Calculating The Difference Between Successful Education Systems


In the past two weeks I’ve managed to visit, and meet with teachers from, three nations which do exceptionally well in the OECD’s PISA tables. It’s been interesting to get the view from the coal face, compared with teachers in the UK.


 I spent a few days in Toronto, as a guest of the Canadian Education Association (CEA). Over the course of a morning, I heard from educators from all provinces in this vast country. Some of the reports had a familiar ring: New Brunswick facing a 30% cut in education budgets; anxiety that teacher training isn’t supporting teachers in the creative use of technology; widespread fears that teachers are bystanders in public debates around education – the agenda being controlled by the media and politicians.


But that’s about where the resemblance ends. Despite similar constraints the we, in the UK, experience, the discussions were centred on learning, and the teacher’s role in supporting the personal development of young Canadians. There was barely any mention of the high-stakes testing pressures that inevitably dictate the shape of UK teacher conversations, or the likely impact of government diktat. This is only partly because of the federal system at play in Canadian Education. Mainly it’s because it doesn’t dominate the public discourse/


There’s still provincial accountability at play, but local districts tend to have freedom to set their own priorities. One recurring driver is enhancing student engagement. And they’re developing the tools needed to measure it. I heard %-ages of ‘Flow’ (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s state of deep immersion in an activity) being compared, and learning activities being described  on an X-Y axis of skill-challenge. Enquiry and Project-Based Learning are clearly going great guns, too.


No one mentioned exam results, but there were frequent references to mental health and student well-being, and the rise in bullying. The message I was taking away was that, if you look after the student’s interest in learning, and make their social and personal welfare a priority, the results will take care of themselves. And they do – at least in Canada. Alberta is one of the best-performing provinces and their recent report ‘Inspiring Education’, aims for students who are ‘engaged, ethical and entrepreneurial’.


At the end of the session, my hosts asked me to say how their discussions compared to those currently being held in England. I said that I felt like I’d walked into a different world. 


The picture in Singapore and Hong Kong was a very different one. Much has been made of both countries PISA results, and their use of traditional teaching methods. Rather less is made of the parental pressures upon kids – according to the teachers I spoke to, the Tiger Mother culture is real. Kids seem to have little time to be, well, kids. After school, their time is spent in private tutoring, or learning to play at least one (more usually two) musical instruments. Most music teachers I spoke to cited parental obsession with music exams being the end, rather than the means of, music learning. Getting the graded certificate was the reason for playing, not to foster a love of music. Professor Yong Zhao has argued persuasively that you should never judge a country’s PISA scores without taking into account possible side-effects. This is one such example.


Unusually, in Singapore at least, the minister for education has warned of the mental pressures of this hot-housing and essentially asked parents to cut their kids a bit of slack. The minister has also argued that traditional teaching methods are not likely to develop the skills that students will need in the future. The challenge being presented to teachers is significant: to transform teaching and learning, from rote, transmissive methods to skills-based, collaborative and creative approaches. There seemed to be some doubts whether that kind of wholesale transformation could be achieved in less than a decade. Whether they’re successful or not, it won’t be for lack of vision from the government.


Within an hour of landing back at Heathrow I read that primary kids in the UK will soon be barred from using calculators in examinations. The leaks surrounding the new national curriculum suggest it will be a fact-based approach, rejecting ‘skills’. The UK seems to be turning the clock back to the 1950s. In so doing, we’re unlikely to get the PISA improvement, and almost certain to increase the damaging side-effects.


So, my question is this: there are two impressive systems, in Canada and Finland, which match the performance of countries like Singapore and Hong Kong in PISA tables. They appear to do this by adopting generally ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching and learning.  They also appear to be more efficient in terms of the effort and time required by students to achieve comparable results, and apply less pressure on kids. The Singaporean government looks to them for inspiration. So why, given the choice, does the English Secretary of State for Education look to the Far East, rather than Canada and Finland (where the cultural context is closer to ours anyway) for his inspiration?


I promise this is not a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely baffled, and I’d be grateful for your views.


2 Responses to Calculating The Difference Between Successful Education Systems

  1. daydream512 says:

    NB Primary kids in England not UK – not Scotland where Curriculum for Excellence is encouraging and facilitating a more skills led approach, more reflective teaching/ learning and more room for creativity. As an exile from the English system I am continually so pleased to be teaching here and also that my daughter is being educated in Scotland. I am not blind to the potential pitfalls having done my share of working to improve scores in core subjects within the English system. It is easy to pick holes in a more creative and holistic approach but you have to trust that professionals, if well equipped with a range of tools, can look past quick fixes and focus in on ‘real’ measures of learning and progress for individuals.

  2. David Price says:

    Yes, and you’re quite right to point out the difference. It’s difficult to explain to non-Brits the subtle (and not so subtle ) interpretations. I work in Scotland quite regularly, and so I’m familiar with the growing gap between, say, Curriculum for Excellence and Curriculum for Michael. I’ll do an edit to reflect this more accurately, and thanks for pointing it out!

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