what makes private tuition successful; the ability of the tutor to complement what the pupil experiences in the classroom.

IT in Schools

Education ministers and policy-drivers often go to great lengths to emphasise that education should do nothing if not prepare students for the world that awaits them when they leave school and enter the world of work. And a noble aim this is. While most would agree that education for its own sake is an enriching and rewarding way to spend your time, few would contest that education should also reflect the ‘real world’. It is in this spirit that subjects such as ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) have been steadily introduced to the curriculum.

ICT (including computing, or computer science) would appear to be a perfect choice for those looking to provide themselves with a skill that holds some currency on the job market. More and more jobs require more than a basic grounding in computer programmes, and technology start-ups and businesses form a vibrant part of the economy. Furthermore, IT has come to form the backbone of many more established industries, including, notably, finance.

Despite this, only 10% of students sitting their GCSEs in 2013 chose ICT as a subject. While this number is a huge increase (of 38%) from 2012, this explosion is from a frightfully low base. What explains the low uptake?

The answer may lie in the fact that technology moves incredibly quickly, making it hard for the exam boards that develop curricula to keep up. Even those designed in conjunction with tech giants (such as AQA’s collaboration with Microsoft) run the risk of giving students a thorough grounding in technologies that may be too narrow, or may soon be obsolete.
Ronan, an IT professional with 12 years’ experience working in the industry, points out that a crucial problem is that there are simply too many different technologies, coding languages, and frameworks in use. Moving from one IT job to another, even within a company, may require entirely different sets of skills, a breadth that is hard to condense into an exam-based curriculum. This is not just a challenge faced by schools, universities are just as prone to creating computer science degrees that are effectively worthless.

Exam boards have set about addressing this problem by focusing on the fundamentals, such as how computers interpret and use data, but, at GCSE level, many courses still feature too much of the ‘how to use Powerpoint’ material, leaving students bored senseless. Newer course materials feature some introductions to coding, and problem-solving using advanced technologies, but this doesn’t solve the obsolescence problem.

To further compound this issue, there is a distinct scarcity of highly-qualified computer science teachers at GCSE and A-Level. This is largely due to the fact that those with the relevant knowledge are working in the field, rather than teaching. Of those who have entered the teaching profession, many graduated with their degrees in computer science too long ago, making the information and technologies that they studied out-of-date.

What we are left with is a seemingly impossible task: to create a curriculum that provides a strong foundation in the key technologies, whilst simultaneously providing the skills for an ever-changing field; a curriculum that anticipates a changing jobs landscape without being too in hock to trends; a programme that helps students develop skills to a reasonable degree of proficiency, whilst acknowledging that focusing on one or two sets of skills or technologies ignores the sheer volume of other systems in operation.

The answer to this dilemma may very well be to treat ICT qualifications almost like a vocational course. IT resources and materials are available in large quantities online, and are often free to use. The relative abundance of ‘self-help’ materials encourages students who are passionate about computer science to strike out on their own and develop skills they find interesting or relevant. Additionally, job placements are very often the best way to develop IT skills.

Ronan confirms that entering the workforce with any amount of real-world experience is more valuable than any qualification or degree. ‘You may start out doing menial tasks, like migrating data or fixing minor bugs, but eventually you move on to bigger or more complicated tasks, and grow your skill set from there.’

Working with companies to create internship-type placements for GCSE or A-Level students could be a promising way to create an environment in which fundamentals (however those are defined) are learned in the classroom, and the ‘nitty-gritty’ of coding, systems, and frameworks is learned in real-world situations, thus also encouraging students to learn crucial job-market skills and teaching them to adapt to new challenges, think on their feet, and study independently.

Exam boards are right to review skills such as creating documents and spreadsheets and using databases, but their focus needs to be beyond this; on programming for mobile technologies, web-based technologies and programming, and coding languages and frameworks. Only with an emphasis in these areas will British students emerge with a qualification that would ever mean something to an employer. Many examiners are moving decidedly in the right direction, but encouraging practical skill development in the workplace would better serve students.

Gove is Gone

It’s official. Michael Gove, in all of his divisive glory, is no longer the Education Secretary, and will be setting up camp instead in the Chief Whip’s office. Teachers across the country tripped over themselves in the rush to cheer his demise, but what does Michael Gove’s removal, and his replacement with Nicky Morgan, mean for education in the UK?

The decidedly unexciting answer is: probably not much.

