Britain’s schools are fundamental to its health and success. Education is the difference between making the UK a backwater, or a trailblazer. It follows that if the education system is wrong, there is a good chance that most other areas of British policy will end up becoming similarly inconvenienced. Well-educated people are more able to contribute across the board, both to their own lives and to the lives of others. As we leave the European Union, it’s time that the UK embraced this truth.
Good education policy tends to be envied and copied across the world. Contrary to what your teachers probably told you, this form of plagiarism is certainly a good thing. Right now, Singapore is the cheat sheet – a nation whose schools are widely regarded as the global example to follow.
On the surface, this is understandable. Rigorous examinations and innovative teaching have put the small city-state at the top of the OECD’s annual literacy and numeracy rankings. This only emphasises how the UK, which sits mid-table in this ranking, should do better.
But it is not just a question of “doing better” and getting children to study harder. It is a matter of methods.
Singaporean lessons, for example, are far more hands-off. In a maths lesson, the teacher might go around the classroom, asking students to work in small groups using distinctly non-mathematical objects – for example, asking them to cut up a piece of string to express fractions, before directly introducing the idea of fractions per se.
This allows students to be in control of their learning without constant disruption, as teachers step in to move a task on. It also allows the groundwork of learning to be done before the jargon comes in.
Some students in London are already experiencing this sort of teaching as part of a £41 million investment in new methods, as covered in the Financial Times last year. However, as the same newspaper also revealed last year, the materials for this style of teaching are currently not up to scratch.
Obviously, the Government is aware that Singapore is not the only place that the UK can look for ideas. Some schools in Britain already pursue creative curricula and have the time and resources to make them work. The only way for the UK’s education system to make genuine improvements is for school days to be longer, and for schools to have more financial resources.
For example, a very large majority of independent schools and a small but growing number of state schools follow the International Baccalaureate (IB).
This requires a bigger financial input and asks a lot more of students compared to A-levels. With IB, you have a broader syllabus with a greater degree of flexibility through the levels of assessment. So, if a student is not so enthusiastic about maths, English or foreign languages – which are all compulsory – they can be assessed at a level which is not quite as intensive, while still pursuing their talents at a more complex level in different subjects.
After all, when students have spent the majority of their school careers exploring the arts, humanities and sciences, with the space to enjoy and pursue them, it seems counterintuitive to suddenly restrict the curriculum as they reach the peak of their intellectual powers.
The IB system is much fairer and much more useful than the narrow and often bizarre three or four-subject specialisms forced upon 16-year-olds in the UK.
It also requires the majority of students to study theory of knowledge, as well as community service and an extended essay on a subject of their choice. Many IB students report that this helps them critique what they are taught, as well as making them more rounded individuals who are better prepared for university. Their learning becomes more relevant to them as a unique individual.
Stressing the so-called “core-subjects”, however, is not necessarily the only course of action in order to improve our education system. We can look to Finland, for example, where the direction taken has been drastic. They have reformed teaching and assessment in order to frame them in terms of various vocational “topics”, rather than traditional academic subjects. This is known as “project-based learning”, in which students are able to relate their learning at school to a theme they find personally relevant.
So, instead of learning through lectures, there is a vocational path offered in which Finnish students learn through the prism of a job. They might study cafeteria services or construction. They will still cover mathematics, and – in the case of the latter – elements of engineering. However, they will do so in a practical and direct way that reflects the modern world. A modern world in which, unfortunately, Britain is absent in terms of education.
All too often, British students still learn in a way that assumes they will be unimaginatively instructed at work, with little room for creativity or initiative. Sitting down and repeating times tables, or memorising Shakespeare quotes does not help them when they want to establish an online start-up or work in the burgeoning gig economy.
If our students are to have the independence of thought required to prosper in a modern and dynamic Britain, we must look across the world, learn from the best and then engage in far-reaching reform at home.