The global debate about the reform of education is significantly influenced by the performance of fifteen year olds in around seventy countries worldwide. It measures outcomes across a narrow range of subjects through comparing results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), devised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Testing takes place every three years and measures how well students can apply their knowledge to real-life situations in reading, mathematics and science.
Asian countries top the ranking and Shanghai outperforms them all. There is debate as to whether Shanghai serves all its young people equally. Questions remain about the provision for the children of migrant workers. Many commentators are concerned that the sample of students taking the tests is not fully representative of all of Shanghai's youngsters. Despite the fact that this contentious issue remains unresolved, efforts on behalf of the authorities to address the needs of these migrant students, is well documented.
I do not intend to explore this aspect of Shanghai’s education system here. It is a subject that deserves full consideration at some other time. My intention is to consider whether there is some impact on outcomes arising out of the fact that strategic planning (the governance of education) benefits from identifying and working towards long-term objectives.
Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General and Deputy Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, has this to say of the top performing PISA countries:
“They align policies and practices effectively across all aspects of the system, they maintain coherence over sustained periods of time, and they see that they are consistently implemented.”
How have we responded to the challenge of achieving ‘coherence’ in aligning policies and practice over ‘sustained periods of time’ in education in England? When it comes to safeguarding the future development of our schools, the response to this question is a depressing one. It has been for politicians and their parties to insist on maintaining the status quo. It is time to put an end to this refusal to realign the powerbase of education governance.
The campaign at ordinaryvoices.org.uk
tackles, head-on, the thorny issue of political short-termism in our education system. Its central message, a call to disconnect education governance from the electoral process, is also supported in some respects by a recent report produced for Pearson UK publishing, “Making Education Count
”. It offers advice to government and other interested parties about what we need to be doing as a nation to compete on the international stage and goes some way to addressing Schleischer’s question of ‘sustained’ development.
In the press release marking the launch of this report, Professor Sir Roy Anderson, chair of the independent group, had this to say about the role of government in education planning:
“Successful businesses have clear objectives and goals which they pursue consistently over time, yet changes in government make it difficult to achieve this for education.”
27 January 2014.
It would have been more accurate if he had admitted that changes in government make it 'impossible' to achieve this for education.
It is interesting what the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission has achieved over the last three decades, in particular, through its comprehensive, coherent long-term strategy for education. Maybe, Sir Roy and his colleagues were mindful of the Chinese commitment to excellence in the long term as opposed to our historically short-term headline-grabbing approach.
Education minister, Elizabeth Truss (ET) recently undertook a fact-finding mission to Shanghai. Clearly, the government believes that learning from PISA top performers can provide clarity about what reforms are needed in education to prepare our young people and the system for an uncertain global future. As she looks to the Shanghai example for inspiration, I suggest she will not find much to connect with the present government’s approaches. Unless the government is prepared to look, listen and learn in a way that it and its predecessors have been unwilling to do to date, the trip will be another waste of precious funding that could have been far better used.
In its appeal to find sympathy with government, the Pearson report focuses attention on a curriculum designed for future employment on the international stage. It makes an appeal to both major political parties to rethink their earlier decisions not to introduce a Baccalaureate system at the end of compulsory education. The "experts" make a case for higher level reasoning skills and key competencies to be introduced into the curriculum, with the declared intention of making our young people more employable.
I feel this group has missed an opportunity to make a substantial contribution to making our education system more fit for purpose now and in the future. Having made the point that changes in government make it difficult to develop “clear objectives and goals” for education reform, which can be pursued “consistently over time“, they then fail to grasp the nettle. Between them, the "prominent business leaders" and "leading academics" vote to stick a plaster over a rotting limb that needs amputation.
Instead of calling for a national commission to “guide the long-term future of education reform,” they appeal for an “independent body to establish a long-term political consensus on the school curriculum”. This strategy will fail for two important reasons.
First, if politicians were capable of reaching a consensus over education, they would have already done so, if only because of the astronomical levels of funding involved. The litany of costly, failed or stalled reforms over the last two decades alone is truly shocking.
Second, education reform isn’t simply about the content of the curriculum. The Pearson group seems to ignore the fact that when compared with their global counterparts, children in this country are the most tested and still there are calls for more of the same when the PISA winners put the effort into ongoing formative assessment. Similarly, performance-related pay for teachers is not seen elsewhere as a way of developing the professionalism of this vital workforce. I could go on.
The point I make is that it is the very nature of political reality that works against both long-term solutions and consensus over aims and values in education. With full independence and accountability to all stakeholders, not simply the government of the day, a national commission for the reform of education will have what impartial commentators recognise as the minimum platform on which to launch coherent education policies and strategies for the future.