Nicky Morgan, first elected to Parliament as Member for Loughborough in 2010, has moved to the education brief from a stint as a Treasury Minister. She will also hold the Women and Equality portfolio—something which is already raising eyebrows considering her votes against same-sex marriage and her points of view on abortion access. Apart from serving, for a time, as a school governor, little seems to qualify Mrs. Morgan for her role at the helm of the Department for Education, and her voting record suggests that she agrees with the vast majority of her predecessor’s reforms.

Many may laud the raising of a woman to such a high position, as opposed to the ‘pale, male, and stale’, but Mrs. Morgan’s privately educated background would appear not to be a vast departure from the Tory stereotype. Michael Gove’s personal story, and his personal experiences of education, may have been more of an asset to him in his Education role than Mrs. Morgan’s may prove.

More importantly, perhaps, is the timing of Mrs. Morgan’s appointment. With this reshuffle coming as close as it does to the next general election, it is unlikely that she is expected to implement anything real or new, and, assuming that she wanted to, there would be very little time in which to do it. For the time being, she is likely to remain a place-holder of sorts, and to be one of the many recently promoted female MPs intended to make the Conservative cabinet more representative of the party as a whole.

Though many of Mr. Gove’s reforms were controversial, and he singularly failed to get teachers and other academic professionals on-side, the broad sweep of his reforms was generally in the right direction. Moves to increase accountability, create a more rigorous curriculum, and free schools, teachers, and parents to create dynamic and independent learning environments have followed the patterns set elsewhere in the world that have achieved strong results for students.

That is not to say, of course, that every reform, or reform proposal, was on target. Nor did his abrasive approach win many friends. However, his time as Education Secretary forced schools, teachers, parents, and society at large, to think seriously about what is most important about education and different ways to achieve it.
If we are to take anything from Mr. Gove’s replacement, it is that the Government seems willing to acknowledge that the furious pace of his reforms needs a cooling-down period, and reforms need time to settle in. While teething problems with policies are worked through, it may be helpful to have a face in the Department for Education without such a strongly established agenda.

ADHD?

There is no avoiding the fact that everything about ADHD is controversial. Some claim that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a legitimate challenge preventing many children from keeping up with their peers at school and acting as a barrier to success. Others claim that it is merely giving poorly behaved children with little self-control, and their parents, a medical label to hide behind. Some believe that those who exhibit behaviour associated with ADHD should be treated with medication in order to best control their behaviours and limit their impact on others, while others believe that this is unnecessary medication for what are, essentially, normal childhood behaviours.

Whichever side you stand on, there is no denying that, in recent years, ADHD has become more and more of a challenge for classroom teachers in the UK and the staff that support them. A cursory glance around the internet demonstrates how prevalent the ADHD discussion has become. Medical websites, mental health charities, and ADHD-specific organisations all provide advice about dealing with the symptoms of ADHD in schools. Indeed, many schools themselves, particularly in the private sector, market their specific abilities to work with children with ADHD and accommodate their special educational needs. Tutoring companies receive myriad requests from parents of children with ADHD for help keeping their children caught-up in school and combating problems with focus and attention.

But whether you believe ADHD is a legitimate behavioural challenge or not, teachers in schools are having to cope with the consequences of ADHD’s increased presence in educational discourse. What does this mean for teachers in the classroom?
Harman, a Year 2 teacher in Haringey, feels relatively lucky. ‘To be honest, I’ve not had many students whose parents claimed that they had ADHD, but I know some of my colleagues have. As a primary teacher, we’re in a difficult position because there is already so much that we’re meant to be looking out for…When we are teaching kids to read we are meant to be looking out for signs of dyslexia. I’ve got plenty of children in my class who don’t speak English at home, which creates another set of challenges. It’s a long list. When you have to worry about ADHD as well, it can put a lot of pressure on an already challenging situation.’

When children are as young as Harman’s, it can often be difficult to distinguish between normal behaviours and ADHD. ‘When they tell you about looking out for ADHD,’ she says, ‘ they’re telling you to look out for things that kids mostly do anyway…like being unable to sit still or not being able to focus on one thing for an extended period.’
These criteria are all relative, and guidance can be vague. For instance, guidance issued by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland states that ‘ADHD cannot be…caused by environmental factors such as diet, parenting or education. However, we must remember that environmental factors can influence every child and so are still important.’ Thus, environmental factors are central, but not causal. It becomes easy to understand how teachers can feel lost.

Some children can focus for longer periods than others in their same age group, and indeed, the younger children within a year group are more likely to be labelled as attention-deficit, as are boys, who develop later than their female peers. Practical guidance for schools often instruct teachers to look for students who are often off task, make careless mistakes, appear disinterested, can’t focus or maintain effort, are disorganised, are talkative, shout out answers or interrupt, can’t wait their turn, are restless, etc. At what point do these normal childhood behaviours, which every child, particularly very young children, exhibits at some point or another, become present to an inappropriate or significant degree?

