Shanghai et al - What the evidence seems to tell us about how to reform education.

John Mountford's picture
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 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.
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Nigel Ford's picture
Fri, 07/03/2014 - 21:34

Thanks John for that exhaustive account.

Liz Truss did post an article in the DT on her fact finding mission to Shanghai and her revelations don't appear to be terribly startling other than Maths impinges on their timetable more than the UK, and as we move into a more technical era, it is more essential than ever that this subject dominates the curriculum

Speaking personally, I was never going to muster a better classification than a 2.ii in Economics because of my limited brain power on the Mathematical content. Trying to tutor my daughter GCSE Maths over 10 years ago to supplement her school teaching also had its limitations as we hit a wall at grade C level.

As for Pearson, they do seem to have some eminent staff on their board and involvement in 70 different countries, so in my I think you maybe being a bit harsh on their conclusions but I have to admit I'm only a layman and don't have the depth of knowledge in this area that you possess.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 08/03/2014 - 22:47

Nigel, thank you for the link to the Telegraph article. It was interesting that ET made little reference to the significant divide that separates Asian and British attitudes to education. This, along with differences in recruiting and developing teachers, the precise assessment regime evident in classrooms and a broad range of other factors make it difficult to see how Shanghai's achievements may be replicated here.

I would suggest that the one element that certainly underpins their success on the global stage that was not mentioned at all by ET is the reason for my posting this comment in the first place. No mention was made of the fact that they have been consistently developing a coherent strategy to raise educational achievement over decades. This is something we actually can replicate here and it is interesting that there are other domains closer to home, for example Finland, who have made it a priority to plan over longer time frames than we ever can. We have saddled education governance firmly to the cycle of general elections where not only may the party in power be changed, but even if they are returned, that does not guarantee continuity of personnel, focus or of funding priorities for the reform of the education service. The price for this uncertainty in education governance has often been high, as anyone in teaching will tell you, and many students have discovered to their cost.

The reason I am unsympathetic to the efforts of the Pearson group is that they clearly believed they had a better chance of gaining the sympathy of the political classes if they did not go the whole hog and campaign for an end to the political control of education. Maybe they are right.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 09/03/2014 - 11:03

John and Nigel - one facet of the Shanghai system missing from the English system is the "no blame" culture highlighted by the authors of the National College for School Leadership report into the Shanghai system (summarised here).

Can't see Truss taking this on board - blaming teachers and attacking their alleged inadequacies makes her appear "robust" and ready to take over Gove's job when he ascends the political ladder (or not as the case may be).

Gove makes speeches praising teachers ("amazing") while simultaneously ratcheting up the pressure (eg by saying he'd visited schools where all the SEN children achieved Level 5 he's making it clear he expects all schools to do the same - but the schools didn't exist).

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