It is an article of faith among politicians, and among teachers, that every child in Britain has the potential to succeed.
But the thing is, we don’t really believe it. Otherwise we would be scandalised by the latest PISA test results, rather than just resigned.
These results showed – as they do year after year – that around one in five 15-year-olds in England are not meeting the very basic standards in numeracy and literacy (this year the proportions were 22 per cent and 18 per cent respectively). These are the children in the bottom sets, those for whom the idea of getting five A* to C grades at GCSE, the target set out by the government, is a fantasy.
They are also the children we are, in effect, writing off.
The Government’s suggestion of bringing back grammar schools makes this explicit: the whole rationale is to offer a refuge for those poor children that do have academic potential, by letting them leave the others behind.
But when you look at those international tests of reading, maths and science, the latest of which came out today, you find something surprising.
Over the past three years, while researching my new book, I’ve spent time working in schools in five of the countries that do best in the PISA tests. Places where far fewer children leave school with only the lowest levels of achievement. Places that don’t have a long tail of underachievement, dragging them back in the international rankings. Places that manage not only to have the lowest proportion of low performers but among the highest proportion of high performers, too. Places like Finland, Canada, Japan and Shanghai, in China.
So what are we not doing that these countries are?
The first thing is that these countries have a fundamentally different idea about what is possible.
At the moment, when we see that other countries are doing better than us, we reach for excuses.
Ah, we say, but Finland is small! Yes, but Japan isn’t. Japan is mono-cultural! Yes, but Canada isn’t. Canada is rich! Yes, but so are we.
There are obviously various local factors that will make high educational standards easier to reach in each of these places (levels of parental engagement, for example). But there are also deeper problems that prevents Britain performing at its best, pushing us down the PISA rankings.
The journey towards maximising our potential starts with the same kind of fundamental shift that Finland undertook in the 1970s, when it realised that it was a small country which couldn’t afford to leave anyone behind.
Finland got rid of its grammar school system, and introduced comprehensive education up to 15. It got rid of the practice of streaming children into different classes based on their ability pretty soon afterwards.
Yet these weren’t comps in the traditional British sense. The Finns introduced intensive training for all of their teachers during this initial shift, redefining the role of the teacher, reskilling them so that they were able to cater for the differing needs of students in one class.
To this day, they employ, in every school, additional teachers whose job it is to work closely with those at risk of falling behind. They invest in excellent textbooks and educational materials, freeing up the teacher’s time to work with those that need individual attention, during and after class.
In East Asia, they have similarly excellent results. There, one of their key advantages is cultural – the belief that anyone can achieve with the right input and effort.
There is a Chinese saying, “A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier.” This is not a naïve belief that all are born equal, but the acknowledgement that one’s starting point needn’t determine one’s longer-term outcomes.
Dr Stephen Heine asked Western and Japanese people what percentage of intelligence is due to effort, and what is due to natural ability. The Japanese participants said that 55 per cent was due to effort – compared to just 36 per cent in the West.
But Asia’s high performance also stems from the nature of their education system. The Japanese, like the Finns, run a comprehensive education system – theirs has no streaming until the age of 16.
In fact, in its policy implications from PISA, the OECD suggests today that “all students, whether immigrant or non-immigrant, advantaged or disadvantaged, would also benefit from a more limited application of policies that sort students into different programme tracks or schools, particularly if these policies are applied in the earliest years of secondary school.”
When Poland delayed school selection by just one year, it was estimated by the World Bank to have led to gains in PISA scores of over 120 points: “a dramatic improvement, hardly comparable to effects of any known educational policy”.
This is not – repeat, not – an argument that comprehensive education is a silver bullet (as the case of the UK clearly demonstrates…). Rather, it is an argument that the most successful education systems around the world are those that aim to hold all children to higher standards.
For example, I’ve mentioned teacher training and textbooks in relation to Finland. Both also play a key role in Japan, Singapore and Shanghai, with teachers meeting to plan lessons together, and feeding back on each other’s teaching performance as a route to continuous improvement.
In Finland and Canada, additional teachers are employed to give extra support to those needing individual attention – but in East Asia this role is taken on by the teachers themselves, who teach fewer lessons, freeing up more time in the day.
If, after this input, students still haven’t reached the required standards, private tutors step in where the family can afford it.
A key difference between these places and the UK is that the class is expected to progress as a unit – there is less in the curriculum, meaning that there is time for everyone to get to grips with a topic before the class moves on. That allows those that are ahead of the rest to gain a deeper understanding and mastery of each concept through further application, or through teaching their slower peers.
We are fond, in Britain, of the argument that our poor showing in numeracy and literacy is to do with our size, our demographics, or our economic situation. But these are just excuses.
The fundamental problem is that we are willing to accept a situation in which we write off the worst performers – who thereby drag the rest of our pupils down with them.
Which is also why a move back towards grammar schools would be a step further away from our most successful competitors, and towards educational isolationism.