The world’s best primary schools are in England, according to Chris Husbands.
And as an academic who for the past five years has headed the UCL Institute of Education – now the world’s top-ranked university for education – he is certainly qualified to know.
“In England, what we have got right, by and large, is primary education,” Professor Husbands, pictured right, explains. “You’d struggle to find better primary schools in the world. We know what really good primary schools look like and how to get them.”
He makes the observation in a TES interview ahead of leaving the IoE to become vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University in January. The IoE has been good to Professor Husbands. He studied there as a student teacher in the early 1980s, after his wife Nicky, who works in early years education, got a job in London. And in 2007 he was back again, this time as a professor, before taking over as director four years later. “It’s been great,” he says. “I came here first in 1983 as a PGCE student and I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d end up running the place.”
The key factor in the success of England’s primaries, Professor Husbands feels, is a genuinely rich curriculum that encompasses both academic and emotional skills. But he believes that upper secondary education lacks the maturity of that in Finland owing to the “legacy of a divided system”.
Professor Husbands’ parents both left school at 14 and worked in a factory. So some might view his journey from Nuneaton grammar school boy to the University of Cambridge as proof of the worth of that “divided system”. But Professor Husbands believes the most important education policy in the 20th century was the move towards comprehensive education.
“Since the formation of compulsory education in 1870, we have done extremely well at educating higher attainers and the social elite,” he says. “But we have always struggled with educating less advantaged and lower attainers.”
He points to Finland and Singapore as systems that are better at ensuring pupils of all abilities achieve. But he also warns that foreign models of success are not all they seem. “People in the West look east and people in the East look west,” Professor Husbands says. “Which tells me that education systems are facing really difficult challenges in preparing young people for rapidly changing societies. There is no panacea.”
Bogged down in ‘knowledge’
The skill of research lies not in knowing all the answers but in knowing the right questions. It is something Professor Husbands learned early on in his career as a secondary school history teacher. A pupil asked what people used to clean themselves before toilet paper. “Leaves,” he replied, confident in what his first-class degree had taught him. “So what did they use in winter? Holly?” the pupil said.
It was a lesson, Professor Husbands says, that reading books doesn’t always equate to thinking. (The answer to the prickly problem, he later discovered, was moss.)
When looking at the shortcomings of education, the one point he is certain about is that blaming teachers does not help. “I work with teachers, my wife is a teacher, my oldest daughter is a teacher,” he says. “I will never say that the problem we have is that our teachers aren’t good enough or that they don’t work hard enough, because it’s simply not true.”
Professor Husbands made the move from teaching into academia “almost by mistake”. With three children under 5, he and his wife realised they needed to move somewhere cheaper than their Hertfordshire home. “We had a list of things on the fridge that we would like to buy when we could afford it – top of the list was a measuring jug,” he recalls. The result of that move was a job training teachers at the University of East Anglia. He later moved to Warwick University.
But now, as he prepares to work at his fourth university, Professor Husbands says it is his experiences as a teacher and a pupil that have stayed with him. “I was the first person in my family to stay on at school beyond 14,” he says.
“Some may see me as a poster boy for selective education, but I see it differently. I see myself as a poster boy for the belief that it is worth educating people like me. I look at my Dad and nobody thought he was worth educating. That really matters.”