Roy Blatchford: Who sits at the international top table in 2017?

Roy Blatchford reviews ‘CleverLands‘ by Lucy Crehan and reflects on culture and systems in education.

‘CleverLands’ is a seriously important book on 21st century global education.

The text is destined to be much quoted and widely debated. It is handsomely written and combines engaging personal travelogue with trenchant research. With her first person narrative and disarming title, Lucy Crehan has pulled off something original in educational studies.

Her starting point was professional frustration working in an inner London comprehensive, where systems of accountability strangled her own and fellow teachers’ best efforts and practices. So she set out to interrogate first-hand what she describes as ‘the world’s education superpowers’ as measured by their performance in PISA – international tests in reading, maths and science for fifteen year olds. (The author is quick to point out that school success is not only to be measured in international test results.)

Would the grass be greener, for students and teachers, in Canada, Finland, Singapore, China or Japan? Spending what a friend described as ‘a geeky gap year’, Crehan engagingly invites herself into schools across three continents. And she sees keenly, informed by her evident research knowledge of psychology and how motivation plays in learning.

On a personal note she concludes that Canada, with its sense of balance between the teaching of academic content and broader social and moral skills and traits, and balanced accountability for school leaders, is where she would choose to educate her own future children. On a professional educator front, she concludes that each of these countries has much to teach the rest of the world about how they organise and deliver primary and secondary schooling.

To quote a few examples amongst many. Visiting Finland the author is singularly impressed by the focus on play in the early years, and by the high quality of support for children with special needs. In Japan she is struck by their deep belief that everyone is intellectually equal, and by the thoughtful use of ‘lesson study’ in schools.

In Singapore, it is the exemplary teacher training and role of Master Teachers which draw the author’s eye, while in China students’ work ethic and the maths lessons of demonstration, modelling and practice impress her. And in Canada it is kindergarten quality, positive relationships in schools, and approaches to assessment and accountability which are distinctive.

The harsh discipline of Japan’s junior high schools, undue pressure on young Singaporeans, exam cheating in China, the over-emphasis on discovery learning in Canada – these aspects are covered with an equally questioning eye, the author seeking to disentangle stereotype and reality through social conversations with parents and students.

Chapter 17 is titled ‘Five Principles for High-Performing, Equitable Education Systems’ (note the adjective ‘equitable’) and one which national and international researchers will readily seize upon. Crehan identifies with conviction what she concludes are the key ingredients of built-to-succeed school systems: getting children ready for formal learning; designing curricula contexts for mastery; supporting children to take on challenges, rather than making concessions; treating teachers as professionals; combining school accountability with school support.

The book’s analysis of each of these ingredients is open-minded, perceptive and well judged. Naturally the reader in England will reflect how much of this cocktail applies to our own education system. For a wider audience, can politicians and education leaders, in any jurisdiction, cherry pick the best features from elsewhere and embed them in a different society?

Reading and rereading Crehan’s excellently referenced text, I am left pondering two key inter-connecting questions.

First: Is relative decline inevitable in high performing school systems?

Most readers of ‘Cleverlands’ will be familiar with the work of Jim Collins. In his best sellers ‘Built to Last‘ and ‘Good to Great‘ Collins celebrated the achievements of major US companies in the 1980s and 1990s. However, into the 21st century, many fell from grace, reputation and profitability, about which he was subsequently moved to write in ‘How the Mighty Fall‘. Collins identified ‘five stages of decline’ from hubris born of success, through denial of risk and peril, to irrelevance or death.

Crehan chose her five countries to visit based on the 2012 PISA results. The recently published 2015 results indicate that these countries remain more or less at the top table, though Finland has dropped out of the Top 10 in maths (and what is going on in Estonia?!). Will the trends continue through the 2020s and 2030s?

Readers familiar with Albert Hirschman’s writings will recognise this line of questioning. Hirschman argues that organisations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, to a gradual loss of efficiency and energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.

Second: Can certain countries ever join the top table?

Crehan concludes her vivid panorama of five significant education systems with the words: ‘To attribute these countries’ enviable outcomes to culture and dismiss their value as models would be a grave mistake. Culture can change‘. She optimistically cites examples from Finland, China and Singapore where schooling and teaching were once less highly prized than they are today.

Can the author realistically envisage countries such as Mexico, Tunisia and Indonesia (low attainers in 2015 PISA rankings) ever making that cultural leap to transform systems in order that their students compete with those in Japan, Korea and New Zealand? World leaders are asking that very question.

In my experience of international education, culture does indeed trump systems. No matter what education reformers may do, even inspired by this book, for some time to come PISA’s upper echelons will stay out of reach to young people born in certain global settings.

Cleverlands’ is recently published by Unbound.

Recommended companion reading: ‘The Spirit Level‘ by Pickett & Wilkinson; ‘Room at the Top‘ by Deborah Eyre; ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty‘ by Albert Hirschman.

Roy Blatchford is Founding Director of the National Education Trust, and author of ‘The Restless School’, published by John Catt.

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