Jamie, who teaches Year 6 in Tower Hamlets, feels that teachers are being unfairly burdened. ‘Look, I’ve read all the guidance, and if people who are a lot smarter than me are saying that ADHD is the result of some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain then I believe them. I have a hard time, though, believing how many kids actually have it. Most of the time, I feel kids in my classes who claim that they have ADHD don’t actually have a diagnosis to back that up, its just something that their parents have told them over and over again as a way of explaining bad behaviour that they can’t control or don’t want to take responsibility for. They’re clever. By the time they get to me they’ve learned that if they say they have ADHD they can get away with things other kids would get in trouble for.’
Jamie contends what many have long suspected. While in a strict medical sense, ADHD should only be a diagnosis reached after consultation with a number of doctors and specialists, the subjective nature of the condition, as well as a reliance on those who see the child most (parents, teachers, carers, etc.) for a determination of what is normal, leads to many children being labelled ADHD whose behaviour is actually explainable by any number of other factors, including home environment, age, gender, diet, or amount of physical activity. Many children who exhibit behaviours associated with ADHD eventually grow out of these behaviours as they mature, throwing any initial diagnosis into severe doubt.

Indeed, questions have been raised about whether a broadening of the definition of what ADHD is in recent editions of the most common diagnostic manual (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has led to over-diagnosis, wherein very mild or moderate symptoms are slapped with the ADHD label.
Jan Heller, a former teacher in the United States with more than 30 years of experience, believes that parents need to take more responsibility. ‘Sugary and fatty diets, lack of sleep, lack of exercise…all of it contributes. When I first started teaching, if a child came to me behaving in a way that we would now associate with ADD, I would have perhaps advised the parents that they needed to get more sleep…I obviously can’t speak for the UK, but here, teachers are dealing with so much. Class sizes are a lot bigger than they used to be, the shape and size of families is different, children are exposed to different influences. There needs to be a more honest dialogue between teachers and parents regarding child behaviour, what is normal, and why it happens. Otherwise, schools get lumbered with these behaviour issues in a way that is quite unfair.’

The problem of over-medicalising child behaviour is much less prevalent in the UK than in the United States, but similar trends are emerging. For teachers and schools, the best approach seems to be twofold. Harman, teaching year two, believes that more resources solve the problem. ‘The smaller the groups are the easier it is to handle children whose behaviour is a little more challenging. Smaller classes would be great, but I don’t really see that happening. It seems more realistic to make sure that, for younger children, there are enough teachers and teachers’ aides in a classroom to give the children that need it extra help.’

For Jamie, teaching year six, the solution lies elsewhere. ‘Parents and students need to take responsibility for the way they behave. As the kids get older they should be held to account for the way that they behave and the way that it affects the other kids in their class. And when parents are confronted with the poor ways their kids are behaving, the solution shouldn’t be to just say ‘Oh, well, he’s got ADHD.’ That’s not an excuse. I’m not saying that if there is a genuine issue there that I wouldn’t do whatever I could to help, or that schools shouldn’t give extra assistance. But I’ve taught enough kids to know when it’s genuinely ADHD or if, actually, they just have a problem with authority or can’t control themselves.’

If you believe that your child is struggling with ADHD, what can you do?
First and foremost, eliminate other possibilities. Try changing your child’s routine to ensure they are getting enough sleep. Or monitor their diet closely; balanced diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins help manage ‘sugar spikes’ and promote the ability to focus. Also, talk to your children! Many of the behaviours associated with ADHD can be a mask for emotional difficulties or a reaction to bullying, and many young people will not volunteer that sort of information.

Once all other possibilities have been exhausted, the NHS recommends that you turn to your GP, who may recommend or refer specialist services such as child psychiatrists or other mental health professionals. Parenting guidance and courses may also be offered, aimed at helping use behavioural techniques to manage or change a child’s behaviour, with or without an official ADHD diagnosis.

Websites such as www.adhdtogether.com , www.livingwithadhd.co.uk , www.addiss.co.uk, and www.youngminds.org.uk can also provide additional information about symptoms, treatment, and management should non-medical solutions fail to address the problems. These resources can help you navigate the medical environment, as well as provide advice and guidance on working with your child’s condition, and framing the discussion with those who work closely with them, such as teachers.

