02 September 2012

A Good Education is Essential for a Bright Future

"I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way..."

Attention had been drawn to the failures of the UK education system following the row over the marking of GCSE English grades this summer. Exam boards may face a legal challenge after changing grade boundaries between January and June. This meant that pupils who sat the exam in January were marked more generously than those who took the exam in June. This is awful for all the young people personally affected by what has happened this year, but there has been concern about inadequacies in the British education system for a while now, and perhaps the public outrage over this will finally bring about change. The Head of one school said that GSCEs are "insufficiently rigorous" while Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Head of Ofsted stated that this is an opportunity to look at the UK's education system and ask "whether it stands up with the best in the world." International tests have shown that it does not.
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UK Standards have Slipped

Back in 2010, it was reported that UK schools had slipped down in world rankings, following the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests in 2009. These tests, held every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are taken by fifteen year olds in participating countries and economies. British school children were ranked 23rd in the world, down from 12th in 2000. In an increasingly globalised world, this is worrying for the future prospects for the children and young people educated in Britain. As Sir Michael Wilshaw observed:

"Our youngsters, when they leave school, will be going into a global marketplace, they have to compete not just against competitors here but against the rest of the world."

So who are the children who are receiving the best education today, that will allow them to compete the most successfully when they enter the workforce tomorrow? 

Leading the Way 

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The late Whitney Houston sang the lyrics which are at the top of this post as part of her song, "The Children Are Our Future." The children who are taught well will be able to lead the way. According to a BBC News article, those children are likely to be from China. The article, entitled 'China: The World's Cleverest Country?' states that Shanghai came top in the 2009 Pisa tests. The results from this round should be published late next year. 

The article showed the leaders in previous years. Other than Finland, all of the top performing pupils are from Eastern Asia. The following are the results in three areas tested: reading, maths and science, respectively.
  • 2000: Finland, Japan, South Korea
  • 2003: Finland, Hong Kong, Finland
  • 2006: South Korea, Taipei, Finland
  • 2009: Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai
It was questioned whether Shanghai's results would be representative of other, less prosperous areas of China. However,  Andreas Schleicher, the head of Pisa, said that unpublished test results from nine provinces in China show that pupils in other parts of the country are performing strongly, including those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. This is an important point, which I will come back to.

Investing in our Children; Investing in Our Future

Investing in an education system will have long-term benefits for a state's economy, as it will lead to producing skilled workers, who are able to compete in a global economy. President Obama has said that: 

"...countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Businesses will hire wherever the highly-skilled, highly-trained workers are located."

Some countries give greater priority to investing in their education systems than others. On a recent trip to a poor province in China, Schleicher saw that schools were often the most impressive buildings, whereas in the West, these were more likely to be shopping centres. He said of China: 

"You get an image of a society that is investing in its future, rather than in current consumption."

Subsidising consumption, whilst cutting funding to areas such as education, is a pattern journalist and author, Fareed Zakaria, has noticed in the US. He said that decisions and policies made in the 1950s and '60s, which led to the development of a great public education system and to massive funding for science and technology, were some of the important factors which allowed America's economic growth. Now, Zakaria said, countries including Germany, South Korea and China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. If the US continues to cut investments in these areas, it will fall behind.

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So how is the UK doing in terms of expenditure on education? National budget cuts in response to the recession have affected the education system. Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a report, "Trends in Education and Schools Spending" which looked at proposed cuts and their impact. Last month, a Guardian article expressed worries over cuts to the Department for Education's capital budget. It is not just investment itself in the education system that is a concern, but the ability to invest wisely. After the Pisa assessment in 2009, Toby Young, a Telegraph blogger, pointed out that the UK was ranked 8th when it comes to spending per pupil, but its position in the league table was 23rd. The UK spent an average of $60,000 per pupil, between the ages of six and fifteen, compared to $40,000 in Poland and Estonia, but Poland and Estonia were both ranked higher than the UK in the league table. Only seven other OECD countries spent more per pupil than the UK, showing there are more factors to take into consideration than funding alone.

Improving the Education System

Keeping Standards High

Long before the issue of the grading of GSCEs this summer, people have argued that there has been a "dumbing down" of exams in the UK. A report by Ofqual, released in May, which investigated certain subjects at GCSE and A Level showed that they had become less demanding over the last decade. Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Dean of the University of the Free State, South Africa, said in a CNN interview, that in South Africa, the standards are low, with pupils being able to pass some subjects with thirty or forty per cent, all the way up to grade twelve. He commented:

"... it's like we don't get it that in a modern interconnected economy you better be up there playing with the best"

Lowering standards and "dumbing down" exams degrades a country's education system and affects the future of everyone who goes through it. 

