UK education systems are different – more Home Nations than Team GB. But can we learn and gain from our close neighbours as much as from other countries?
The UK as a whole (for as long as it now lasts) has created some of the world’s best schools, college and universities. Exports of education, training technologies and expertise are as healthy as exports from our financial services. So why don’t we celebrate such achievements and learn more from domestic success stories?
Education Britain has a proud heritage, and devolution has been a source of strength, learning and new ideas. Policies may diverge and often have a different emphasis, but there are areas of real strength in each system. While politicians talk of the breakdown of the UK, our education narratives should be a source of positive debate, not disunity.
We have also developed a wealth of national education treasures that are often overlooked. These include: approaches to special educational needs and disability; vocational and further education and work-based learning; after-school and informal learning programmes; and the education opportunities provided by cultural and sporting institutions.
There’s also a deeper realisation across the jurisdictions that we need to do better, and that policies for improving attainment have to reach into the classroom. There’s too much in-school variation, and accessible, useful, relevant CPD is a major priority.
Transparency is also key. I admire the fact that the Welsh and Scottish governments have opened themselves up for scrutiny by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. And with the next round of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) testing underway, let us view it as a useful snapshot, but not a sacred text.
As we scrutinise global league tables, it is easy to forget that our own nations succeed in effectively educating millions of young people. This is testament to the commitment of those who work every day in education across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A national discourse of respect for the educator is in itself a powerful motivator of change.
So what of the future? England’s recent White Paper is about more than just the headline academisation. There is an emphasis on consolidating partnerships in a diverse school system. Unlike in other countries, the role of the local authority is in decline. It is a sign of maturity to recognise that we need system integrators such as teaching schools.
The work on the Northern Irish curriculum in terms of active learning and teaching methods across key stages is a significant marker in supporting teachers to be creative curriculum developers. It’s also important in optimising lifelong learning, and developing pupils’ personal capabilities and thinking skills as part of a well-rounded education.
Reform in the round
Positive work in Wales on developing the Welsh language and building a coherent education technology sector, with new digital competences built into the curriculum, is a real signpost to the future. Ed tech that is understood and owned by educators could be key to unlocking stubborn policy challenges.
I’m also heartened by the Scottish first minister’s commitment to education success. Nicola Sturgeon declared in May that closing the attainment gap would be “the mission, not just of this government or even this Parliament but of the country as a whole”.
Political leadership is key, as is an analysis of just how much reform a system can absorb. There is a growing awareness that reform has to be seen in the round, and there is ample evidence across Britain that this is understood. Dynamic new political leaders will add much to the journey to education reform, consolidating and inspiring change.
A key task is to convince our communities that education is good for the individual and good for the country. The ambition for Education Britain is to articulate what it means to be a forward-looking education nation.
Do we not, though, despite different systems, still have major challenges in common?
Poverty is still too often destiny. The achievement gap is a real chasm in some places. Not only are formal routes blocked for some but informal networks don’t exist for many. Can you reform an education system without a coherent anti-poverty and family-support strategy?
Education reform is complex. It’s a long haul – so is social justice – and is rarely successful if merely taken off the shelf. Let’s not fetishise ancient Greece or modern Finland.
The world of work, too, is changing rapidly. New patterns of work, older industries under pressure and the rise of strong digital sectors suggest a vital connecting role for local and regional government across our nations. Are we using all our local, regional and national assets to support and inspire learners?
Skills shortages across science, technology, engineering and maths, which blunt economic growth, should lead to the end of vocational skills being diminished. Employer-led local enterprise partnerships in England may provide a useful model for strategic employer engagement. University technical colleges, when they properly connect with the needs of the world of work, really build on the heritage of older systems. What is the proper role of employer engagement and employability skills in a crowded curriculum?
Technology that supports success in maths by differentiation will grow. So, too, will technology to test understanding of subject knowledge in real time. Language learning will be enhanced. Virtual reality will break through to the mainstream. FutureLearn and its UK and global university partners provide concrete examples of the potential of online social learning. Its growth is a UK success story and can be harnessed imaginatively.
We are only beginning to understand how pragmatic use of technology can support teachers and enhance learning. For a significant minority, education has yet to deliver.
As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s 2015 report (bit.ly/StateOfNation) says: “It feels like Britain faces an existential crisis about what sort of society we want to be. There is much talk of less elitism and more equality, of less poverty and more mobility. But willing the ends without the means is a recipe for more division, not less. It is the job of employers, educators and policymakers to reconcile the ends they aspire to see with the means they are willing to deploy.”
Despite some progress, the report continues, the lack of social mobility affects “Middle England as much as Wales or Scotland. It affects rural communities as well as urban ones. At every level, ours is a small country characterised by a large divide.”
We cannot afford complacency at any level. Education systems can be fragile, and are often framed by old arguments that focus on division rather than consensus and collaboration. Too much energy is wasted, taking critical focus away from solving major challenges.
The choices we make today will determine the shape and success of the UK education system for a generation. We need new solutions, new ways of working and fresh thinking. We’ll also need respect for the past and the urgency to plan for our mutual futures.
Education nations across Britain should be a source of richness and learning, and not a reason to turn inwards. We hope that our Education Britain Summit, held on 6 July in partnership with the Department for Education and TES, will shine a strong light on where we should all go next.
Ty Goddard is a co-founder of the Education Foundation. For details on the Education Britain Summit, see bit.ly/SummitEdu