Teachers and schools are accustomed to working with children with any number of difficulties. ADHD is not, and should not be, the catch-all excuse for behavioural or attention issues in children. However, if you have received a confirmed diagnosis from the relevant clinicians, it is important to keep your school and teachers informed and involved. This will allow them to aid your child in the most effective way possible, and to provide the best support available.

The Teaching Qualifications Debate

It seems hard to believe, but the political establishment has already begun to position itself for the next general election. With each election cycle, education comes into the spotlight. This is no surprise: education is a policy area that affects a vast percentage of the electorate, making it a prime platform from which politicians can reach out and grab the public interest. Education policy has undergone a lot of change under the current government, from an expansion in the number of academies to the introduction of free schools. Indeed, the coalition has not stopped there. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has promised free school lunches to all pupils between reception and year two in the next parliament.

However, there is another proposed reform that has introduced a lot more controversy. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made waves by suggesting that it is unnecessary for teachers in state schools to have specific teaching qualifications. Rather, he argues, schools should be able to hire any individual who has a command of the necessary material, and has the passion and creativity to provide lessons that are engaging and effective. Free schools and independent schools already have the freedom to operate in this way, and so, the argument goes, should state schools.

There is some suggestion that this would be an effective reform. The teaching qualifications themselves do not impart a love of teaching, or necessarily a love of a particular subject, and enthusiastic teachers are much more likely to keep their students engaged in the material. Particularly where a subject is highly technical or specialised, a teacher who is an expert in that particular field, but who lacks a specific teaching qualification such as a PGCE, may be just as effective, if not more so, than a traditionally qualified teacher. The fact that independent schools feel secure using teachers without formal qualifications speaks to the ability of such individuals to create successful learning environments. It is also argued that older students may be better served by teachers who have experience working in the field or subject that they are teaching. For instance, physics teachers who have worked as engineers in the private sector can help students understand how the material they learn in the classroom can help them build a future in the workforce.

Naturally, the opposition Labour party has raised myriad issues with this proposal. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, has claimed that these reforms are irresponsible, and not in the best interests of students. Labour ministers point to a similar reform in Sweden, where free schools, which are run for profit, hired unqualified teachers over qualified ones when feeling the pinch of cuts to education budgets. The result was slipping standards and the ultimate reversal of the policy. Teaching qualifications give teachers a good grounding in how children learn and expose them to different teaching strategies. Furthermore, having a teaching qualification would seem to indicate a dedication to teaching by demonstrating years of study and development in pursuit of the profession. Those who walk into teaching without a qualification could be more likely to simply walk back out again.

In any discussion about education reform that precedes a general election, the ideas are much more likely to be driven by ideology than by any deep or comprehensive understanding of pedagogy.

Carmela Hinckley, an educator at Twyford Church of England High School, with nearly twenty years experience, believes that the qualification is still important, and that the dichotomy that Michael Gove is presenting between qualified teachers and passionate subject-experts is false. “ While Michael Gove and others have said that [teachers] don’t have to have a qualification, he then uses the words ‘passion’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘engagement’, and those are the three things that the qualification looks for. Because the passion, knowledge, and engagement are constantly tested in the process of qualifying.”

At present, the government has no plans to provide a pathway to qualification for those individuals who choose to enter the teaching profession without a teaching qualification. This does seem like a mistake, and correcting this could be a way to bridge the two sides of this debate by making it easier for highly qualified people to enter teaching, but also making sure that they receive the type of training that will provide them with a wider skill-set, and make it more likely for them to last in the profession. Indeed, Ms. Hinckley believes that training for a teaching qualification provides teachers with the skills they need to confront the evolving challenges of teaching. These challenges range from evolving curricula and standards to the effects of family breakdown.

It goes without saying that having a teaching qualification does not make a good teacher, and research indicates that education systems that hold teachers to account, regardless of how long they’ve been in the profession, when their effectiveness begins to wane, produce the best results. Teaching qualifications are steps in the right direction, but they are hardly the only things encouraging strong performance. In Mrs. Hinckley’s opinion, the culture of the school, and the school environment, are instrumental in driving high teacher standards.

Indeed, investing in education professionals by consistently providing them with opportunities for feedback and development is crucial, and perhaps the best way to ensure that pupils are getting the best education available.

Lessons from the World’s Best Schools

In this day and age, we are constantly reminded that the global economy is becoming more and more competitive. It is our duty, it is endlessly repeated, to equip our children with the education and skills to compete effectively in this increasingly cut-throat environment. In a recent book, entitled The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley has tried to address exactly what makes education systems successful, and what kinds of practices create ‘the smartest kids in the world’.

