Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Where Now For Education?

With the publication of the PISA rankings for education across the world a widespread debate has inevitably ensued. Why is the UK so low? What are we doing wrong? Should we copy [insert miscellaneous country ranked higher than us – there's plenty of choice!]?'

To the latter question I say an emphatic No.  Whilst Korea for example may have higher achieving students than the UK, according to the BBC Breakfast current affairs television programme they also have an alarmingly high suicide rate among the young.  Therefore it can be reasonably assumed that their way is not the right way for everyone.  Apart from which, according to BBC Radio Wales this lunchtime Wales used to be the envy of the world for education and yet now we are the lowest in the UK.  What is required is for us to look back at what we used to do right and correct where we deviated from that path.

Education is a devolved area in the UK with different bodies controlling England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I suggest this is a basic error from which all else grows. My reasoning is simple; I have a friend in Germany where each region has a separate education body as well, and this has resulted in a situation where Saxony is deemed to have harder examinations than others; therefore a high achieving student from Saxony is a more desirable employee than one from another region with perceived lower standards. In the UK this could easily translate into students from one country being preferred over those from another. Only with a cohesive single strategy between all four will this be avoided.

We are also ignoring the basic building blocks of education. I am 43 years old and left mainstream education many years ago. I am also disabled and spent the first seven years up to the age of 12 in Special Education, only at that point entering mainstream education. Previously I have been a somewhat harsh critic of special education, however my experience of the last few years has given me significant pause for thought. At the age of 35 I decided to study for a degree, and given my employment at that time was in the IT sector I chose an IT related discipline and enrolled.

One of the first lectures was in Quantitative Methods and Statistics (QMS) which came as a bit of a shock given that I had not touched a mathematics book for 18 years at that point. More of a surprise was the lecturer's opening gambit of progressing around the room asking students random times table questions. I was in the middle of the thought 'What is she doing?' when it became all too obvious. Many of the students, indeed it seemed the majority, struggled with the answers, and some were incorrect. I remind you at this point that in that room only two of us had at any point been in Special Education, every other student had at that point spent 12 years or more in mainstream education.

The above raises two questions.

a) How could students pass GCSE Mathematics – a core requirement for any degree course not just IT based ones – with such poor mental arithmetic skills?
b) If such basic building blocks are omitted in Mathematics, what else is being ignored in other subjects? Grammar in English? To watch some talent or reality TV shows my answer to that one is an emphatic Yes.

The final point may not seem education based but having given it some thought it could well be at the core of all else, not only education. There has been for many years a culture of not allowing children to fail, or I should say to feel they have failed, be that at sport etc, or academically, and this I believe is a badly flawed concept.

Currently a child goes to school, takes exams and tests and mostly passes due to the lowering of standards to achieve this – whatever anyone says standards have lowered because the pass rate at GCSE and A Level has increased every year for 25 years, and any statistician will tell you no dataset is perfect. If they fail they are consoled and told it doesn't matter 'You'll do better next time..' That child then grows and leaves school, perhaps to go to university, and for the first time is treated like an adult. Adults are not cushioned from failure as they are supposed to know how to deal with it. If you go to an employer having made a mess of a contract tender and cost the company thousands of pounds in lost revenue they won't accept 'I'll do better next time..' they will be more likely to show you the door to find another job.

Consider the difference in contestants on a talent show such as X-Factor. Irrespective of personal opinion on the merits, or lack thereof, of the programme itself, compare how different contestants deal with failure. The older contestants in their late twenties and upwards are upset of course, but the late teens and early twenties are positively distraught, a common wailing refrain being 'My life is over!' between sobs. Of course it isn't but it is likely that this is the first failure that they have had to face in their comparatively short lives because the education system has failed them abysmally in this respect.

If a child fails when they are young they will learn it is not a nice feeling, but that it is a fact of life and will happen to them from time to time and they will learn to deal with it. Should that same child fail academically they will feel the same upset, but rather than be consoled 'it doesn't matter' they will learn that the way to avoid failure is to try harder. It is of course obvious that some will still fail, but the crucial lesson which is often overlooked is simply the satisfaction of knowing you did your best. Fail when you didn't try hard enough or were not pushed to do your best then the path only leads to regret for what might have been. Fail when you know you tried your utmost then the pill is a much less bitter one to swallow.

I strongly believe that a combination of the above factors properly addressed will lead to the UK returning to the higher echelons of the academic world.

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