Can you name the educational goals of the UK government? Aside from grammar schools, academies and getting as high up the Pisa table as the nation can, what are the goals? Grammar schools and academies are a strategy used to create change in the system with the aim of driving improvement. Climbing the Pisa table is pretty much comparable to setting a data target for education but what exactly does that mean?
In December 2017 I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the SSAT National Conference in Birmingham – the topic I was set to talk about was taking risks in education. There were over a 100 headteachers and senior leaders in the room and my small workshop was fortunately packed to capacity. I began the hour long talk by asking everyone in the room if they could articulate the goals of the UK government. This shouldn’t really be a challenge should it? As headteachers and senior leaders we should all have a clear understanding of the goals we are working towards, the end destination we are heading to and the stepping stones that are going to get us there. I mean, if as leaders of education we can’t articulate the goals then how is the rest of society supposed to and how are we meant to work to create a unified direction of travel for education? So the question was asked. A couple of minutes thinking time was given. Responses back that could articulate the goals….NONE. Not one. To be honest nobody was surprised. Could you imagine a school that had no goals and vision but simply sought to copy the best school in a carbon copy format and had a basic target to be the number one school in the country…the headteacher would be vilified. They would be held up as incompetent and lacking in vision. And really that would be fair enough. How can a leader affect change if they don’t really know where they are heading?
The reality is that this is our government’s approach to education. We look at the best nations and seek to copy. We hold up other countries for their outstanding skills in teaching subjects such as maths. South Korea are a country who perform phenomenally well in this area and the UK government have used them as example of how things should be done. I’m sure they have some great practice that we can use but they also have some less than desirable characteristics with the most notable being that they have one of the highest suicide rates for under 16s in the world. You see, when you are copying other countries then you can’t have your cake and eat it – it’s give and take. If you want the maths results that South Korea get in the Pisa tests then you have to accept that our children are going to need to spend more hours in extra curricular maths clubs and private tutoring (as their children do – often working well into the late evening) and this inevitably will lead to some children feeling overtly pressured and stressed and this may lead to an increase in suicide rates.
I have worked in education since 2001 and I have a simple approach that I’d like our government to take when it comes to education. By all means look around at other countries and cherry pick some of the best ideas but before you do that then think clearly about what our strengths as a nation are and what we want to develop. What do we want our children to achieve and go on and become? The UK has always had a reputation for entrepreneurship so why not make this a feature of the system? If you build this in with a maximum of four other goals based around: social development/moral compass, mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing and of course academic achievement then we’d be creating a UK based approach that develops strengths that our country are proud of. A by-product of this approach and focus would be an improvement in data from a unified system but, and this is the key point, it would be the driver for the system.
With the GCSE results out on August 24th this year there are plenty of headlines on the BBC website (click here) and in the ‘i’ paper about how our results are ‘lagging’ behind the world’s ‘star pupils’ with ‘research concluding that students in England need to score around two thirds of a grade higher on average to match performance of the world”s best grades (source i News)’. Headlines like this only seek to reinforce the point that as a nation our educational philosophy is completely focused and driven on being at the top of the Pisa table but with very little awareness other than increasing rigour about how we get there. The reality, unfortunately, is that until we start designing our own world class systems that we value and hold dear with clear goals and stepping stones (that can be articulated by all within education) we are always going to be chasing other countries. Now is the time for us to work to our strengths and be self assured as a nation about what our educational values and drivers are and create a unified approach.