The current education system is yet again in a state of flux: policy based on political ideology rather than educational good practice; an ideology that looks backwards rather than forwards; propaganda rather than pedagogy.
Government’s role is to constantly ensure an education system that is capable of providing world class learning. By doing so, education and those involved are assisted and empowered with a confidence about their own abilities. This empowers those involved to become competitive enough to take on the international market and develop a pride in their achievements.
This noble, yet economically critical, aim for education must therefore surely ensure provision of world class learning and teaching for all learners and not just the academically gifted who will leave school and move on the Russell Group of universities.
It is important to recognise that the current move towards encouraging huge numbers of school leavers to go onto university is a mistake!
Counter intuitively; the increase in the number of learners going onto university is actually devaluing higher education, creating an increasingly commercial higher education trade.
The proliferation of substandard universities that began their educational life, not even as polytechnic but sometimes as technical colleges (or not even that), has developed a market where some degrees from those ‘lesser’ universities have no value in the business or academic world. Unfortunately, the truth is that it prepares them for nothing and allows for the lowest common denominator to study far beyond ability and talent.
Polytechnics provided higher education in quite a different way to traditional universities and gave to Britain a highly trained and effective workforce. It was the differentiation between vocational and academic qualifications, taught by those who were best placed to understand and teach those vocational specialist areas. The decision to abolish Polytechnics was to down-grade the less traditional subjects such as business studies, engineering and social work, among others. It gave the impression that only university higher education had value and in fact was purely an ideological decision with no educational or pedagogy understanding.
Education has been led by ideology, and poor economics, and the system has been handicapped in developing a world class solution and as a consequence the learner has always ended up a poor second place to politics.
Why is economics important in this argument? Specifically because politicians seem to have lost the vision that money spent on developing a world class education system will provide dividends in the future. Good education will always pay for itself in the long term. The better prepared, educated and trained a workforce the more income the government will receive through income tax and taxes on spending, as well as the reduction in public benefits spending because more people would be employed and less people would require state support to live a satisfactory life.
The current secretary of state has indicated he wants to return to a system similar to the old O-level, and of course this from a government minister who is too young to remember that system and the inherent strengths and weaknesses it manifested. The secretary of state wants to emulate the Finnish system, but one wonders which Finnish system he has looked at because much of what he wishes to introduce is the antipathy of the excellent Finnish system.
What British education is crying out for is a radical re-design of the system and the vision to start with a blank sheet of paper. However, what government will have the courage to initiate this process and take it through to a conclusion? Great Britain is at the mercies of almost constant changes from government, primarily with focus on a style of education and ‘delivery of curriculum’ that, as the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson has said, “was fine in the nineteenth century”.
It is a useful exercise to examine countries with the highest educational achievement and ask whether their example would inform Britain in the way in which we approach educating our young people. To pre-empt the discussion it will become clear that policy makers, educators and the media would do very well to take a lesson from Finland.
Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Director of Education said: “I think one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done. And now we know, also through the OECD data and research, that the equity is the one that is also bringing excellence. So I think the systematic way of addressing those who are in special need and need more help is the key.”
The Finnish curriculum is far less ‘academic’ than may be expected of such a high achieving nation. Finnish students do the least number of class hours per week in the developed world, yet get the best results in the long term. Students in Finland sit no mandatory exams until the age of 17-19. Teacher based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress and these are not graded, but instead are descriptive to inform feedback and assessment for learning.
Finnish schools have full autonomy, and considerable independence when developing and delivering their own individual curricula. Combinations of alternative pedagogic approaches, as opposed to mere instructional methods, are utilised by teachers and it is clear that this freedom to innovate facilitates greater creativity, pro-activity and innovation.
Finland’s educational philosophy has been to trust the professionals, parents and communities to guide their own policy – and it would appear that it works! The opposite is the case in the United Kingdom where politicians with little or no background as teachers or within the education service create partisan and ideological decisions without the understanding of the learning process, or indeed a real care about the longer term effect on the individual or the economic consequences for the country.
In Finland, all learners receive free education from when they start their formal education at seven years of age until they complete their university studies. During their educational life all learners receive free school meals, resources and transport and support services.
Educationalist Hank Pellissier says: “Finland’s pre-schools offer no academics but plenty of focus on social skills, emotional awareness, and learning to play. Remarkably, Finnish children don’t approach reading until age seven. They learn other concepts first, primarily self-reliance”
An important aspect of the Finnish system is that prior to the age of seven all children attend kindergarten which enables them to learn how to socialise, play and simply enjoy being a child. Unacceptable behaviours are indentified and the child is assisted to unlearn that behaviour and to learn acceptable behaviours and, of course, diagnosable behaviours are identified earlier and intervention more effective as a result.
“Although Finnish children don’t start formal schooling until the age of seven, by the end of their first year, they all know how to read and write”, says Bryan Luizzi, Principal of Brookfield High School in Connecticut.
The learning of languages is high on the agenda and very effective. Learners begin learning a third language by 11 and some a fourth at 13.
Many educational institutions are combined primary and secondary schools, thus avoiding the disruption of moving from school-to-school which also allows for a consistent ethos. Students do not wear uniforms and are encouraged to relax in their surroundings. Their system prides itself on a positive and evolving process learning from learner need and ensuring that the interests of every learner are central to all decisions.
The Finnish system is based on the premise that it is not necessary to overload the learner. The approach is to allow them the freedom to learn and to enjoy the experience and at the same time not over stressing the young person. This approach would be at odds with the system in Great Britain where standards and effectiveness are measured in standardised data and evidence trails. It is interesting to note that none of the educationally high achieving nations has a central inspection system.
Another reason that the Finnish system works so well is that they have thought about how children and young people learn best and created an environment in which to facilitate this. In Great Britain, our primary problem is not with diversity, however, because we ignore the neuroscience and learning research there is a continuation with practice that has failed to deliver good learning outcomes for over a hundred years. The Leitch review does not provide any evidence that our mythical ‘golden age’ of education provided a sound education for all. However, it does remind us that one third of all adults left school with no basic learning qualification and over 5 million people with no qualifications at all.
If we were to consider the introduction of the Finnish system into Great Britain, it would require a seismic shift in thinking, a cross-party agreement not to use education as a political football and a supportive media to the long-term ideal of radically improving our education system. An improvement to a system that is not wedded to the past or stuck in the present but willing to move together into the future.
This radical approach will assist government to create a world class system based on the success of the highest achieving countries, ensuring that education is less of a political battle field and much more of a consensus, and we will see a vast economic return.