Monthly Archives: December 2011



But Labour critics have little to crow about


The Labour party and Stephen Twigg in particular have criticised the Government over the examination system and sought to make political capital out of the Daily Telegraphs recent expose suggesting that some examiners were not sticking by the rules and giving too much assistance to teachers while suggesting exams were easy.  However  Warwick Mansell, education journalist at the Guardian and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing’, reported similar malpractice back in 2009 during the Labour administration.“This is the third time it’s come out now,”  Mansell told FE Week recently . “So I’m not surprised it’s still happening to be honest with you, these things get exposed, but it’s a question of whether anyone is actually doing anything.”  Mansell added: “I haven’t picked up on the fact that really anything much has changed.”

It is common knowledge that some exam boards are perceived as easier than others. It is also known that there is a cottage industry in  which examiners supply teachers, who are willing, that is,  to pay a fee, heavy hints on how to get the best grades for their pupils more often than not by  providing formulaic answers to questions or heavy hints on what might appear in exam papers. Creative and lateral thinking or what Professor Ken Robinson has described as ‘divergent thinking’  is not encouraged.   It is all a bit of a mess and needs urgent attention. But finding a solution remains    a significant   and pressing challenge and knee jerk responses, such as calling for a single exam body, will probably create more problems than it solves.



But are private schools better?

Importance attached to English Language proficiency


More than half of Emirati parents in Dubai choose to send their children to private schools, despite free education being provided at public schools,  according to a new  report- ‘In Search of Good Education-Why Emirati parents  choose private schools in Dubai.’ It is the first such study conducted by Emirati researchers with Emirati parents.

Tony McAleavy, CFBT Education Trusts Education Director, writes in the preface to this report ‘ In 2004, the World Bank’s Development Report identified two different forms of accountability which can  both be applied to school inspection. Providers of public services are accountable to the public via the institutions of government. This is the so-called ‘long route of accountability’. Government bodies should establish a form of compact or contract with schools whereby the provision of resources to government schools and the licence to operate for private schools are linked to the measurement of performance. The government acts on behalf of parents and students. Among other data sources, government bodies need to listen carefully to parents’ voices and should use this data when regulating school performance. They should use hard data and the perspective of service users – in this case parents – to hold schools, both government  and private, to account. This report provides important evidence about what ‘service users’ are looking for from an education system.  The high parental demand for private education in Dubai is a unique phenomenon amongst education  systems around the world and understanding why they choose the schools that they do is vital in ensuring   high quality education for the young people of the Emirate.’

Dr Abdulla al Karam of the KHDA writes ‘   Understanding the reasons why UAE national parents choose to invest in a private  education for their children is critical to help KHDA ensure access to the choice of school that parents desire  for their children, now and into the future.  Through research such as in this report, we are learning to  understand the context, preferences and deeper values that influence parents’ decision-making which in  turn helps potential investors understand the specific needs of Emiratis’.

Data collected from the 2010-2011 annual school census indicate that 28,983 Emirati students attend a private school in Dubai. From 2003 to 2010, the number of Emirati students in government schools plunged  by 15% while in private schools it has increased by more than 75% Annual data also point  to the fact that two thirds of Emirati students (22,141) go to just 22 private schools out of the 148 private schools in Dubai. According to the annual school census (2010-2011), 57 per cent of Emirati students (28,983 students) attend private schools, the report says.

Emirati parents base their preference for a private school principally on their perception that the school will provide their children with better learning and teaching, better English language instruction and better school leadership; and to a lesser degree, on the location of the school and the affordability of the fees. Parents pointed out that they preferred the arrangement of private schools that provided the entire education for their children from KG through grade 12 at the  one school rather than the public system which has separate schools for KG, first cycle, second cycle and  secondary levels.

Parents expect private schools to provide a safe and secure environment. They believe that only a few schools cater for their needs. Therefore most of the UAE students are concentrated in a smaller number of schools that accommodate such needs.

The study also provided additional evidence in support of English language instruction as an incentive for choosing private schools, since in the focus groups, parents placed high emphasis on English language proficiency. The report says ‘ this study English language was the  main subject that Emirati parents considered in choosing a private school though ‘ a  balance between  Arabic and English languages was challenging to find in private schools.’  The distinctive feature of the parents’ view was the importance of cultural values in their decision. They expected the schools to be guardians of social values and to cater for the specific cultural needs of Emiratis.’

However, the report also finds that ‘the perception of parents  that private schools offer a better education does not seem to be matched by the objective assessment of  school inspections.’