Another issue is where educational standards are lowered for part of the population. As I mentioned above, results in China showed pupils were performing strongly, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A problem in the UK, the US and some other Western countries is that expectations have been lowered for pupils from underprivileged backgrounds.  Demanding high standards from pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds allows these pupils to do well, despite their difficult circumstances. In various countries, including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Finland, OECD researchers found that more that 40% of disadvantaged pupils excelled at school, exceeding expectations, given their background. The UK, however, was found to have a greater variation in reading standards, due to class differences, than almost any other country in the OECD. In this area, just 24% of pupils in the UK performed better than would be expected given their backgrounds. Schleicher has said that accepting lower expectations for poorer children was - 

"the big trap in the 1970s. It was giving the disadvantaged child an excuse - you come from a poor background, so we'll lower the horizon for you, we'll make it easier. But that child has still got to compete in a national labour market."

Lowering standards has long-term detriments for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, ultimately making it more difficult for them to succeed in the future.

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Good Examples

Other factors also come into play, with regards to increasing the standard of an educational system overall. South Korea, for example, has done well in the league tables. South Korean pupils attend school 220 days per year, compared to the US's 180. South Korean pupils also study at least three hours more than those in the US, per school day. South Korea may be well ahead of the UK and the US in Pisa's rankings for its test scores, but it comes 24th out of thirty developed countries for "study effectiveness". Finland is ranked at the top for study effectiveness, but has the least number of school hours in the developed world. 

Some distinctive elements of the Finnish system include: 

  • the fact that children of all abilities are taught in the same class; 
  • there are no school league tables and only one set of public exams; 
  • children usually have the same teacher from year to year; 
  • the state prescribes the curriculum but teachers are free to decide how to teach a subject; and 
  • the high standard of teaching, with teachers being drawn from the top 10% of graduates and also being required to have a master's degree.
You can see more facts about the Finnish education system hereThe UK Government has been reported as being inspired by the Finnish system. The OECD has said that the quality of teachers is key to raising education standards. Schleicher stated that teachers need to be given "status, pay and professional autonomy." Finland and Singapore recruit high-achieving students to the teaching profession and have two of the most successful education systems in the world.

Another of Schleicher's recommendations is to partner top-performing schools with less successful schools in the area. In the UK, some schools are "coasting" along and "doing so-so." There is room for improvement and partnering with schools that are performing well has proved to be a very successful strategy in Shanghai.

A Good Education

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A good education will equip children and young people with the skills to compete in the global market, but we must not forget the other aims of education too. Martha Nussbaum reminds us in her book "Not for Profit" that:

"Anxiously focused on national economic growth, we increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticise authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalised and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems. And the loss of these basic capacities jeopardises the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world."

This will now be a big challenge to achieve, but it is so important to be able to give young people the skills they need for the future and the tools they need to be good citizens and productive members of the global society. As well as improving the quality of education so that it teaches these qualities, all pupils must benefit from the education system. Commenting on the success of the Chinese system,  Schleicher said:

"Anyone can create an education system where a few at the top succeed, but the real challenge is to push through the entire cohort."

I, along with others, are hoping that this row over the GCSEs marking can act as a springboard for Government to take action to improve the quality of British education and to ensure that all children in the UK will benefit from this. We are talking about our future.


  1. Great post, education is the most important thing for giving children the best chance in life. Our education system always get criticised but it's actually still really good. The biggest issue comes from children from less well-off backgrounds who don't tend to achieve as highly and something really needs to be done about that.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Our education system is still good, but it has been going down in the international league tables, which is worrying. I agree with what you say about children from less well-off backgrounds not achieving as highly, and I do hope that reforms made to the education system will address that issue. It is very important.

  2. i agree with Dan this is a good post. And it's also my dream for my country- Philippines. I hope one day, every child has privilege to have education and can choose the field they want.

    Education is not only key to have decent job or to put up robust business, it can make a child a better person as well. It's long term investment but it's very crucial and valuable.

    1. Your dream for the Philippines is a great one :) I hope that every child in the world can have have an education and can choose the field they want. It is really unfair and sad that so many children do not have access to a good education now. I agree with everything you say about the good points of education.

      Thank you for commenting :)