They say that travel broadens the mind. My participation in the eighth International Summit on the Teaching Profession, which took place this year in Lisbon, certainly did just that. The summit is a unique occasion when education ministers and teacher trade union leaders from across the world get an equal place at the table to discuss and debate education policy.
What became abundantly clear during the course of the two-day conference was that the English education system is a complete outlier when it comes to fundamental elements of education policy. And nowhere is the difference between education policy in England and in other high-performing education systems more pronounced than when it comes to the school curriculum.
Countries that have been lauded by England’s education ministers because of their high rankings in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league tables are now moving away from narrowly academic curriculums. These countries realise that producing generations of knowledge-filled school leavers who lack the essential skills that are essential for successful work in the 21st century is not a sensible or productive option.
Singapore is such a country. Decades of didactic teaching towards high-stakes exams are being replaced by a new focus on the skills that Singapore students need to thrive in the modern world. Singapore has a new education goal – to develop the whole person and to promote the personal attributes of self-awareness, self-management, self-assessment and responsible decision-making. And Singapore is not alone in refocusing the goals of its education system beyond narrow academic confines. So, too, are New Zealand, Japan, Estonia and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario.
As I am writing this, I can imagine the outrage my words will generate amongst the highly vocal supporters of a knowledge-rich curriculum. I can see them taking to Twitter to denounce me for being an enemy of promise, letting down our most vulnerable of children by robbing them of their birthright to learn the best that has been thought or said in our rich cultural heritage.
Such is their zealotry that necessary debate about what principles should underpin curriculum design in England is stifled. People are afraid to put their heads over the parapet.
So, let me be clear. I am not supporting a curriculum based on skills without knowledge. Nor am I advocating the death of subjects.
'Children have a right to learn 21st-century skills'
I am arguing that our children and young people also have a birthright to develop, through their schooling, the skills that are essential to live successful lives in the 21st century.
I am arguing that, if we are to prepare our children and young people for the world they will work in, then we need to think much more creatively about the curriculum.
And, crucially, I am arguing that it is time to ditch the false divide between knowledge and skills. We must acknowledge that we need both.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development strongly supports curricula that develop knowledge and skills. In its background paper for the summit, the OECD asserts: “The future needs to emphasise the integration of subjects and the integration of students. It also needs to be connected so that learning is closely related to real-world contexts and contemporary issues and open to rich resources in the community.”
And tackling the knowledge versus skills debate head-on, the OECD argues: “Educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge creatively in novel situations, and about thinking across the boundaries of subject matter disciplines. If everyone can search for information on the internet, the rewards now come from what people can do with that knowledge."
However, while teachers in England, from their responses to the OECD’s international survey on teacher attitudes, strongly believe that their role is to facilitate their students’ own enquiry, building upon their interests and existing knowledge to develop their learning, England comes top of the international league table for rote memorisation.
This is a huge problem identified by the OECD, which remarks that: “Although memorisation seems to work for the easiest mathematics problems, its success as a learning strategy does not extend much beyond that...As problems become more challenging, students who use memorisation are less likely to be able to solve them correctly."
So, I ask myself the question: why are teachers in England teaching in a way that diametrically opposes their beliefs about effective teaching and learning? Why does England top the memorisation league table?
And I conclude that the cause lies in the nature of the curriculum and its assessment through timed tests on which the careers of individual teachers and the perceived success of their school are judged.
If, as a teacher, test results determine your career progression, you have no other option than to make sure that your pupils do as well as possible in the test – which leads to a surfeit of practice papers, revision, rote learning and memorisation.
The consequences, for our children and young people, and for our teachers, are huge. Child and adolescent mental ill health is becoming an ever-greater problem, fuelled, in part, by the pressures of an education system that fails to provide them with a broad and balanced curriculum and that is over pressurised by the regression to high-stakes tests to determine young people’s futures.
The increase in setting and streaming by ability is another negative consequence – particularly for pupils who already suffer economic and social disadvantage in their home lives, and who are disproportionately likely to be placed in lower sets in school where they learn a narrower curriculum and are less likely to be taught by a subject specialist teacher.
And teachers leave the profession in droves – burnt out not only by excessive workload, but also by the compulsion to teach and assess children and young people in ways that are incongruent with their beliefs about teaching and learning.
Sooner, rather than later, the effects of the current government’s education policy on curriculum and assessment will become too marked to ignore. Until this happens, damage will continue to be done to the next generation, and to the teachers who they need to teach them.
And the rest of the world will continue to look on, bemused, at the harm we are doing to ourselves economically and socially.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU