'An English education is valued all over the world – but schools here are treated as politicians' playthings'

8th July 2017 at 16:01
Parents across the world want an English education for their children, yet our own education system is smothered by the political parties' social mobility agenda

An English education is valued the world over, yet teachers in England are stifled, hemmed in and forced to tread water by government oversight, and a widely shared misconception is that social mobility and education are the same thing.

Six countries in South East Asia have more than 100 international schools and there are over 1,300 schools in the region as a whole providing an essentially English education to children from 3 to 18. In the UAE there are 590 such schools. Almost 500,000 international students were studying in UK universities in 2015-16. In Australia, there were over 700,000 and in the US over a million.

English underpins the entire international education market.

The dramatic success that some private schools in the UK have had, expanding overseas, is the clearest indicator of how the rest of the world regards an English education.

These schools were only able to do this because, even though many of them did not know it, they were the custodians of brands that had built up enviable reputations, in some cases over centuries.

Only a fool would think the rush by a burgeoning middle class in economically improving regions of the world to fund their children’s schooling is driven by the comprehensive school ideal. What used to be called the English public school has a reputation for delivering a genuinely high standard of education across the world.

But it’s what lies behind that high standard which is, I think, so poorly understood, communicated and, crucially, exploited to benefit even more children in English state schools.

Take away all the frills, the generous extracurricular commitment of the teaching staff, their lavish facilities: the essence of what these schools have done for centuries is simply to employ subject specialists, real scholars.

Read any credible research about what constitutes excellence in the secondary school classroom and the depth and quality of the teacher’s subject knowledge, their passion for their subject, are all that distinguishes it from mediocrity. That’s why great secondary teachers rarely bother with textbooks, except as support material.

As a very successful American high school principal put it some years ago, “They own the curriculum.” Not easy to do when you have Ofsted, school leaders who lack scholarship themselves and a plethora of politically motivated bands at the school gates, demanding you dance to their social mobility tune instead.

Confusing social mobility with education

The classroom is not a plaything for politicians. It’s a child’s one opportunity to learn from professionals who know more than they do, day after day.

Social mobility is a fortunate by-product of a good education: the cart not the horse. Supported and bolstered by individuals and bodies who regard schools as the best platform on which to exercise their social conscience, political parties have crippled the ability of English state schools to deliver the same, high-quality educational experience, by making social mobility their entire purpose.

Even leaders in the private sector have fallen for this lie, as was clear from the way so many waded into the anti-grammar school campaign.

At a recent event in London that I attended, of the $18 billion (£14 billion) of private investment in education being forecast for Africa in the next five years, $8 billion will be aimed at 3-18 schooling. Half the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is under 25. In that region alone, $300million to $400million every year will be needed to build capacity in the sector. Fifteen cities there account for 40 per cent of Africa’s total economic output.

These parents aren’t interested in “social mobility.” They have neither the time, nor the refined, self-absorbed appetite that gossips about such luxuries. They are only interested in getting their children educated so that they can mobilise themselves; ideally into US, UK or other English-speaking universities.

Some years ago, I shared a desk for a whole year with the political agent of a senior member of the current shadow cabinet. The most recent Labour Party manifesto contained a promise to add VAT to private school fees.

When Tony Blair, leader of a different Labour Party altogether, entered government in 1997 it wasn’t the country’s economy, unemployment or foreign policy that topped his to-do list. It was the one thing that united an entire nation because the appalling situation was so profoundly unjust, so morally bankrupt, it required urgent, groundbreaking legislation that would set the reforming standard for the entire international community to follow…a ban on fox hunting.

Leaders of private schools, teachers who work in them, state and private investors in education everywhere might want to think about that, before Cirque du Corbyn makes that inevitable appearance at Camp Bestival.   

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue

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