Emulating Asia risks crippling childhoods

28th February 2014 at 00:00
Lazy, politicised use of global comparisons is dangerous - and looking to Shanghai for the educational holy grail is a grave error

A few weeks ago I read a piece in this publication's sister magazine that went beyond the headlines about the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and asked some probing questions.

The article reported on an analysis by Cambridge Assessment researcher Tom Benton that looked at whether Pisa's vast data set provided any evidence for or against the idea of school autonomy ("Does 'autonomous' always mean better? Not necessarily ...", bit.lyPisaAutonomy).

There was, Benton found, "no statistically significant association between the amount of freedom given to schools over how to spend their budgets and their academic results".

Now, down in England - where the education secretary loves the idea of giving more freedom to schools - the Department for Education refused to comment specifically on the details of Benton's conclusions, simply restating "the importance of school autonomy".

As the headteacher of a private school, of course I believe in giving school leaders as much autonomy as possible. But just as importantly, I don't like dogma.

I most certainly agreed with another senior Cambridge Assessment official, Tim Oates, when he said: "There is not much point in people bashing (each other) over the head over the top-line Pisa findings ... it doesn't really work."

In essence, it is time that policymakers stopped cherry-picking nuggets from international studies to prove their pet theories.

Politicians the world over, upon publication of the latest Pisa figures, insisted that we learn from the East and South East Asia, lauding Shanghai teachers who visited children's homes in the evenings to set yet more homework.

Yet the politicians who simplistically suggest we mimick the Chinese and Far Eastern systems overlook several things.

First, education leaders in those countries don't claim to have all the answers. Their maths scores may be stellar but there's widespread concern about their young people's lack of childhood. All too often, Asian students go from school to evening classes, finally getting to bed at 2am before rising at 6am for the next school day. Is this really a great educational success worthy of admiration and even replication?

It has been suggested that if we in the West only grew a bit of backbone we could work our children and teachers as hard as our Asian competitors do. In rejecting that notion, I am not pleading cultural difference: I am saying that it is not the right way for children anywhere.

Second, many education leaders in China worry about a lack of creative teaching and too much chalk and talk. Chinese colleagues I meet are eager to learn from us about reversing that situation. They are very clear that they don't have all the answers any more than we do.

Third, there seems to be an undercurrent in much of the West that the teaching profession in the developed world is not up to the challenge of catching up with higher-performing countries.

Scarcely human

This picture is at odds with what I see at this time of year, interviewing students for their first teaching posts. I am amazed by the candidates I meet: they are well-prepared, enthusiastic, highly and broadly skilled and very professional.

Among my own children, nephews and nieces there are several teachers. I meet their friends and colleagues, too. There is no lack of resilience. But too many have a growing sense of despair. They want to teach. They want to instil discipline in the classroom. They want to inspire and give life chances to young people. What demoralises them is the feeling that they are not permitted to deal with children as children.

Politicians insist that poverty (or any other home circumstance) is no excuse for underachievement. They are right. But that ruthlessly reiterated message means that, where schools are remorselessly pursuing the standards agenda, no allowance is made for the fact that the learners are children, bringing to school a whole host of experiences, problems, ambitions, fears, worries and obstacles.

To be sure, some exceptional schools manage to avoid this paradox. But teachers under pressure for any reason (and there are so many) would be scarcely human if they did not give in to fear and anxiety - and these are the enemies of creativity.

Scarcely human: that's the point. Young teachers want to make a difference, to treat their students as individuals and help them to develop according to their own needs and abilities.

I risk being attacked as a dinosaur, a remnant of the 1970s and of what is currently, cynically, portrayed as misconceived child-centred idealism.

But education is about children and must be centred on them. I'm angry that the idea of starting with the child is so frequently caricatured as being anti-standards - of pandering to ill-discipline and to low achievement. It is, apparently, the reason we are unable to keep up with our global competitors.

I know about standards. Having run schools for more than 20 years, I've worked consistently to render those institutions more creative, more imaginative and above all more humane, while simultaneously raising aspirations and attainment.

We forget all that when we allow data to drive us. Data should certainly inform us, so by all means analyse the Pisa numbers. But please remember that those figures tell us only about measurable outcomes. They communicate nothing about children's characters, fears or aspirations. And, when the data is used clumsily or simplistically, it does real harm.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

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