IN SOUTH Africa, there are concerns that a “national inferiority complex” about the population’s maths and science abilities is holding back industry and fuelling a youth unemployment rate of around 40 per cent.
A high-pressure, high-stakes exam culture has produced excellent academic results in South Korea, but has also contributed to a worryingly high number of student suicides.
In Mexico, a government drive to provide tablet computers to pupils in poor areas has led to thieves targeting schools. Meanwhile parents, keen to improve their children’s chances in life, are fighting back by personally guarding schools overnight.
These were just some of the education “challenges” discussed by the 40 policy advisers, government officials, academics and campaigners from 18 countries who gathered in Salzburg, Austria, just before Christmas for a five-day education seminar (see box, right).
With contexts as diverse as this, it would be easy to assume there is little common ground between the participants. Yet, in many ways, the opposite is true. Everywhere in the world, narrowing the gap between the poorest and the most affluent students is a major concern.
In Chile, the government has taken drastic steps to achieve this. It recently passed legislation that bans fee-charging and selective schools from receiving any public funding (see box, opposite page).
The country has introduced a “weighted voucher” system that, like the pupil premium, gives schools extra money for each pupil they admit from a deprived background. Good teachers are offered what has been described as “combat pay” to work in the most challenging schools.
“It’s not just about equity and social justice,” says Gregory Elacqua, an education economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, which funds economic and social development in Latin America.
“It’s also about efficiency. If you allow schools to select students, you’re giving them incentives to improve their achievement by focusing on the quality of the students they admit. That’s not real improvement.”
Without selection, he says, schools will have to improve the hard way – by “training their teachers and improving their management and schooling practices”.
Even in South Korea, where a strong emphasis on national standardised testing is viewed as a social leveller, there are concerns about closing the gap.
As in other high-performing Asian countries, including China and Singapore, the South Korean government is keen for greater emphasis on creativity and other “soft skills” such as social and emotional development in its education system (see box, right). But some fear that requiring these skills for university access could hit disadvantaged students hard.
Studying vs experience
“Tests are an equal opportunity for everyone,” says Hye-Won Lee, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation. “Even if your parent is a farmer or a fisherman, if you perform well you can get a good job as a public servant and get into the most prestigious university.
“If you’re from a prestigious and wealthy family you can have all sorts of rich experiences, but if you’re not from that kind of family, then you can only develop yourself by studying hard. So [the current] high stakes of exams favour these people.”
Another big interest shared by representatives from around the world was education technology. New tablet apps developed in South Africa are allowing students to write down answers to maths questions on screens using “digital paper” technology.
Teachers can see pupils’ answers and how long they spent on each question, and they can “rewind” to watch how they worked out the answer. Experts hope that this will give teachers a deeper understanding of what pupils have learned and which areas they are struggling with.
In Uruguay, the government has gone even further, issuing all pupils with laptops or tablets and running a major programme to expand internet access.
It means that pupils, many of whom have gone without textbooks and other resources for years, have unprecedented access to educational material. It also makes administration of national tests – which are taken on the devices – much more straightforward.
Growing all the time
It is hoped that the Uruguayan government will save money in the long term, because it will no longer need to issue printed textbooks. But critics argue that students are missing out on the opportunity for “deeper learning” that comes from reading printed materials.
The “growth mindset” theory has also proven an international hit. In the US, home of Professor Carol Dweck, who developed the theory – that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that those who believe in their ability to improve are more likely to succeed – its influence continues to grow.
With this in mind, Nora Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple University, says that societies should rethink the current approach to testing – in which a grade is treated as a fixed sign of a person’s intelligence or ability. “In my view it [growth mindset theory] should transform how we think about assessment,” she says. “As long as what you think you’re getting [with exam results] is information about how bad you are forever, you don’t want it, because who wants to hear that kind of bad news?
“But there’s something you can do about most of those weaknesses, and if you thought about it that way it would be great.”
In Chile, the growth mindset theory is badly needed, according to Hernán Hochschild Ovalle, executive director of Elige Educar, a Chilean education charity. “Nine out of 10 students [in Chile] think their results in maths tests are explained by the fact they were born bad at maths,” he says.
“In Japan, 90 per cent of students believe that their result reflects their personal effort and their opportunities for learning.”
He says that pupils’ mindset in Chile makes it difficult to teach. “Teachers are saying they don’t want to learn, but it’s not that they don’t want to – it’s that they think they can’t.”
Tapping into talent
The conference, titled “Untapped Talent: Can better testing and data accelerate creativity in learning and societies?” was hosted by the US non-profit organisation Salzburg Global Seminar. It produced a “Salzburg statement” that called for new approaches to testing that would “measure the breadth of human capabilities and potential.” (bit.ly/SalzburgSeminar)
The event took place at Schloss Leopoldskron – a historic palace best known as the filming location for The Sound of Music. It was established as the setting for a “Marshall Plan for the mind” to help countries recover after the Second World War. Since then it has hosted international discussions on topics including education, culture, health and justice. salzburgglobal.org
Chile: creating a level playing field
Publicly funded schools in Chile are to be banned from charging fees, making a profit and using selective admissions systems, in a package of reforms passed last year, which will be rolled out across the country in the next three to four years.
Schools will have to use a new “blind” admissions system, says Mr Elacqua. “At the moment, schools observe five-year-olds playing to see whether they’re disruptive,” he says. “Sometimes that means they end up selecting out children because of their parents’ complex social background.
“They interview parents to get information about their jobs, their level of education and whether they’re married or not. They know that the lowest-cost way to improve a school is to select better students.”
The reform has met opposition from the Catholic church, whose schools tend to be highly selective, and from middle-class parents who view fees and selection as means of ensuring that their children receive a good education. The reform has also had a “political cost” for a government that previously received strong support from these middle-class families, Mr Elacqua says.
But he hopes that it will allow meaningful school improvement in the long-term. “Some schools have high scores because they select good students, and it’s hard to see whether they’re adding any value,” he says. “But a school should provide a good education for all pupils, and in future we’ll know which schools are doing that.”
South Korea: finding balance
This year, for the first time, South Korea’s frequently examined students will see a change of routine. From March, every pupil in their second year at middle school will be given a six‑month exam-free period, when they are aged around 15.
The teenagers will still be expected to attend school as well as gaining work experience, although schools will not be expected to teach them the normal curriculum throughout the day.
The “free-semester policy” is a major change for pupils, who would normally sit two exams in that period. It was piloted in 42 schools in 2013, and has expanded each year. It will be applied nationwide for the first time in 2016.
“The priority is, how can we have students study less but develop creativity and physical, emotional and social competencies?” says Hye-Won Lee, from the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation. She adds that during this period, pupils should “enjoy their lives, find out what they want to do in future, and develop good friendships”.
But there are concerns that some students are using the time to cram in private tuition rather than developing a broader range of skills.
The policy is, in part, a response to the country’s high student suicide levels, which are widely seen as linked to the pressure of high-stakes testing. “We’ve done enough to expand the quantity of education,” Dr Lee says. “Now it’s time to think about the quality of education and the happiness of the students.”