Mind the gap?

Education news this last week has been dominated by news of how the UK has done in international comparisons. Are they celebrating cheering stories such as our education being the sixth best in the world? Or that England is one of the most improved countries in maths?  Of course not – the focus is on the top 10% in England being “2 years behind their Asian peers”.

Naturally, these international comparisons are inherently questionable – different countries don’t devote the same amount of time to each curriculum subject, and the curriculum content will vary.  Kids in different countries will have varying experience of formal exam-style assessment, which will skew the results too – if you do a lot of exams, you tend to get better at them.

But OK, let’s forget these reservations and look at it in a bit more detail.  Overall, the performance remains comparable, and indeed the bottom 10% catch up a bit. So we aren’t making a complete mess – it’s just the top end we aren’t doing justice by.

Does that surprise me? To be honest – no. As I’ve commented elsewhere (ad nauseam!) our league table system does not encourage teachers and schools to care about getting kids from a B to an A, or from an A to an A*, so the chances of the most able being pushed to achieve their full potential aren’t great.

Secondly, there’s a tendency not to acknowledge that kids with high ability in a certain subject benefit from working, at least sometimes, with others of a similarly high ability. I don’t get why this is an issue – you wouldn’t expect to train an elite athlete in isolation, without contact with others of similar talent.   Of course, in either case, you can practice and develop on your own, but would you really reach the heights that way?

Thirdly, the style of teaching encouraged by OFSTED really militates against the development of deeper thought. If you require everyone to make measurable progress in a “pacy” lesson, there’s little time for developing resilience, persistence and more sophisticated problem-solving skills, as they require tackling really tough problems over a period of time. If you require everything to be linked to assessment, there’s little time for independence of thought and pushing beyond the bounds of the curriculum. If you want everyone to stick to the lesson plan, there’s not the opportunity to go off-script and capture the imagination of the kids, which will encourage them to push themselves.

I do find it interesting that the “two years behind” result is inevitably put in terms of what we are doing wrong, rather than what the East Asian countries are doing right – I think if we teachers took such a punitive approach to differences, it wouldn’t get us far!

I would be interested to know a little more of what goes on in those East Asian schools to promote the achievements of the most able.  Being negative,  it could be a question of priorities – is getting the absolute most out of the top end the focus in those schools, at the expense of the other kids?  It used to be more like that in this country, back in the days before comprehensives.   Or are kids there channelled into spending more time on what they are particularly good at, rather than maintaining breadth? I’ve heard of that happening in some countries.   I hope I’m wrong and it’s something we can learn from (there are always ways to improve), but I’m not convinced by the statistics alone.

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