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The British Education System: A time for change?

7th July 2015

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The United Kingdom recently placed 20th on OECD's global survey of educational systems around the world, the largest survey of its kind in history. We placed tenth in Europe behind the likes of the world renowned Finnish educational system as well as, maybe surprisingly, Estonia and Slovenia - both formerly a part of the communist  states of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively.

The state of Britain's educational system has arguably been written about to death, and is nothing new, however I decided to explore the debate for myself and offer my two cents.

When I look back on my time in school, leaving in 2010, I remember the ever increasing pressure on statistics. I remember  what was once a hallway dedicated to the celebration of pupils' class work, being transformed into a presentation on the various percentages of A*-C grades that were achieved by their respective year groups. While this in itself could serve as a celebration of success it also reminded those classes and year groups who were underperforming every time they walked by.

I left before the then new Education Secretary Michael Gove came into power, with him a relentless campaign of rapid and unyielding reform that has been widely criticised as focusing solely on statistics and little else. Gove's reforms have also been criticised for putting too much pressure on students, choking flexibility out of teaching and moving to privatise education through academies amongst other things.

Arguably the greatest challenge facing education secretaries in the UK is closing the gap between the performance of children from poorer lower class backgrounds and children from wealthier middle class backgrounds. A report from the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission writes how six out of ten disadvantaged children don't achieve a basic set of qualifications as opposed to one in three more advantaged children.

Like many countries, Britain looks abroad for inspiration in its educational reform. Primarily, Finland and the east Asian states like Singapore, South Korea and Japan are seemingly synonymous with this form of educational head-hunting. However Finland and its Asian counter parts are complete polar opposites when it comes to education, yet both are prosperous and envied.

I found east Asian states like Singapore and South Korea chalk their success down to a number of elements. Their school days are considerably long, with a typical school day in South Korea being eleven hours. The focus in these schools is on the many exams the children face, with children being drilled on the curriculum in silent classrooms, all pointed towards the teacher. So clinical is the teaching environment in these countries compared to our own that there is now a conscious effort to reform and encourage more creativity.

Regardless, Asian students routinely outperform their western counterparts and consistently top global surveys. They have become the envy of the western world and as a result Britain has considered and started adopting Asian-based educational reform.

Finland on the other hand represents a completely different approach to education. School days are as short as five hours and as long as seven, there is no standardised testing until the end of secondary school, student data is not published and schools are not ranked as they are in Britain. School holidays are long and classrooms are completely free from ministerial micromanagement. The only semblance of state interference is a national curriculum set for the entire country, but how it is taught is completely up to the individual teacher. And now there is move towards scrapping 'subjects' and replacing them with 'topics', for example the EU would be taught in class and within it history, language, economics etc. The focus in Finland then is not on statistics and ranking, but freedom and flexibility and as a result Finland has the smallest gap between the highest and lowest achievers in the Western world.

So I'm left reflecting on my own experience at school, viewing how government reform is rapidly and controversially changing our schools through the media and reading about all these different models around the world and still none the wiser as to the best course of action for British schools. On reading about Finland, it seems too good to be true and I find myself, like many before me, looking on with envious eyes.

However I find simply researching online on such an important issue to be cold and almost uncaring. In the second and final article of this exploration I speak to a teacher on the frontline, learning what they feel about government reform, adopting foreign standards of teaching and what they believe is best for our children's education.


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