The debate about the pros and cons of an independent Scotland has highlighted the numerous differences between the education system in that country and the different systems in place in other parts of the United Kingdom. This has caused many people to question what we can learn from the education systems in countries other than our own. This is an important topic because, by considering the benefits of the systems operating in other parts of the world, we can cast light on some of the things that need to change – or the order of the priorities we have set ourselves – in our own country.
Things to consider
- It is very informative to look at examples of countries that do things very differently to your own country, yet still get impressive results. For example, many schools in England are very focussed on the importance of uniform for orderly lessons and high standards, yet in the majority of continental European countries, school uniform does not exist. In fact, teachers in England only have to look at the Scottish capital city to see that school uniform is not a prerequisite for a successful school. Edinburgh’s James Gillespie’s High School (a state 11-18 secondary) has a no-uniform policy while also being the second best-performing school in the city, based on its GCSE results. Such examples help us to question the ‘assumed norms’ at every level in our own education system.
- The particular examination system prevalent in another country can have profound effects on the type of teaching and learning taking place in its schools. Many teachers in England and Wales feel that the examination system under which they operate has been over-mechanistic for too long – leaving little room for such things as creativity, higher order thinking and learning outside the box. Awareness of successful countries where this is not the case can give support to calls for examination reform in the UK (e.g. Venezuelan schools teach a radical and innovative curriculum based on the thinking skills of Edward de Bono).
- Comparisons of examination performance across different nations are fraught with difficulty, partly because the different examinations themselves are not strictly comparable. The new GCSE grading system in England is designed to bring some consistency to the comparison of examination results for 15- and 16-year-olds across the world. However, there is a danger that the current government’s mission to make exams in England more rigorous could lead to an even more mechanistic outlook. We need to take a very careful look at the data we are using to compare performance across countries.
- Several of the countries that have achieved the most spectacular success in terms of child literacy and wider pupil attainment have done so under oppressive and/or long-standing political regimes. For example Cuba, which has one of the world’s highest literacy rates for a country with its level of GDP, achieved this educational progress against the backdrop of the Castro-led government. Paradoxically, it appears that our highly target-driven culture in England – which is tied to short, four- or five year parliaments – has been the enemy of continuity and progression within education. This has important implications for school leaders, and the timescale over which genuine change may take to happen within schools.
The UK education system seems to be constantly knocked by Ofsted and the press. What do you think IS great about our system and about what happens in your school?