Research Report: Kaltham Salem Kenaid

Knowledge & Human Development Authority/CFBT Education Trust

‘In Search of Good Education-Why Emirati parents choose private schools in Dubai.’  (2011)





One of the less attractive US imports


In the States internships- meaning unpaid work experience for mainly graduates (college leavers) which looks good in a CV, have been around for a while. They are increasingly popular here too. Graduates are now expected to have completed at least three or four such internships before applying for a serious paid job. Many internships last just a week or two .Others much longer, up to a year. Generally interns do not get paid anything for their work. Some will get free food and travel costs, but by no means all.  A survey by campaigning group Interns Anonymous found that half of interns –had completed two or more internships. Eighty-six per cent of the 647 people who responded to the online survey said their internship lasted over a month. A further 12% said they had completed a six-month placement recently.  Employment law is clear on pay. If people are adding value to a company they can be deemed workers and should be paid at least the national minimum wage. As the Guardian has revealed, the government’s own lawyers believe most interns are workers and should be paid, but the survey – the biggest of its kind so far – found that most interns only received expenses and very few of those who  were paid at or above the minimum wage, which is  currently £6.08 an hour. Only those with supportive parents can really afford to do these internships. So they are not then drivers of social mobility. Who can offer three months of their lives working without pay, living in a big city? Simple answer-only people with alternative financial support.  Simply travelling to and from work and eating will cost a minimum of £50 a week. And this assumes you are paying nothing for accommodation. Straight away that excludes a whole chunk of society. If it looks like exploitation, it probably is. Some graduates are now even  paying for internships. Start-up Etsio has made selling internships its business model. They charge interns up to £100 a day to get work experience in small, specialised businesses. Kit Sadgrove, who manages Etsio, admitted internships were harming social mobility by stopping poorer people from gaining experience but did not believe he was breaching minimum wage laws. “Large companies are typically taking advantage of interns,” he said. “They are replacing paid staff with interns who work for them for six months or longer at a time and they are doing jobs that should be taken up by proper people. We are not doing that.” Some of the worst of the exploiters ironically are the big campaigning charities, the first of course to criticise politicians the city for sharp practice and yet they offer long term internships and don’t pay graduates what they are worth.  One intern who blogged about her experiences did an internship with a leading children’s charity which specialised in getting disadvantaged children into further and higher education, yet the charity could see no problem with expecting interns to work full time and would only pay expenses if the intern asked for them. She found herself in the awkward position of explaining that she was one of those children they currently helped and that working full time on no pay was impossible.

Some employers are clearly taking advantage of interns, deceiving them, offering shallow experiences that won’t actually help them develop their professional skills . They are often dangled the carrot of possible future employment, only to be strung along for weeks, and not offered a job at the end of it .Some Interns appear to be trapped in a cycle of getting within sniffing distance of paid work, only to be replaced with the next cohort of ‘free’ interns with graduate level skills.  Interns provide a huge amount of the low level labour required in many professions, and do the job of a normal worker rather than just ‘shadowing’ one. If this is the case then it is almost certainly illegal.  There are those who praise internships.  They provide a chance to gain knowledge, skills and confidence in the transition from education to employment. They allow students to test the water in a particular profession before making a firm career choice.   They are not truly exploitative as internships are entirely voluntary.  Maybe.  But how voluntary are they, if employers are now expecting students to have done a number of internships before they apply for any job? That doesn’t look voluntary to me. How voluntary is it if its expected on the CV? Most interns do unpaid work because they believe, with some justification, that this is what is now expected of them in the employment market and among recruiters.

Here’s a case study. An intern,  with a good Degree, working as  a runner for a  reputable film production company was asked to  organise  temporary  staff security  for some location shots at night  in central  London. He organised this, and was himself   part of the team providing security cover over several hours. Those he recruited were paid. He wasn’t.  Why?  Because err.. he was  an ‘unpaid’  intern. He did the same work as the others and clearly added value, undertaking a task that otherwise would have been undertaken by a paid member of staff – so clearly he should have been paid. No argument.  But , sadly, and this isn’t news to most reading this, this kind of exploitative behaviour is widespread-if you don’t believe me talk to recent graduates.   With this logic at work within seemingly reputable companies we ought to wake up and smell the coffee -we have a problem- its called exploitation – and with unemployment for those aged 16-24 at 22%, this exploitation looks likely to increase rather than diminish.  In a recent poll held by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the professional body for careers staff in 130 institutions, 85% thought the government should clamp down on unpaid internships.  Agcas believes that unpaid internships are not just exploitative of individuals, but also restrict social mobility as they are disproportionately difficult for graduates from lower socioeconomic groups to take up. Agcas advises its members that they shouldn’t advertise or broker internships that contravene legislation. The Association also urges the government to take action on employers offering unpaid internships illegally and, if appropriate, to review policy and legislation so the benefits of these are available to all.  Why are politicians and the mainstream media so quiet about this issue – could it be because they employ interns?  Internships may have worth for both the individuals concerned and those who employ them-but we surely need to address the issue of exploitation sooner rather than later.



Do parents want choice?

And what effect does competition have?


The issue of choice and competition in the state education system is a focus for continuing and often ill-tempered debate, generating more heat than light.

A recent survey has sparked off another round of exchanges.  More than eight in 10 people think parents should send their children to the nearest state school, according to findings from the first survey to gauge Britons’ attitudes to school choice in detail. The new data, released from the British Social Attitudes Survey, shows that 63 per cent take this view outright, with a further 22 per cent saying they would agree if the quality of different schools and their social mix of pupils was more equal. The survey asked around 2,000 members of the British public about a parent’s ‘right to choose’ and found that attitudes were ambivalent and to some extent contradictory. While a large majority favoured children attending the local state school, there was also broad support for the concept of choice, with 68 per cent agreeing that parents should have a basic right to choose their child’s school and 50 per cent agreeing that parents have a duty to choose ‘the best possible’ school for their child, even if other schools in the local area might suffer. Dr Sonia Exley of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who led the Economic and Social Research Council-funded study, said the apparent difference showed that parents do not necessarily want to have to make choices over schools. She said: “People do believe that they ought to have a ‘right to choose’, particularly where they are not happy with their local school. However, public feeling also seems to be that if schools were of an equal and acceptable standard then choice wouldn’t be necessary.” “Parents don’t necessarily want to have to make active choices in order to secure a good school for their child; they just want their nearest school to be good enough. Government promotion of choice as an agenda diverts attention away from the bigger issue of why this isn’t the case.” She is probably right in her assessment. In an ideal world people don’t want to have to choose-ideally they want a good school on their doorstep which they can get their child into..  so no real surprise there then. But rather too many parents don’t manage this as things stand.

In terms of priorities, only four per cent think that making sure ‘parents have a lot of choice about the kind of school their child goes to’ should be the number one concern for schools. When it comes to choosing a secondary school, seven in ten (69 per cent) do believe that parents ought to put the needs and interests of their own child first. However, six in ten (60 per cent) also believe that parents ought to balance this concern against the needs and interests of other children. Hence, the contradictory responses. My bet is that when push comes to shove and they are confronted with the need to make a real choice rather than answering a pollsters question, nine out of ten parents will do what they believe to be  is in their child’s’ best interests and other considerations  barely feature on their radar.

This survey  doesn’t actually tell us very much.  Its all in the abstract. Of course  parents would like a good local school.  But there is a pretty feeble logic behind the ‘finding’ that parents would prefer that their local school- and every local school- was great, and the implication that this in some way undermines the concept of choice. For choice to be meaningful you should be able to choose to send your child to a school that is not your local school. Not all schools are the same, nor are children, and parents should have a say in how their children are educated-all of which should lead one to the inescapable conclusion that in principle and practice-choice is a good thing. The choice in too many instances now is- take it our leave it. As one leading educator observed the sub-text behind the anti-choice position is that we should just trust the professionals and stop asking awkward questions. The direction of travel though in politics is pro-choice in public services, and for services to be much more responsive to consumer’s needs.

While governments may have an obvious interest in promoting and financing the market for education, it does not necessarily follow that the public sector must have a role, or indeed a monopoly role, as some unions and politicians  believe,  in providing that education. Indeed, in many countries, including developing countries, there are other providers of education, such as church schools, home schools, and private schools, both for-profit and not-for-profit .In many of the poorest regions parents seek education for children not in  the state sector but from the private sector (see footnote)

As Stephen Gibbons, Stephen Machin and Olmo Silva have established there are two main economic arguments for moving from a neighbourhood-based school system – in which pupils attend their local school – to a system based on parental choice.  The first is about allocation: more choice allows better matching of pupils with schools according to personal tastes and pedagogical needs. If every parent can find a school that educates their child at least as effectively as under a neighbourhood based system, then average achievement must improve.

The second argument is about teaching technology: if families are free to choose, then the mechanisms of market discipline will ensure that schools offer high standards. For this to work, school finances (and headteachers’ incentives) must be linked to school popularity via pupil numbers: unpopular schools must lose pupils and money while popular schools gain pupils and additional funding. So schools must innovate and adapt to meet parental demand for ‘quality’ or shrink and ultimately close.

Does it really matter who runs the ‘good’  local school.?  It shouldn’t matter providing it operates in a regulated environment and   within a robust, transparent  accountability framework  .

Education reformers believe that the only way to ensure the standards of all schools improve ,so that you are more likely to get a good school on your doorstep than you are now, is to introduce  real competition, and this in turn improves choice.  Critics, however, say that at best evidence is mixed about the effects of choice and competition on schools and educational outcomes and it has unacceptable consequences in that it exacerbates social divisions and segregation and you end up with sink schools(although arguably we end up with sink schools anyway under the current system).  Reformers will counter saying  that competition works but only when the playing field is level, the market is fair and transparent, resources truly follow the pupil (the consumer), with a separation between funding and provision and schools are allowed to fail. Often systems that introduce competition only do so on a partial basis and don’t satisfy these criteria. So the so called ‘competition’ has a limited effect on outcomes because it is heavily circumscribed and  what you then  have is  a hybrid system, neither one thing nor the other.  School competition in a wholly private market is straightforward to understand and apply. Parents choose a school based on price and quality, and schools are incentivised to make themselves attractive to parents so that they can survive and make a profit.  By contrast, as Rebecca Allen and Simon  Burgess have pointed out government-funded schools have often operated on a very different basis, with administrators assigning pupils to schools, and schools having in effect little incentive to use resources efficiently since they cannot retain surpluses. Elements of competition can be introduced into this environment, however, through the separation of funding and provision. Parents choose schools and schools receive funding for each pupil they attract. The idea is for popular schools to grow and unpopular schools to close, so mimicking the effects of true competition. This market-like, or quasi-market, mechanism combines some elements of market competition and some bureaucratic elements (Glennerster, 1991; Le Grand, 1991)

So the international evidence, according at least to Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess,   is mixed on the effects of competition. Indeed UK evidence, they claim, suggests that there is at the very best a weak and small positive effect of competition on student outcomes.

However, the picture internationally, according to World Banks leading education economist, Harry Patrinos, is that involving the private sector (when he talks about the private sector we are talking about for profit and not for profits) can improve school performance – through competition, accountability and autonomy – as well as expand access. However, he also notes that without strong systems of accountability, private schools with public funding aren’t likely to produce large gains. The best results, he concludes, come where competition is enhanced through choice, disadvantaged areas are targeted and there is plenty of autonomy at school level.

So if competition can drive up standards – why  doesn’t  it appear to have had much effect in some instances. The answer probably, as I have touched on, lies    in the nature  quality and  extent of that competition.  How much real competition is there?  Is success rewarded and failure punished? Does funding actually  follow the pupil etc.? If these  conditions are satisfied , competition  should   raise standards in poorly performing schools.

True competition, of course, requires a measure of deregulation which would go well beyond the reforms envisaged by this Coalition government. And deregulation is risky for politicians as it has a price attached to it. Some schools will fail.  And risk averse politicians will have to take the flak.  This is what Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess have to say about it:  ‘Radical deregulatory reforms are intuitively appealing, and may produce important long-term benefits that increase levels of parental satisfaction with the schooling system.  However, it is important to note that they are very risky since some ‘innovations’ would necessarily fail.  Therefore, to enable market-based reforms to work in England, society would have to come to terms with greater levels of school failure than exist under a tightly regulated system.  And policy makers would need to work to ensure that critical regulatory measures are in place to ensure that the life chances are not damaged for children who happen to find themselves in failing schools.’  Those who want to introduce much more competition into the market are aware that   competition has to be regulated.  How much regulation and ensuring that  regulation   protects the most disadvantaged are , of course, contentious issues.   But we know that markets don’t work well when they are unregulated . Indeed evidence suggests that independent or autonomous schools work best when they are well regulated. It is  possible to harness the strengths of the private sector and the positive effects of competition  within an enabling environment that  protects equity.

And what do Gibbons, Machin and Silva say about schools competing? ’Although there seem to be no general benefits from competition at the primary level – it seems weakly linked to worse performance – we do find some evidence that schools running their own admission systems and characterised by more autonomous governance structures  have higher educational standards in  more competitive markets. And pupils do seem to do better if their secondary school is in an urban environment and not geographically isolated from other schools. On the downside, we have also uncovered evidence that school competition increases inequality, with high and low-ability pupils more segregated in schools that face more competition. This suggests that whatever performance advantages it offers, further expansion of market mechanisms in education may come at the cost of increased social polarisation’

The fact is that evidence across the world (acc  studies from OECD  and World Bank Group)does suggest that competition and school choice, within a properly regulated environment, help improve outcomes. Market mechanisms   can force educational “producers” to deliver services closer to what their clients really want and competition can drive improvement. But there are political risks attached. Competition means, as we have said, that some schools will fail and blame for this failure will probably fall not on the schools themselves, (although it may be justified)  but on the policy and the politicians who have championed the policy. There is also a danger that such reforms have the potential to create increased polarisation unless, that is, they are properly regulated. It is also true that some sections of the population are better than others at using choice to benefit their children. So the greater capacity by some groups to take advantage of choice can potentially widen social divisions.  But on this latter point you don’t deny people choice  simply because some people, who can choose, don’t, or indeed  make the wrong choice ie one that doesn’t in an objective sense benefit their interests . You try to support those  who may not have the capacity to choose and help nudge them, if need be in the right direction. The political and social risks though may explain, to some extent, why real competition in state education is still very much the exception rather than the rule.  Most politicians are risk averse, while progress, whether in education or  elsewhere relies on (managed) risk taking.

As a footnote, it is worth noting that in some of the poorest areas of the world, parents living on the margins choose not to use state schools for their children but choose instead private schools. Professor James Tooley has found that in Nigeria, for example, 41% of pupils go to private schools, and these schools outperform state schools. He found this pattern across the developing world. In many of the poorest and remotest areas private schools far outstripped state schools in terms of both the number of pupils  served and in the quality of provision.

The future of competition and  accountability in education  Rebecca Allen (Institute of Education, University of London)  Simon Burgess (Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol)

CEP research programme by Stephen Gibbons, Stephen Machin and Olmo Silva

The educational impact of parental choice and school competition 2007



Mixed results

But Positive impacts for most disadvantaged


There is an on-gong debate in the States over whether or not Charter schools, which tend to be small and in disadvantaged areas, are more successful that other local public schools. Charter schools are publicly financed, but are freed from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools, such as those involving staffing, curriculum, and budget decisions. In late 2010, more than 5,400 charter schools served about 1.7 million students—about 3.5 percent of all public school students—in 40 states and the District of Columbia. The number of charter schools and students is likely to continue to increase in response to the federal Race to the Top program, first introduced in 2009, which gave states incentives to remove caps on charter school growth in order to compete for millions of dollars in federal grants. It is now accepted that some Charter schools and chains of schools perform better than others and States have been tightening up the laws covering Charter schools to ensure a higher quality threshold. This latest report says that ‘previous  research includes student fixed effects analyses across several school districts or states  (see, for example, Sass 2006; Betts et al. 2006; Bifulco and Ladd 2006; Booker et al. 2007;  Hanushek et al. 2007; Ballou et al. 2008; Zimmer et al. 2009) and lottery-based studies that each focused on a single large urban area (Hoxby and Rockoff 2005; Hoxby et al.  2009; Dobbie and Fryer 2009; Abdulkadiroglu et al. 2009; Angrist et al. 2010). The fixed  effects studies have typically found impacts that were insignificant or negative, while the  lottery-based studies have found impacts that were large and positive.’  This paper presents findings from the first national randomized study of the impacts of charter schools on student achievement, which included 36 charter middle schools across 15 states. The paper compares students who applied and were admitted to these schools through randomized admissions lotteries with students who applied and were not admitted.  It finds that, on average, charter middle schools in the study were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement. However, impacts  varied significantly across schools and students, with positive impacts for more disadvantaged schools and students and negative impacts for the more advantaged. The report concluded that ‘There was also considerable variation in impacts across schools. Those in urban areas or serving more disadvantaged populations had more positive (or less negative) impacts than those in non-urban areas or serving more advantaged populations. These results  provide rigorous evidence for the patterns suggested by previous studies, which have estimated negative or insignificant impacts for geographically diverse samples of charter schools,  but positive impacts for charter schools in urban areas.’  The report included this caveat ‘It is important to keep in mind that charter schools were not randomly selected for the  study, and the resulting sample is thus not nationally representative. The study included only oversubscribed charter schools that held admissions lotteries, and impacts for these schools may differ from impacts of charter schools that are not oversubscribed.’

It is clear that some Charter schools are better than others and this mixed performance has not helped the Charter brand. The  laxity in laws affecting Charter schools which vary between states, and the lack of due diligence-in other words  checking out the providers and their record before signing them up has been a problem but is now being addressed in many states. It is important that the regulatory regime is sound. Only in such an environment will autonomous schools deliver improved outcomes. This is backed by plenty of international evidence.

To see  Charter Schools at their best , at the cutting edge of reform and innovation,  look no further than the  KIPP chain   currently  setting the benchmarks for public education in the USA.


Do Charter Schools Improve Student  Achievement? Evidence from a  National Randomized Study; December 2011; Melissa A. Clark, Philip Gleason,  Christina Clark Tuttle (Mathematica Policy Research);  and Marsha K. Silverberg (U.S. Department  of Education)



Education Reformers look to Finland for inspiration

But Finland holds  some surprises


Ever since Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age 7 and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years, scored at the top of a well-respected OECD Pisa  international test in 2001 in maths, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among educators and policy makers worldwide.

Our own Government admires the Finnish education model and there are plenty of politicians and policy wonks who have visited Finland to see what we can learn. Education tourism is now something of a cottage industry but most educators realise that you cannot simply import another country’s education system to improve outcomes.  Systems operate within a specific  context and culturally specific factors are important. You cannot examine any education system divorced from its political, socio-economic and cultural backdrop. Nonetheless by the same token it would be ridiculous to claim that we have nothing to learn from a system that delivers such consistently outstanding outcomes.

Dr. Sasi Sahlberg ,a prominent Finnish educator and author, puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland’s education success story.  Dr. Sahlberg said in an interview with the New York Times  that  teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master’s program for schoolteachers. “It’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,” he said. Dr Sahlberg said a turning point for Finnish education was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees — and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 percent of whom are unionized, was about $29,000 in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with about $36,000 in the United States. Finland scorns almost all standardized testing before the age of 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7. Given the importance now attached by many educationalists to early interventions this is particularly interesting and appears to go against the grain of current thinking in many other countries. Indeed Finland  seems to be swimming against the tide of many reforms elsewhere. Dr. Sahlberg said another reason the system had succeeded was that “only dead fish follow the stream” — a Finnish expression.  Meaning that Finland is going against the tide of the “global education reform movement,” which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control.

“Education policies here are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top this or that,’ ” he said. “We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.” (think he was joking). Sahlberg cautions against others trying to import the Finnish model-it just isn’t that simple.  You cant import ideas à la carte and then expect results, he says.

Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

He emphasized that Finland’s success is one of basic education, from age 7 until 16, at which point 95 percent of the country goes on to vocational or academic high schools. “The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society,” he said.

Dr Geraldine Hutchinson of CFBT Education Trust  says that  pre-school childcare for working parents  in Finland is of the highest quality for everyone (it is not unusual to find a masters level teacher in this field). The importance given to the care and development of the youngest children is fundamental and that basic tenet is the basis upon which that society is built .There  is a also  thread of egalitarianism that runs through Finnish society, mirrored in its education system.

As the UK is again involved in reviewing its curriculum –the process is not going very well, by the way, as the Review team have been asked to think again by Gove- it is worth noting that Finlands curriculum is short and sweet. A 2010 OECD report ‘Strong Performers And Successful Reformers In Education: Lessons From Pisa For The United States; (‘Finland:  Slow and Steady Reform  for Consistently High Result’) provides some intriguing insights. It reveals that both regular class teachers (grades 1-6) and subject teachers (7-9) exercise an enormous degree of professional discretion and independence when it comes to the curriculum. There is a national core curriculum in Finland, introduced in 2004 but over the past 20 years it has  become  progressively less detailed and prescriptive. (the Preamble ran to 300 pages, see below) The core curriculum also offers some broad criteria for student assessments, but it is teachers who  have the principal responsibility for building systems to continuously assess the progress of students.  Essentially the curriculum is  a framework, leaving education providers and  teachers considerable  latitude to decide what they will teach and how. Teachers select their own textbooks and other instructional materials, for example. Because the only external testing in comprehensive schools is done on a sampling basis and is designed to provide information on the functioning of the system as a whole, assessment in Finnish schools is a classroom responsibility. Teachers are expected to assess their own students on an on-going basis, using the assessment guidelines in the national core curriculum and textbooks.

And pupils are encouraged to take greater ownership and responsibility for their own learning and this is central to the Finnish approach. The following is taken from the preamble to the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, Finland (2004):

‘The learning environment must support the pupil’s growth and learning. it must be physically, psychologically,  and socially safe, and must support the pupil’s health. The objective is to increase pupils’ curiosity and motivation to learn, and to promote their activeness, self-direction, and creativity by offering interesting challenges and  problems. The learning environment must guide pupils in setting their own objectives and evaluating their  own actions. the pupils must be given the chance to participate in the creation and development of their own  learning environment. ‘

This is something of an antidote to  the relatively prescriptive  centrally driven version we  currently have here in which teachers are not  given much say and pupils are certainly not encouraged nor trusted  to take ownership of their own learning. But then again maybe this is a culturally specific phenomenon.


Education Foundation Report

Leading thinkers and practitioners give their visions for education


The Education Foundation claims to be the UK’s first independent, cross party, education think tank. It aims to, rather immodestly,   ‘lead, shape and deliver change and reform in the British education system ‘. It is headed by Andy Fordham and Ty Goddard and  has just published its first report.

Launched last summer with the endorsement of Joel Klein who drove through New York’s school reforms, before joining News International (great timing), the report consists of a number of essays from an eclectic mix of education reformers, thinkers   and practitioners. The preamble to the report says ‘Our first step as a solutions-focused education think tank was to gather a group of thirty-five leading thinkers: an inspiring, influential mix of teachers, policymakers and other practitioners. We asked them three simple but far reaching questions: what’s important?; what works?; and what next?’

Professor Simon Baron Cohen writes of the importance of empathy in education and its teaching as an extra layer to enrich our schools and relationships in and around them. Rachel de Souza focuses on the need for a flexible, progressive and forward-thinking education system, ever open to new ideas and better ways of working. Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall sees harnessing the potential of parents in driving forward the education system. Professor James Tooley warns of the real limitations of the state in delivering education policy and practice. Dr Anthony Seldon wants our schools and universities to move from a factory model to a world class system. Dr Elizabeth Sidwell wants to create a seamless integrated system involving   schools, Further and Higher education.  Jan Hodges says learning by doing should be valued equally with academic learning and high quality technical, practical and vocational learning should be an integral and valued part of every young person’s education, and so on. There are some very interesting contributions here and it is well worth looking at.  Identifying a common thread though, to focus reform energies and efforts, and indeed the future work of the Foundation, which, at its launch, wanted to identify what schools are for in this century, will be something of a challenge. We seem to have lots of visions here, some over- lapping, others not. Still the overarching message that we need more  high quality evidence to inform   policy and practice is sound.

If we want  to  transform our  education system  its not just   about structures ,important though they may be.  We  have to  change  what happens at the sharp end  in the classroom, and  accept that education is so much more than passing tests and exams. For far too many that simple message has yet to get across.

The Journey to Education Reform



Attainment related to  ‘effort’

Later interventions can help too


Simon Burgess of CMPO, at Bristol University, notes that recent research by economists has broadened out from the previous focus on cognitive ability. A great deal of work now has investigated the role of non-cognitive factors in educational attainment. Non-cognitive factors can be identified with personality traits and one of the ‘big 5’ personality traits is ‘conscientiousness’, with the related traits of self-control, accepting delayed gratification, and a strong work ethic. Conscientiousness has been shown to be an excellent predictor of educational attainment and course grades. These aspects of self control and ability to concentrate are clearly related to the broad notion of effort.

Burgess notes that there is a great deal of policy interest in England arising from recent studies of US Charter schools with what is called a “No Excuses” ethos. This includes the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of schools and schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone. These schools all feature a long school day, a longer school year, very selective teacher recruitment, strong norms of behaviour, as well as other characteristics. Some of the profession’s very top researchers have produced evidence showing that such schools produce very powerful positive effects on student achievement. While this overall effect could be due to different aspects of the KIPP/HCZ ethos, says Burgess part of it is very likely to be increased effort from the students. CMPO published some research  recently showing that students perform less well in their crucial GCSE exams in years when there is a major international football tournament taking place.(in effect, their effort slackens)

This matters for a number of reasons. First, unlike genetic characteristics, cognitive ability or non-cognitive traits, effort is almost immediately changeable. Burgess blogs on the results of the recent study- ‘Our results suggest that this could have a big effect. The fact that we find changes in student effort to be very potent in affecting test scores suggests that policy levers to raise effort through incentives or changing school ethos are worth considering seriously. Such interventions would be justified if the low effort resulted from market failures due to lack of information on the returns to schooling, or time-inconsistent discounting.  Second, the importance of a manipulable factor such as effort for adolescents’ educational performance provides evidence of potentially high value policy interventions much later than “early years” policies. This is encouraging, offering some hope that low performing students’ trajectories in life can perhaps be effectively improved even after a difficult environment early in life.’

Most schools understand the importance of developing the non-cognitive skills. Education isn’t just about passing tests and exams, or shouldn’t be. But however you measure attainment and success at school self-disciplined students are the ones who  succeed, even against the odds.    The OECD has established in studies that  ‘ resilient’ pupils can overcome their  social backgrounds to succeed at school.

US academics  Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman looked at the importance of self-discipline in a group of 13- and 14-year-olds from a diverse mixed-ability school. Unsurprisingly, they found that highly self-disciplined adolescents out-performed their more impulsive peers, again and again.  Self-discipline trumps IQ. They found ‘ Self-discipline….accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on final grades held even when controlling for first marking-period grades, achievement-test scores, and measured IQ. These findings suggest a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline.’. The message is that Pupils with self-discipline and resilience succeed at school, and in later life. And schools can help  students develop these non-cognitive skills. But  the way things stand too few do.


Changing structures, while necessary, is insufficient to deliver improved outcomes


Politicians love changing structures in education.  Dr Richard Elmore  of  Harvard University has said ‘ To reformers, changing structures signal practitioners and parents that they are really serious about making important changes. In short, structural changes are politically symbolic. They choose structural changes also because they are easier options to pursue than, for example, closing down low-performing schools and sending children to better ones; hiring high-performing teachers with a common set of beliefs and practices that have produced desired student achievement; firing ineffective teachers and principals. So, reformers like to change structures because, among the array of alternatives available for transforming failing schools into successful ones, they are feasible, readily available, and politically symbolic.’

