International comparisons measuring England against top-performing "jurisdictions" – including Massachusetts and Shanghai – were given impetus by their emphasis in Michael Gove's national curriculum review and elsewhere. But problems arise when policymakers try to champion other systems, and call for us to adopt their characteristics, without reference to context.
We take seriously the dangers of anachronism (judgements of historical figures by our own values rather than the most enlightened mores of their own time; or seeing an electric lamp on a desk in the film Waterloo). Policymakers and politicians should be equally cautious of the trap of anatopism – taking something out of its particular place.
Shanghai students’ success in tests has led some to advocate importing techniques to raise our own standards, but they ignore what has been written on the specific and very different cultural context, including Jin Li’s 2012 book Cultural Foundations of Learning.
Some years ago a group of English headteachers were given a chance to visit schools in India, and reflections on their visit were reported in The Guardian. They were very impressed with much of what they saw, but they were less keen on the didactic style of teachers. One marvelled that his own students would not put up with such unvariegated lesson fare.
Visiting secondary schools in India, you’d be struck by the sheer focus of the students. They don’t need variety to grasp the importance of what they are doing. To them, schools are what they were to many working-class children in late-19th-century London – lighthouses. Education was then, as it is now in many parts of the world, a ladder out of poverty.
Cross-cultural comparisons (rather than a naive juxtaposition of systems and test results) are just as valid closer to home. In 2010, a book called Education Nation was published in the US by Milton Chen. Its subtitle was "six leading edges of innovation in our schools". It included a discussion of what authentic assessment looked like, with an example from (drum roll, please) GCSEs.
Talk to an American educator about testing, and it very quickly becomes clear that we are speaking a different language. To them, it’s largely about pre-tested items based on a right/wrong or a multiple-choice format, which produces unambiguous outcomes and rank orders. To us, it can be about free-response answers, with levels-based marking and the use of professional judgement.
Of course we have lots to learn from colleagues around the world – as they have, and do, from us. But don’t let’s rip classrooms out of cultural context. On the negative side, a lot of what passes for pacy and varied pedagogy arose out of a need to engage students for whom the immediate purpose of schooling was no longer evident. On the positive side, the regimented transmission of content has given way to conditions which privilege creativity, individuality and personal development.
As a "jurisdiction", we have a lot to be proud of in our education "system".
Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust