Editorial - Imports are all very well, but we export, too

26th February 2010 at 00:00
As our politicians ravage overseas education systems for ideas, our contribution is overlooked

Last week the New York Times carried a report on an initiative by eight states to fast-track 16-year-olds who pass a battery of tests into college. It explained that "the new system of high school coursework with the accompanying board examinations is modelled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, Finland, England, France and Singapore". It's good to know that whatever the hullabaloo over Britain's education system, our grass looks pretty green from someone else's side of the fence.

That small comfort should, of course, not stop us looking for inspiration overseas. Politicians seemingly do little else. Over the past few years, teachers have been treated to a parade of foreign educational models - no-nonsense Germany, excellent Finland and above all that Nordic beauty, Sweden. They all have something we lack and should aspire to. And just like their catwalk equivalents they induce equal amounts of envy, admiration and loathing.

Over the past few weeks The TES has been running a series of analyses on countries that feature regularly in most educational beauty pageants. "Abroad" clearly has useful lessons to teach insular Brits, but it is also apparent that it can be employed in the service of a very British tradition - selective plundering.

Take Finland, which we featured three weeks ago and which tops the international education charts. On the face of it the country looks like a progressive dream. Its education system is fully comprehensive and resolutely mixed ability. There are no private schools, no national tests until the age of 15 and teachers have autonomy to teach what they wish. Traditionalists, on the other hand, point to the highly elitist way that the Finns select their teachers - only the brightest graduates need apply.

Or Germany, which we look at this week (pages 34-36). Progressives have long admired its tradition of excellent vocational schools; traditionalists slaver over its pristine grammars. And then there is Sweden, where pupils seem to spend as much time being observed by British television crews as they do by their teachers and which we will analyse in two weeks' time.

What is usually overlooked by intrepid educational explorers keen to import the latest from abroad are the cultural differences that make straightforward duplication nigh on impossible. Finland is good. It is also homogeneous. Peckham it isn't.

Foreign failures are equally ignored. Germany lags behind this country in most international league tables, Sweden fears its school revolution masks a widespread decline in standards and even Finland is worried that while it makes everyone "averagely good" it neglects the talented.

Totally forgotten is the fact that the UK is an exporter of ideas and not just a clueless recipient of them. Washington seeks British educational advice, Germany has introduced inspections and the easy-going Swedes have decided to examine a lot more. Rigorous testing and severe bouts of inspection. What could be more British?

But back to that New York Times story. Denmark? What's happening in Denmark?

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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