I have always enjoyed the Channel 4 comedy series Father Ted! A favourite episode sees Father Ted using a toy cow to explain the difference between ‘small’ and ‘far away’ to the hapless Father Dougal.
A sense of perspective is something that we all need but can lack. One of the best pieces of advice to any new Head is to try and buy space and time and avoid making instant decisions. Most apparently pressing matters can be left overnight, and they often look very different the next morning when viewed from home. The adage “if in doubt do nowt” was often used by Sir Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s former press secretary, and the gruff Yorkshire man had a point. Many bad decisions are made quickly, whilst good calls are often the product of careful consideration, appropriate advice and a sense of perspective.
Last week I was in Hong Kong meeting alumni and visiting one of our international exchange partner schools. Leading independent schools rely on the support of alumni and friends around the world to finance building projects and support bursary access programmes. Whilst state school Heads are well versed in filling in government grant application forms to secure funding, independent school Heads have to hone their fundraising pitches. New Heads quickly learn that running a school is about far more than education, and the pursuit of income from state or private sectors is a key challenge.
Six thousand miles in economy class and a seven hour time difference provides a sense of perspective. Hong Kong takes education seriously and sets high standards. A recent survey suggested a C grade in a Hong Kong ‘A’ level was equivalent to an A grade in the UK. Hong Kong children want to do well, and in an aspirational culture children attend evening classes and summer schools to supplement their schooling. PISA studies regularly highlight Hong Kong, along with other Far Eastern societies, as having highest standards of secondary education in the world.
So why are the Far Eastern educational systems so successful and what can we learn from them? Firstly they benefit from the go-getting success cultures of the region. Hong Kong children can see where a good education can take them; they are surrounded by opportunities and a sky-line lit up by economic success. Study hard in a growing economy and you will get a good job; this incentive for educational achievement is endemic in the booming Far East but patchy in recessionary Britain. Study hard in some parts of the UK and there is no guarantee of a job, and even with gainful employment high taxes and student loans can compromise the British effort incentive.
Hong Kong has a sense of order that can be lacking in British Society. In schools this order means that classes of 40+ children operate without disruption. The majority of children are obedient learners, and teacher energy can be focussed on imparting knowledge rather than class control. This brings advantages – large class sizes reduce educational staffing costs, and more money can be invested in buildings and learning resources. However, too much order and conformity can be a bad thing if it stifles the creativity of individual students. Excellent exam results can be achieved by rote learning, but true understanding can only come with independent thinking.
By most measures Hong Kong has one of the best educational systems in the world. Yet many Hong Kong students want to study in Britain. Every year hundreds of Hong Kong students join British independent schools, in part to perfect their English, but also because they realise that the UK private sector provides the key ingredients for educational success: high aspirations; a well ordered learning environment, and an encouragement of individual creativity and flexible thinking.
The British have a tendency to self depreciation and we are good at criticising ourselves. However, being 6000 miles away from home makes you appreciate the qualities of the British educational system. With such a sense of perspective, it is possible to see why so many overseas students vote with their feet and attend British independent schools. In doing so the independent sector is a significant source of income for the British economy, but more importantly exports British culture and values overseas. British educated foreign students returning to their home country are more likely to be receptive to business approaches from UK companies. The globalisation of British independent education will help secure our economic future, and British values still have a role to play in making the world a fairer, safer and more just place.