How well are we doing educationally as a nation?

13 Apr

When we read articles in the press about the standards of children in schools, it is difficult to believe that several countries look to this nation as a shining example of educational practice. Yet it is true. In particular, England’s educational practice, especially the curriculum, qualifications and pedagogy, is the envy of most countries the world over.

I recall years ago, working as a sub-editor for The Statesman, an English daily in Calcutta, India, when a journalist with the most putrid English one could find East of Suez, boasted to fellow hacks that he was “Oxford-returned”.  I asked him what he meant by “Oxford-returned”.  He replied that he had been to Oxford.  I decided not to pursue the matter, knowing full well that, with his poor English, he most likely went on a visit to the town and its university to take a boat ride on The Thames rather than for purposes of study – a case of the cat going to see the Queen and frightening the little mouse under the chair.

The point I am trying to get across is that Oxford and Cambridge – like the education school, FE and HE systems – are highly valued in countries like India.   Parents, in the East and Far East, sacrifice much to get their progenies to study here.  

Many of our academies, schools, FE and HE colleges now go abroad to set up new institutions run along Anglo-Saxon lines.   Education is an export that boosts our economy by £17.5 billion.  One English-medium international school opens up somewhere in the world daily.  Altogether, according to the Office for National Statistics, 1.4 million pupils were studying in 3,000 British schools through the medium of English in 2012.  Overall, 3.1 million pupils are studying at more than 6,300 English-medium schools.

Matthew Burgess, formerly general secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) and now a partner at the law firm, Veale Washbrough Vizards, said: “Overseas pupils coming to these shores are just as much education exports – and we valued their contribution to the British GDP last year at almost £1 billion. It won’t be long before the number of pupils educated at overseas campuses of British independent schools exceeds those coming here.”

The Sunday Times reported on 22 March 2015 that up to a dozen state schools and six-form colleges were admitting foreign pupils – mainly from Russia and China – at fees of up to £15,000 a year per pupil, boosting the economy still further.

The British curriculum and British teachers are in big demand abroad.   And they go, tempted by tax-free offers.   While this is to be welcomed, it is also worrying for two reasons.  Firstly, it’s a brain drain for us here as we need to attract and retain the best in teaching for our children.   Secondly, is it possible that we value our teachers much less than people abroad do, a case of a prophet is not without honour save in his/her own country?   We are constantly beating ourselves up – seeing the half-empty (rather than the half-full) glass.

While improving educational quality must continue to be our ambition, we should take comfort, however, that the Americans have begun to envy what we have here, especially when we learn that the Thomas B Fordham Institute says that the USA has much to learn from British headteachers.   Recently, five outstanding headteachers were flown to Washington DC to explain our educational system.   Liam Nolan, executive headteacher of Perry Beeches Academy in Birmingham, who was one of them, said: “To be able to go out and talk about why our leadership is among the very best in the world was absolutely breathtaking.  It was one of the moments where you felt very proud to be British.”

Statements such as the one above create a national glow.   However, it’s worth acknowledging that that before we relax on our laurels, we have much to do.  For instance, we still have 8% of school- leavers who have not attained a single GCSE at even a G grade.

Colin Richards, former HMI, writing in the Times Educational Supplement on 3 April 2015, warns: “The Fordham Institute has got it only half right in saying: ‘The Ofsted system evaluates schools on a mix of qualitative and quantitative indicators and includes an emphasis on self-reflection.’ Experience since 1992 strongly suggests that quantitative indicators and an emphasis on outputs unduly influenced overall judgements of school effectiveness.”

The “GB” in the nation’s name could well stand for “Getting Better”. The jury is still out in deciding how much further we have to go before we “arrive”.  What is incontrovertible is that internationally we make a significant educational difference.

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