League tables are popular. Their simplified rankings make for easy if not always robust comparisons. Parents eagerly await the A level and GCSE league tables each autumn to see how schools are doing. Politicians have a longer wait but once every three years the OECD publishes its PISA data comparing levels of achievement in maths, reading and science for over 500,000 15 year olds from around the world. The 2012 data does not make encouraging reading for the UK, with our educational achievements flatlining whilst those of countries in Asia and Eastern Europe are rising. British schools and their pupils are being left behind.
Cue lots of political finger-wagging. For those on the right, the UK’s indifferent performance underlines the need for A level and GCSE reform, more free schools and increased competition. Meanwhile on the left, Britain’s relative underachievement is the result of employing unqualified teachers and the breakdown of relationships between government and the teaching profession. There may be some truth in all of these points, but the party political arguments do not really address the main problems in British education.
British education is held back by three headwinds.
Headwind one is cultural. At the top of the PISA tables are the tiger economies of Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. There, governments have created a prevailing mind-set that values education; citizens have been told repeatedly that their country depends on human capital and it is the duty of every child to realise his / her potential to create a better economic future. The result is children and parents who take education very seriously, creating classrooms where pupils want to learn and where teachers are respected. (In China three quarters of parents report that their children respect teachers, whilst in the UK a majority of parents feel that children do not respect teachers). In Singapore it is cool to be bright and cool to succeed; the norm for teenagers is to work hard. Perse teachers are heading to one of our SAGE partner schools to see first-hand how Singapore achieves such excellent results, and assess what we might learn from the pros and cons of the approach there.
Of course, this mind-set can be taken too far and in some tiger economies the wider development of children is being compromised by excessive hours in the classroom and with private tutors. South Korea may top some of the PISA tables for educational achievement, but it comes bottom in the league table of pupil happiness. Britain needs to avoid the excesses of South Korea, but we would gain if politicians, celebrities, the media and parents did more to promote the importance of education and trying your best at school.
The second headwind relates to teachers. There has been much debate recently about whether or not teachers should have a formal teaching qualification. I can’t get too excited either way, for I have seen good and bad examples of both qualified and unqualified teachers. Irrespective of teaching qualifications, teachers must have a passion for, and recognised expertise in, the subject they are teaching and need regular training and professional development.
It is a sorry situation that in the UK less than half of secondary maths teachers have a maths degree, and one in four maths teachers does not hold any relevant post A level qualification in maths. The government may well change the content of GCSE and A level maths to attempt to drive up standards, but it is difficult to see how those standards will in fact rise without a greater number of maths specialists in our classrooms. Maths graduates are much in demand from the city, from accounting companies, software developers – indeed from just about any business that models data. Schools are running out of mathematicians and we will pay a heavy educational price if we don’t recruit more. We need to improve the pay, conditions and status of teachers so that more talented graduates enter the profession. It is worrying that only 25% of British parents would encourage their children to be teachers; the equivalent figure in China is 50%.
The third headwind is political interference. Britain’s education flatline exists not in spite of continuous political action but because of it. Endless programmes to reform the governance of schools, the national curriculum, methods of teacher training and the examination system take precious resources away from the core business of teaching and learning. The reforms may be well intentioned but their impacts rarely justify their costs. Independent schools enjoy many advantages that may help to explain their high levels of performance. One such advantage is the stability that comes with independence, a stability that allows us to focus on doing the best for our pupils free from many of the politically-inspired distractions that take up so much time, energy and resource.