Weighing the Pig

‘Schools in the Far East are turning out students who are working at an altogether higher level than our own.’

So stated Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Education, in an article he wrote for the Times on 28 December 2010. We hear this sort of thing time and again. But is it really true? What’s the measure of success? And do we really want our young people getting into a dogfight with students from the Far East over scores in tests?

The Department for Education appears to be up for the fight. It seems they want us to emulate the Chinese education system, and have so for a number of years now. Concerns with the UK system have centred around our world ranking, especially the OECD’s PISA rankings, which placed UK students 27th for Mathematics, against China’s fifth place, in 2015. As a result, hardly a week goes by when there isn’t some story in the media about Britain looking towards China for educational inspiration. For instance, on 20 March this year the Guardian reported that a British publisher, HarperCollins, is planning to translate Chinese Maths textbooks word for word into English – a direct result of Chinese success in this subject.

Indeed, there is an endless fascination and flirtation with Chinese education. So much so that in 2015 the BBC made a documentary series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough?, in which five Chinese teachers taught UK pupils in a traditional Chinese approach for the period of a month. The Guardian described it as ‘comedy based on cultural difference and misunderstanding,’ but in one sense, they were successful. At the end of the month their students outperformed those who had been taught using British methods by 10%. But the question is, as Cicero famously asked, at what cost?

There are huge dangers in the narrowness of the Chinese system and the Chinese perhaps understand this better than we do. When I have visited Hong Kong, which has a similar approach to China, in recent years and spoken to educational agents and parents, I have been told regularly of the issues of the rigid Hong Kong system with its rote learning and tremendous pressures. Despite what you might think looking in from the outside, parents there don’t want this for their children. They can see the evils which it brings. Suicides of young people in Hong Kong are tragically common and the state came 46th out of 48th countries in a newly-published PISA survey of childhood happiness (China was 42nd and the UK 38th).

Writing in the Telegraph on 29 December 2014 Richard Green, CEO of Design and Technology Association, pointed out that ‘while it’s fashionable to point to China’s admittedly excellent academic results, especially in such economically important subjects as science and maths, it is facile to claim that Western education is fundamentally outdated and in decline.’ He noted that ‘many of the ‘Tiger Economy’ nations, including China, are turning to the UK for advice on how to teach their younger generation to be more innovative and better equipped to succeed in the knowledge economy of the future.’

It is perhaps not surprising that two countries with such different education systems would look to each other for inspiration and to broaden their own provision. But I am concerned that what the DfE sees as the best bits of the Chinese system take us back to the Dark Ages, where didactic teaching methods and learning by heart were king. How does this prepare our young people for the fast-paced, ever-changing, high tech, global environment which they will inhabit? I can’t see that it does. We need our young people to be inventive and thoughtful, to be independent and collaborative, to be resilient and resourceful. This comes through a system of education where pupils can freely ask questions, where they can make mistakes, and where they can take risks.

I have no issue with the UK Government trying to raise standards in subjects such as Mathematics. But I do worry if it is at the expense of developing well-rounded students and at the expense of a childhood. Take the Key Stage 2 SATs for instance, which Year 6 pupils in primary schools up and down the land will be sitting this week. We shouldn’t underestimate the stress and anxiety which they cause. In a time when we are told that issues of mental health are becoming acute amongst British children and in a time when the support for these conditions within the NHS are virtually at breaking point, do we really want to put our 10 year olds through this? What’s more, following SATs results last year 47% were effectively told they weren’t ready for secondary school. They still had to go. What a way to start your life in senior school.

In state schools the focus in inspection is squarely on data, and so schools, quite naturally, become of obsessed with data. If your data are okay, you will be okay. To my mind this is one of the huge advantages of the UK independent school system – we spend less time weighing the pig, so to speak, and more time feeding the pig. We are not obsessed with data, as state schools are forced to be. We want to do the best for every individual child and to prepare her for the world beyond the school gates. I can’t help feeling the UK Government is sometimes more obsessed with the international league tables than preparing pupils for this world.

Published by: Grace Kennard
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