Contrasting approaches to educational reform in successful countries and England!

Michael Dix's picture
I have just spent three fascinating days at the National College for Teaching and Leadership annual conference - seizing success.

Along with a whole range of expert speakers from inside and outside of education, I was fortunate enough to listen to two who have been at the forefront of raising the educational performance in their respective administrations. Sad to say, the Secretary of State for Education wasn't one of them, although he did do a question and answer session, more of which later.

First up was Dr Avis Glaze, now retired, but a key figure in transforming Ontario's education system in recent times. Her desire to provide the very best for all children shone through. Her approach, so different from the one we experience daily in this country, was striving for excellence and equity through trust, respect and collaboration. These were not soft options for the educators of Ontario, rather it was a rigorous way to address a whole range of issues that beset their school system. .

When she took on the job of transforming an under-performing and unfair education system, Avis met with all the principals and listened to what they had to say. She recognised that they all wanted the very best for the children in their schools but that there were obstacles in the way. She deliberately involved the unions, demonstrating to them that the reforms she was proposing would bring benefits to their members. Compare and contrast! At the heart of all the reforms was using research: well grounded and respected research rather than the latest fad.

This was a theme picked up the next day by Pasi Sahlberg, a leading policy advisor in Finland, a country that consistently tops international league tables. He spoke at length about the Finnish way, and, whilst acknowledging the differences between Finnish and British society, advocated an approach which has worked so well in his country, but seems to be ignored by so many other jurisdictions around the world including England.

His three key messages were that we need less testing and more trusting, more prevention of under-performance and less repair and, as mentioned earlier, more evidence based policies and less experimentation.

He contrasted the competition, standardisation, test based accountability and diverse schooling to enable parental choice, beloved by our own politicians, past and present, and Finland's collaboration, creativity, trust based responsibility and equity. If all schools are good, goes the Finnish mantra, why do we need lots of different kinds?

There are other differences in Finland that affect the quality of education. These include a lack of private education and only training teachers who are not only academically very able but, crucially for me, have a moral desire and a passion to educate. Pasi pointed out that high performing administrations don't over prescribe (some in the far east have in the past but are moving away from it), don't privatise and don't confront their teachers!

Which brings me to Mr Gove. He did a question and answer session where he talked about wanting to avoid what had happened in the past, where only an elite were educated to a high standard. He argued that knowledge and skills are not alternatives and that one needs the other. He also argued for the use of technology to support learning.

One question, however, encapsulated the difference between his session and the other two I have mentioned. Asked if he shouldn't he try to win the hearts and minds of teachers and their leaders if he wanted to bring about reform, his response was that there was a great array of views in the world of education and that he would listen, but it seems only to 'outstanding headteachers'. The phrase was mentioned again and again.

Two things worry me here: firstly, the cult of 'outstanding headteacher', and secondly the mood of the conference as I perceived it. Maybe being only a 'good headteacher' I felt excluded from Mr Gove's listening club. But most 'outstanding headteachers' were 'good headteachers' once. Were they that different then? Didn't their views count until they became outstanding? Some will go back to being 'good' or 'needing improvement' as Ofsted carry out their intention of reducing the number of outstanding schools or if heads move to challenging schools. Presumably they will cease to have anything worth listening to if that happens.

More worrying was the huge contrast between the reception given to Avis and Pasi and that given to Mr Gove. Of course politicians are more likely to treated less generously. However,the delegates were not hothead union delegates. There may have been a smattering of Marxist and the odd enemy of promise in the room but, by and large, the people in the room represented a broad cross section of leadership across the English education system - the people who any government will need to bring about change in schools. Whilst I am sure there were some whose views are closely aligned to Mr Gove's, the vast majority felt hostility: to the proposed changes, to the current issues and to the complete lack of trust. Consequently various questions were accompanied by spontaneous applause as they hit raw nerves and an atmosphere of subdued anger and frustration bubbled away through the session.

I came away inspired but also depressed. Here were people who have transformed the lives of children in their jurisdictions, and they were both saying the same thing. There is a way to create the very best for all of our children but I'm afraid in this country it will be sacrificed for the sake of political dogma, establishment views and what sells newspapers.
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