A journalist with extensive experience covering education topics, Ripley tries to answer why the United States fails to attain the top of the international education tables, despite spending more per capita on education than almost any other country. In order to do this, she looks into the education culture in three countries that have achieved impressive results: Finland, Poland and South Korea. Each of these countries provides a lesson about how education should be approached, and what reform can achieve.

In Finland, Ripley focuses on the quality of the teachers. Teaching in Finland is a highly respected and incredibly competitive profession. Entrance onto teaching degrees and training courses is tightly controlled, with only the most academically talented gaining entry. The relative scarcity of places on teacher- training courses, combined with the high level of subject specialism required of teachers in the upper years, leads to teachers commanding a great deal of respect due to the acknowledgement of how much dedication, work, intelligence, and commitment goes in to becoming a teacher in the first place. Highly qualified teachers are then trusted to approach the curriculum with minimal oversight, and in the way that they feel best meets the needs of their students.

In South Korea, the practices of parents and students are the focus. With an unbelievably competitive university entrance examination, students dedicate untold hours outside of school to study, and parents support their children’s educations with equal, if not greater, fervour. While Ripley points out that, in many ways, the South Korean educational experience is unproductive, the intensive involvement of parents in their children’s education, and the motivation exhibited by students are held up at things to be admired and encouraged.

Finally, Ripley points to Poland as an example of a nation that has addressed sub-standard educational attainment rapidly and effectively since 1990. By reforming the way in which students were streamed in secondary schools, as well as placing more accountability in the hands of teachers and schools, Poland was able to significantly improve its rankings. This improvement was achieved both incredibly quickly, and without spending the vast sums of money that the United States spends per pupil.

Ripley’s book raises some interesting issues and provides worthy food-for-thought. However, she approached her research with the United States in mind, which makes her conclusions only partially useful to those trying to understand the UK’s middling educational performance. However, a couple of her conclusions are worth considering.

First and foremost, spending is not always the answer. The most effective way of achieving higher educational attainment is accountability on all fronts. Allowing teachers and schools to take more control over how they approach material and, in some cases, what is taught, will allow those who know the students best to work in a way that best meets their needs and tailor resources to specific challenges. Making schools and teachers accountable helps education professionals feel empowered and invested, and rewards those whose techniques and practices provide the greatest gains. This approach also allows teachers in specialist subjects to use their expertise to approach their subjects in ways that make them engaging, relevant, and dynamic for students.

Accountability for teachers and schools goes hand-in-hand with having highly qualified instructors. Teachers in secondary schools in Finland, for example, are expected to be subject specialists. This intensive subject knowledge, combined with the completion of a lengthy, rigorous teacher-training course, creates teachers who are highly respected and who need less oversight in order to ensure they are doing what is right for their students.

Accountability extends to students as well. Children rise to the expectations set for them given the support of their teachers and carers. When education is made a priority in the home, positive attitudes are created that foster high achievement. Likewise, in school, students who are streamed later in the educational careers are more likely to perform well because they are not being sent the implicit message that they are less capable. This is not to say that streaming is completely negative; acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses is a key to any strong education system. However, clear sets of expectations and standards help students perform well, and the longer one set of standards applies to everyone, the better.

The second key lesson to be gleaned from Ripley’s research regards the involvement of parents. Students whose parents are actively involved in their education perform better than those whose are not. This extends beyond helping with homework. Actively engaging with the skills that children are learning in class and helping integrate them into everyday life reinforces those skills and helps develop critical thinking abilities. For instance, using baking to practice with fractions or reading and discussing books are great ways to help children use the skills they learn in the classroom.

Lastly, but particularly importantly where London is concerned, is the lessons Ripley learns about diversity. America, Ripley claims, often hides behind diversity as an excuse for poor educational attainment. Children who don’t come to school speaking English find it difficult to achieve at the same level as native English speakers, it is often claimed. However, Finnish experience seems to suggest that this is a red herring. Diversity within a student population certainly presents a different set of challenges, but this doesn’t have to be a barrier to achievement when teachers are well-trained and have the right resources at their disposal. In fact, this maxim seems to be borne out in London, where some of the best primary and secondary state schools in the country are located. Diversity amongst the students does not stand in the way of success because teachers have the skills necessary to meet the unique challenges of diversity head-on. Indeed, diversity can enrich a child’s educational experience by exposing them to different cultures, languages, and ways of thinking, as well as challenging them to evaluate their experiences and beliefs differently. This quality is something that is conspicuously lacking from the South Korean educational system, where almost every student is aiming for the same universities and the same jobs at the same handful of companies. The creativity and tolerance that diversity engenders is something to be admired about London’s schools.