Kevin Riley: A masterclass in why schools shouldn’t be making the news

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THERE has certainly been a great deal of focus on education recently.

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has apparently been “spitting blood” over allegations that Education Secretary Michael Gove’s advisers have been briefing against him, while the MP Sarah Wollaston raised eyebrows in the House of Commons by asking a Home Office Minister: “Would he support measures to prevent smartphone use among those who are not mature enough to understand that this is an important form of bullying?”

The inevitable headlines followed: “MP moots smartphone ban for teen ‘sexting’ bullies”.

Education has become news and that’s not a key characteristic of successful education systems as I understand them. In the midst of all these headlines another story made a quieter appearance; a high-powered committee of university professors and business people produced a report calling for a baccalaureate style system to replace A-level.

You might say what is new about this. Haven’t we been here before? Indeed we have; the Higginson report in 1996 and the Tomlinson Report in 2004 were rejected by Conservative and Labour respectively; both focused on A-level reform and a broadening of the curriculum.

The difference this time perhaps lies in the philosophy behind the change: “The introduction of a broader curriculum at 16 needs strategic planning and a long implementation timeline… we believe a horizon of six to eight years would allow time for development, trialling and implementation, enabling teachers to fully understand the requirements.”

And it goes on to state: “Non-cognitive skills and attributes such as team working, emotional maturity, empathy, and other interpersonal skills are as important as proficiency in English and Mathematics in ensuring young people’s employment prospects.”

Now this is radical thinking for
the UK: detailed long term strategic planning with the aim of raising standards over time and the creation of a political consensus to achieve 
that aim.

Other countries have of course seen massive improvements in their education systems over the past 30 years, notably those in the Far East.

The furore over the results from the bi-annual PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) leads to much hand wringing over the UK’s failings but little in the way of positive responses. Interestingly, the UK has been marking the anniversary of what was certainly the most significant education reform of the 20th century – the 1944 Education Act.

Had the funding been placed behind Rab Butler’s radical reforms, then the education scene today would look very different. Certainly vocational education would be much stronger.

Rather than look eastwards, we should look to other models nearer to home. Some of the cultural differences
make very significant contributions to the success of the Far East systems. Finland perhaps offers us a better example. Thirty years ago its education system was failing; now its students regularly score highly in the PISA

Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg is one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland.

He wrote an article about what would happen if Finnish teachers swapped jobs with their American counterparts. It finished: “Conversely, the teachers from Indiana working in Finland – assuming they showed up fluent in Finnish – stand to flourish on account of the freedom to teach without the constraints of standardised curricula and the pressure of standardised testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty.”

Substitute the UK for America and the hypothesis still stands. Finland has worked hard over many years to develop its teachers and a relevant curriculum.

I have worked in schools for 35 years and seen many reforms and changes. Despite a huge increase in funding and the introduction of a tough inspection system to increase accountability, standards in the UK have risen very slowly.

Our best schools compare with any in the world but our worst fail children appallingly. We need to remove education from the news pages and achieve a consensus on what works best for the UK.

• Kevin Riley is headmaster of Bradford Grammar School.