An open letter to Tristram Hunt

Dear Tristram,

being a shadow education spokesperson or even Secretary of State for Education (England) can’t be an easy job. First of all the temptation to “sort out” the English State education system quickly so that you can move on to greater things, leaving someone else to tidy up your mess must be great. It seems to be part of a pattern (or maybe expectation) and it is a trap that all your predecessors have fallen into, even those who unlike yourself and Michael Gove have been educated in the state sector.

It is therefore not surprising that you have returned from your trip to Singapore thinking that you have discovered the magic formula that will solve everything and guarantee you your place in the history books. I will give you some small credit for coming up with fix that is just a tad patronising rather than emulating the bullying approach proposed by the Prime Minister. However, I feel that I should warn you that international comparisons are notoriously complex and have an inbuilt unreliability. There are those who think that PISA is unproblematic as is evidenced by the number of education ministers around the world who are chasing their tails in their attempts to ensure that their own education system is at the top. It isn’t that easy or straightforward as I hope you will see from the points I have set out below:

  1. PISA league tables do not compare like with like. It might be tempting to think they do because they look at the same subjects and the pupils are of the same age. However, some of the participants are countries, like the UK which  includes four completely different education systems while others like Singapore and Shanghai are City states.
  2. Rankings can be misleading. Some countries have slipped down them, not because things have got worse but because the number of countries taking part has increased.
  3. PISA league tables present an uncomplicated world view, discounting a whole range of factors that may have a significant impact on the outcomes; school starting age, diversity of the population, proportion of GDP spent on education, cultural factors being just some. In scientific terms the methodology wouldn’t meet the requirements of a “fair test”.

So I would urge you to exercise a little caution when seeking solutions from other countries. Singapore owes its success to a number of factors that would be hard to replicate in England. For example the diligence of students owes as much to Confucianism as it does to the structures of the school system. There has been a growing recognition there of a need to “teach less and learn more” – if only our politicians could take that lesson on board. Also the Singapore government has recognised that creativity is crucial to the success of their economy – contrast that with Gove’s dire National Curriculum and the E-Bacc where creativity and the arts are pushed to the margins.

However, there are some things we can learn from looking to other countries. Leading Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg points out that the most significant factor contributing to Finland’s success is the fact that it is a very equal society, a world away from the UK where 1% of the population own 99% of the wealth. This feature is found in three (South Korea, Canada and Japan) of the other top performing countries too, so if you want to improve outcomes in England taxing the wealthy, tightening up on tax avoidance and withdrawing the charitable status of private schools might be a good place to start.

It might also be worth thinking seriously about bringing the school starting age into line with the majority of the world, currently 6 in most OECD countries. Children in England now start school as young as four and are mostly in classes where neither their personal, social and emotional or learning needs are being met. This can have a damaging effect on their self-esteem and rather that giving them an advantage sets them up for failure and increased risk of mental health problems in later life. There is certainly no evidence from PISA, OECD or any research that an early start to formal schooling confers an advantage – quite the opposite in fact.

So if you want to really make a difference to the education system in England you might want to consider the following suggestions from a former teacher, teacher educator, academic and school governor.

  1. Stop obsessing about high stakes testing. Most tests used in school measure the wrong things anyway and encourage teachers to teach to the test resulting in a narrow educational experience for pupils. Consider adopting the Finnish approach which makes extensive use of on-going formative assessment allowing teachers to gear their teaching to the needs of the individual. To adopt this approach you will need to adopt 2 and 3 below too.
  2. Return the training (I prefer the term education) of teachers to the University sector where the evidence from Ofsted suggests the best outcomes are realised. Moving away from a reliance of goal driven testing will require a highly educated workforce who have a good understanding of pedagogy and are able to apply it. Rule followers who are afraid to take risks for fear of slipping down the league tables, being named and shamed by Ofsted or a pay cut will not help raise the game. As Robin Alexander once put it “children cannot be expected to think for themselves if their teachers only do what they are told”. In Finland and other countries at the top of the league, teachers are trusted to do the job they have been trained/educated for, not policed, vilified or made to pledge meaningless oaths. This may have the added bonus of halting the rapid increase in mental illness among young children and adolescents too.
  3. Do away with the goals driven curriculum model that is so pervasive in the UK and replace it with a broader, richer model (similar to that adopted in so many of the UK’s top private schools). Constantly measuring the pig won’t necessarily make it any fatter. Establish a broader based curriculum that includes the visual and expressive arts as well as PHSE which includes sex and relationships education. Abolish Michael Gove’s knowledge based Primary curriculum and replace it with the model proposed by Rose before the last election. Better still read the Cambridge Primary Review and consider using the model advocated there.
  4. Broaden the secondary school curriculum and abolish Gove’s ridiculously named E-Bacc, it bears little if any resemblance to a baccalaureate anyway. Insist, if you must, that teachers encourage their pupils to think for themselves and challenge the notion advanced by E D Hirsch that facts are the most important thing. As a historian you will know that while there are facts that are beyond doubt such as the dates of birth and death of monarchs a major part of the study of history is a question of perspective and interpretation.
  5. Bring an end to the fragmentation and creeping privatisation of the State education system. Millions of pound have been wasted on the Free schools project and forced academisation. There is growing evidence that free schools are letting down BME students and are heavily under-subscribed, making them extremely costly. Evidence that Academies are raising standards is not conclusive, many manage to inflate their results by dumping the students who won’t make the grade on those schools remaining with the local authority. Learn the lessons from London Challenge, it is co-operation and collaboration that is the game changer, not increased competition, fragmentation and payment by results.
  6. Abolish Ofsted and replace it with a system of school self-review similar to that advocated by John McBeath using a collaborative model where schools work together to improve, providing support to each other when needed.
  7. Read the NUT’s Manifesto for Education, it is a well thought out document. Teaching Unions should be your allies contributing to curriculum and policy and development as happens in Finland.
  8. Raise the school starting age to bring it into line with the rest of the world at the same time committing to the expansion of high quality nursery education. England has pockets of some of the best nursery education in the world but it is under threat, the coalition government has refused to protect the funding of maintained nursery schools. You need to do the opposite. However, this can only be delivered if at the same time you commit to a highly and appropriately qualified early years workforce. Early years teachers in Finland have the same level of qualification as their equivalents in Primary and Secondary School. The same applied elsewhere too. Our current mix of high and low qualified staff is potentially damaging to children’s development. Investing in the Early Years isn’t a short-term project though, the dividends will only be seen long after you have ceased to be a Secretary of State for Education – think 25 years rather than 4 or 5!

Finally when/if you enter the DfE look at the photos of your predecessors and reflect on the fact that the vast majority of them lacked humility, believing that only they knew the answer. If you really believe in oaths as a way of making things better, make this one:

“I swear to listen to teachers, educators and pupils treating them with respect and to recognise that they all have a stake in the education system in England. I promise not to interfere and impose my world view but to listen and reflect and never to refer to those who disagree with me as “the Blob” or “the enemies of promise”. Like everyone else  involved in education I undertake to be a learner and to acknowledge that everyone, even me will make mistakes.”

Yours sincerely,

Anemone of Promise

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