“An exotic species in an unnatural habitat” – So ran a headline in a recent Times Educational Supplement. The same article commented that the large number of politicians recently visiting state schools must imply that education is going to be a priority issue at the forthcoming election. Slightly worrying for the Conservatives, therefore, that the same edition ran an article suggesting that the Party’s interest in Scandinavian education systems is misguided.
More worrying still, is an article in this week’s edition, from a series on teaching around the world, which claims that:
“The Swedish education system is faltering… The performance of its 15-year-olds has slipped steadily in international comparisons, its measures of social mobility and equity have declined, and it now lags behind other Nordic countries, having led them for decades… What we observe is a decline, especially in science and mathematics… There is an increasing variation between schools”,
and a widening gap between students with educated parents and those whose parents are not so highly educated.
Certainly the Swedish and Finnish education models have much to be commended: standards are high (even though children only start school at seven) and teaching as a profession in Finland is highly respected. They also appear to have the right balance between “centralised steering and local implementation”.
There are, however, many significant differences between the systems of Scandinavia and England: there are no private schools in Finland and very few in Sweden, they are both much more egalitarian societies by tradition (it is the custom for all teachers to be called by their Christian names and to dress casually) and it is usual for all children to attend their nearest local school. The state is also prepared to properly fund important initiatives, so classes are relatively small and in Finland since the 1940s, in an attempt to improve the nation’s health, all youngsters have been provided with a free nutritious meal at lunchtime. How different to our experience, where government meddling in school food has actually led to a drop in the uptake of school lunches.
Where Michael Gove and his team are totally right, is in aspiring to achieve many of the outcomes of the Finnish and Swedish models. There is no doubt that attainment (examination results) and achievement (the progress made by pupils) have not significantly improved under thirteen years of Labour, despite the “education, education, education” sound bite. Of course, increased numbers of pupils are achieving higher grades, but this has more to do with statistics and grade boundaries than real progress.
This is definitely not a criticism of our teachers or pupils, quite the contrary; it is a criticism of our political masters who want to use education not to prepare youngsters for life or to encourage social mobility, but simply to give the appearance of educational advance. What a pity that still one third of eleven-year-olds cannot read or write properly and that still, despite grade inflation, one half of all 16-year-olds cannot attain five good GCSEs.
One of Labour’s many failings has been in curriculum development. In both Sweden and Finland there has long been “parity of esteem” between academic and vocational pathways (a concept highlighted in the 1944 Education Act). What is so simple has been made a disaster under Labour. Not all pupils are the same (neither are all adults – I, for example, with my build, will never play rugby for England) so they need a variety of curriculum routes to follow. Simple: let’s introduce practical, vocational, skill-based subjects to sit alongside more traditional or academic subjects. But alas, the government’s new diplomas are cumbersome, expensive and require schools to change existing practice simply to fit the diplomas into the timetable.
Whilst I am certainly not opposed to change, nor to schools working in partnership, we need to be careful not to damage what we already do well in individual schools simply to fulfil another government diktat. It is also possible to complete a diploma in hair and beauty without cutting a single strand of hair; again, all style and no substance. Of course to criticise is deemed to be old fashioned or reactionary, whereas in reality, a little more thought and common sense could have introduced the vital improvements we need. If only the government would actually listen to those who try their best to make schools work, rather than treat us as if we had no interest in, or knowledge of, what is best for today’s youngsters.
The current government has also failed to make any serious inroads in to what will be one of the most significant issues for any incoming government – the national teacher recruitment crisis. Currently, one in ten schools does not have a permanent Head, and within the next ten years, one third of all teachers will have left the profession. What makes the situation worse is that these experienced staff are not being replaced.
Initiative overload, constant change and declining discipline are continually mentioned in surveys as the reasons for quitting; such a catalogue, coupled with a low basic salary, does nothing to attract people, let alone people of substance and quality, to join the profession. Again the answer is simple – give us the tools to do the job properly and then let us get on with it, whilst also recompensing teachers for their hard work. Give schools the power to improve discipline, the materials and facilities to deliver a modern and varied curriculum, and provide us with the funds to do it.
Finally, we must never underestimate the influence that schools have on our lives; outside of the family, school probably is our greatest formative influence. Equally, however, we must not forget that youngsters are only in school for about 17% of the time. For the remaining 83% of their lives, youngsters are going to be influenced by external factors: families, friends, media etc. If we really want to produce self-disciplined youngsters, they must see around them a better disciplined society; if we want to stimulate interest and motivate, youngsters need the prospect of good jobs. Likewise, if we want good teachers, society must value, respect and reward those who teach.
Whilst I do not think the Finnish or Swedish models provide all the answers for the English education system, if they can help us aim for higher standards, better discipline and more social mobility, then ja varsagod.