Lessons in learning
by Matt Grist
A new report by the OECD shows that Britain is falling behind other developed nations in terms of literacy, mathematics and science. The fall-off is quite dramatic and coincides historically with the introduction of New Labour’s education policies. This decline is in marked contrast to other policy areas. For instance, in terms of social mobility, the figures were just starting to turn the party’s way towards the end of their tenure. For core educational attainment, it seems, the more time the policies had to work, the more damage they did.
I am not a fan of simplistic OECD international comparisons of wellbeing and quality of life. But their research into education is well done: researchers test not simply what students know, but how well they can manipulate what they've learned. Unsurprisingly, the UK’s testing-oriented teaching does not fare well under such appraisal. Our schoolchildren just aren't doing enough of what educationalists call ‘deep learning’; the kind of learning that entails mastery of subject, creativity and problem solving. Like our national football teams, the UK’s education system is exposed as mediocre once it steps onto the international stage.
The OECD report picks out three elements essential to excellent education in core subjects: the high status of teachers, institutional autonomy for well-performing schools, and the publishing of individual schools’ results. The last Government did try to meet all these requirements, although it overdid the testing regime. However, anyone who thinks school accountability through testing is not important should consider the fact that Wales has plummeted in terms of core attainment since league tables were abolished in that country.
What went wrong then? Labour did raise teachers’ wages, a good proxy for professional status. But it didn't couple higher salaries with tougher requirements on becoming a teacher and remaining one. A poor candidate should not be allowed into the profession and a bad teacher should not be allowed to limp along indefinitely. And since staff-to-pupil ratios are an irrelevance, according to the OECD report, money spent on teaching assistants would probably be better spent on recruiting high-quality teachers, and then developing them more once they are in the job.
Luckily for Michael Gove a terrible economic outlook is attracting better candidates into teaching. The education secretary needs to seize on this propitious trend and not get too distracted by the idea of ‘free schools’. The bulk of his energies should be spent on creating the necessary delicate balance between excellent teaching and strong external accountability. For, as the OECD report shows, it’s valued, skilled, independent, yet accountable teachers that make all the difference.