This seems to be a fair description of why our politicians focus to such an extent on  reforming structures.

Of course there has been an on-going and rather futile debate about standards and structures. Its all about standards not structures, some say. Others say to deliver improved standards you, self-evidently, need the right structures and so on. But surely  its hard not to conclude that standards and structures are two sides of the same coin. Changing structures must have a purpose ,as  it is not an end in itself . And  that purpose must be to improve educational outcomes.  But whatever the structure, educational outcomes wont change unless something changes in the classrooms and in  teaching practice in those classrooms . As Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban says  ‘Findings from research  suggest changing certain structures may be a necessary condition to alter teaching practices but it is hardly a sufficient one.  Researchers have discovered that once new structures are put into place—–teaching practices do not move directly or even necessarily from point A to point B.’

In fact there tends to be relative immobility of teaching practice. Moreover,  according to Cuban, without teaching practices moving the needle of change then the impact on student learning will be  negligible.

A school with freedoms to innovate will not necessarily choose to innovate, or to change teaching practice.  Perhaps one of the disappointments of the Academies initiative here in the UK, thus far, is how few academies are actually using their autonomy and the new freedoms that go with it,  to approach educating pupils differently, changing the learning environment,  or changing teaching practice. This may, of course, have something to do with the fact that some schools have clearly altered their status not because they want genuine autonomy and the  new freedoms to innovate that go with the new status  , but because they want access to  the extra funding that goes with conversion. And Academies do get extra funding. (see Chris Cooks article in FT today).  There is also a suspicion that some autonomous schools have limited capacity to gather evidence and transmit knowledge about practice, or the improvement of practice. Others are simply trying to do the basics as well as they can rather than take any risks.

Larry Cuban talks of barriers to change and the fact that changing structures is just the start ,if you seek improved outcomes.

Why is that? He says ‘ Because other factors come into play to influence what and how teachers teach beyond new structures: Individual teacher beliefs matter. School and district cultures of collaboration matter. How schools are organized matter. School and district leadership matter. These factors combine to create what reformers euphemistically call “barriers” to change, obstacles that reformers must disassemble for routine classroom lessons to become ambitious teaching ventures that produce desired student outcomes.’’

Cuban’s rather harsh conclusion is that ‘Changing structures do not often alter classroom practices and, as a result, hardly lead to improved student learning.’


Private schools and charity status

Another Tribunal Ruling places further pressure on Commission

Better guidance required


Under Labour’s 2006 Charities Act  fee-paying schools are no longer automatically entitled to charitable status. They must prove they provide public benefit,which is fair enough.

The  Charity Commission  issued guidance seeking to show schools and other fee-paying charities how they could meet the new requirement. The guidance subsequently issued by the  Commission  was not, by common consent,  an unalloyed success as the sector, seeking clarity, found none in the guidance . It left the sector confused  while   the Commission,  concurrently, managed to convey the impression that it favoured the granting of what is termed   ‘Direct’ benefit –  ie scholarships and bursaries –over other forms of ‘ Indirect’  benefit- pupils of local state schools benefiting through shared teachers, teaching materials and facilities (particularly teaching facilities) .Bursaries tend to favour the few rather than the many, and  seem to encourage private schools to cherry pick outstanding pupils from state schools, damaging them in the process-an odd manifestation, one would have thought, of ‘public benefit’.

The ISC sought a court judgement challenging the Commissions guidance. In a judgement published in October, the ISC claimed a  partial victory as the tribunal said parts of the Commissions guidance were “erroneous” and should therefore be rewritten, in agreement with the ISC.  It also found that no single test of benefit is possible; hence those seeking a silver bullet solution would end up disappointed. But, as expected, the two sides failed to agree a new wording, resulting in a further court judgement held last week. In the latest ruling, just published, judges told the commission to withdraw “the relevant parts of the guidance… [or] we will make a quashing order”.

It means that though schools are technically still bound by the public benefit rules – the regulator must issue fresh guidance telling them how to comply. It amounts to a pretty severe rap over the knuckles for the Commission.

The relationship between the ISC and Commission is now very poor indeed with the ISC accusing the Commission of not working with it to formulate new wording for the guidance but instead – “ trying to rewrite history” . It has previously accused the Commission of making up the law as it  went along.

The ISC said of the latest judgement, “We trust that this ruling will now persuade the Commission to discharge its duty to hundreds of thousands of charity trustees to produce clear and accurate guidance.  After all, the Commission has a public benefit objective, not a public relations objective.” Ouch!

The Daily Telegraph in a Leader on 7 December called for the removal of the Commissions head, Dame Suzy Leather, regarding her as an obstacle to reform. She has close links to the Labour party, which has made her a particular target for Tories.