Tonight I’m flying to Shanghai as a guest of that magnificent city’s education bureau.
The visit is a sign of the mismatch between the way we view our education system and the way it’s perceived overseas. Shanghai, after all, boasts formidable academic performance. In 2009 and then in 2012, its 15-year-olds were ranked by the international Pisa tests as number one in the world. When you sit in a maths class and watch their 11-year-olds, you can only admire what those children and their teachers can achieve.
Except that my 10-year partnership with top-performing schools in that shimmering city has taught me to be wary of the easy prepackaged international comparisons that are so often used to do ourselves down. When we compare schools in the UK to schools in Shanghai, we aren’t comparing like with like.
On my last visit – as headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk – we videoed a group of English students talking to their Chinese counterparts. You can watch their conversation here. And what you see is young people with great confidence having thoughtful discussions about being a teenager, going to school, achieving success.
You watch and feel proud of these young human beings whether they were born in the UK or China.
But one of the striking features of that last visit was managing to get beneath the surface rhetoric of the international comparisons. We noted, for example, that at weekends around the city’s bustling streets we would keep bumping into students from the schools we were partnered with.
On Saturdays and Sundays, these youngsters weren’t going with friends to the shopping mall or the sports pitch. Instead, they were heading for extra English classes, or science coaching, or violin lessons.
That culture of parent-driven coaching is quite astonishing, built on a philosophy that a Shanghai headteacher expressed to me like this: “Our young people know that it’s their responsibility to achieve more than their parents achieved. China needs them to do this. We tell them they must do this.”
That bracing spirit of aspiration shows up in its deep-rooted coaching culture. It shows up in the late-night homework sessions, the Saturday morning additional classes, the compliant classroom conduct, the respect for the all-important role of the teacher.
Which leads to the question: why is the Shanghai education bureau so keen for me to visit again, this time on behalf of the Association of School and College Leaders and our 19,000 members? What is it about UK education that Shanghai is so fascinated by?
And the answer is that what they see in what we do is what they feel their own education system too often lacks – creativity, independent-thinking, teamwork and autonomy.
In my 10-year partnership with those school leaders in China, I’ve seen them change the way they run their schools, celebrating more the individualism of young people, and building in ingredients that they believe are the new elixir of educational success. Now at lunchtimes and after school, there are clubs and extra-curricular activities. The emphasis on arts education has increased. The children are encouraged to take a more active role in lessons. A culture of student leadership is explicitly promoted.
The features that have made our UK education so distinctive – success in the classroom supported by success in the drama studio, the orchestra, on the sports field, in the debating hall – these are emerging as educational themes in that top-performing city, at a time when they have decided to withdraw as a separate jurisdiction from the PISA tests.
'Liberating and instructive'
As I sit on my plane tonight, I don’t expect to see teaching in Shanghai that is any better than I routinely see in the schools and colleges I visit in the UK. But I will see teachers who teach no more than 50 per cent of a weekly timetable, for whom collaborative planning is built into the school day rather than shoehorned into after-school meetings and training days and for whom being a teacher is regarded as part of a national mission on behalf of the People’s Republic.
Policy tourism – picking up ideas from other countries and assuming they will work in our own classrooms – is always a dangerous thing.
But looking through the eyes of strangers at the education system we too often take for granted can be liberating and instructive. It can make us see how much we do well, how much we should be proud of and how careful we should be not to let a narrow, mechanistic view of education push us to dismantle the very features that much of the rest of the world craves.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton