Colin Lever

Author & Educationist

Month: November 2017

Education Politics

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We hear a lot about politicians affecting education but what about education’s influence on politicians? The rite of passage from an independent education through to high office has been a key feature in politics for centuries but the mould seemed to be broken when Clement Atlee’s labour party swept into power in 1945. However, Atlee attended a prep school and was from a distinctly middle class background. Nye Bevan, the architect of the N.H.S and welfare state had his roots in a truly ‘working class’ culture as did Herbert Morrison. Their aim was to improve social mobility for all. The Tripartite education system, created by the Conservative politician Rab Butler in 1944 was the pre-cursor to a post-war demand for equality, offering all those bright enough the opportunity to get an education comparable to that offered by private schools. This was mirrored on Jersey, post-war, with the creation of Hautlieu albeit it took until the 1960’s to achieve this aim.

 

Whilst most on the right of politics continued to be privately educated those on the left were either schooled in grammars (Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Jeremy Corbyn) or Comprehensives (Ed Milliband, Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock). Tony Blair the pin-up boy of the centre left was privately educated as was Michael Foot. Champagne Socialists? Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were both grammar school educated. Most went on to study at Oxford University. In June 2017, for the first time ever, following the UK election, 50% of the UK Government has had a comprehensive education. A sign of the times no doubt but when you factor in that only 7% of children attend private schools, the bias is still significant.

 

So what of our own states members? At present, the States is comprised of members from a wide range of educational backgrounds. A couple have their origins in boarding school education, some are grammar school taught. Only one has had a truly comprehensive education but if you include Hautlieu that rises to 18% so the mix is not an homogenous one bearing in mind 50% of the schools population are not in fee paying education. This mirrors the UK correlation of having a privileged education and occupying leadership posts.

 

In Nick Duffell’s seminal book, “Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion-a psychotherapy” he concludes that politicians that have travelled the ‘gold-plated’ route from boarding school to leadership are not best suited for the role of politician because they lack the emotional intelligence needed to make reasoned judgements. For many, it is not just about their education but is also as a result of absent parents, creating attachments issues that resonate into adult life. Jon Ronson goes one step further, suggesting that 1 in 25 leaders are psychopaths. That means we might have two in our government at present!

 

Any accountant can balance the books but it takes much more to be an effective leader in today’s fast changing society. Where leadership was once about being the most competitive, nowadays it is also about having the wherewithal to collaborate, inspire and motivate. Why just cut staffing when, with a little more initiative you could involve employees in the modernisation process? Modern leadership is about having the ability to empathise; with a workforce, with a community, with a voting public and a person’s schooling plays a significant role in this respect. Children raised in an inclusive environment tend to be inclusive by inclination. But is the reverse also true?

 

Grenfell Tower in London stands as a monument to hard-nosed austerity, a ghastly reminder of how fiscal prudence took priority over the health and safety of its residents. Working with people is far more complex than just reading a spreadsheet and meeting targets, it is a skill that requires nurture. Perhaps this lack of empathy is behind voter apathy on the island.

 

Whilst empathy is not the preserve of those that have had a comprehensive education it would stand to reason that effective governance should have a balance of contributors from all walks of life which, at present, the Island’s government does not. Around 50% come from business and finance; only a quarter are women and there is no representation from ethnic minorities (20% of Jersey’s population). Ethnic diversity is conspicuous by its absence in our independent schools. Around 35% of the present government were taught in single sex establishments. Diversity will only happen when the people promoting it actually comprehend what it involves. If the island is serious about improving diversity in government, and by inference social mobility, it must look at its education system and address the imbalance at source.

LESS IS MORE

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Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chair of Ofsted in the UK, highlighted in his annual report, the divide between the poor North and the affluent South in respect of educational achievement. In Jersey we have our own educational divide, between the state sector schools and the private schools, some of which are part subsidised by the state. It would appear that to try and allay this ‘divide’, the States of Jersey are using a pupil premium, £1000 per head given to educate the poorest children. But is this not a political sleight of hand? Is the education department looking to raise standards or performance? The same States department has put a cap on these potential first generation academics by no longer supporting them through university should they earn the right get there. The initiative might also be seen as patronising as it assumes that poor means dumb and in my experience this is not the case.

 

There is a global, political, imperative to be seen at the top of the P.I.S.A league, akin to a country topping the medals table at the Olympics. Internationally, politicians believe that being the top, reflects the superior nature of their ideology. Nationally the pursuit of ever improving performance targets seduces voters into believing that the government is raising attainment. Be under no illusion chasing performance targets in education is more about political expediency than it is about any altruistic desire to raise student aspirations. There is a world of difference between raising educational standards and improving examination performance.

 

The O.E.C.D has repeatedly shown that if you are wanting higher grades then look to the education systems of the Far-East. Countries like China and South Korea are always in the top six of the P.I.S.A charts for literacy and numeracy. But beware, the reason for their lofty status is as much about their culture as it is about education. Their children are made to study from a very early age and they have long school days as well as after school tuition, regularly amounting to twelve or more hours a day. The work is largely repetitious and the children are pressured and shamed into performing. They are tested incessantly and all are expected to meet the stringent targets set irrespective of ability. But then you look at the wellbeing of each nation’s youth. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world for teenagers. Jian Xueqin, a director at Peking University said recently;

 

“Using tests to structure schooling is a mistake. Students lose their innate inquisitiveness and imagination, and become insecure and amoral in the pursuit of high scores….they’re merely producing competent mediocrity.”

 

 

The UK (20th) follows US (28th)and Jersey tends to slavishly mirror all that the UK does and so we are seeing more testing, more content, more assessment, more monitoring, more meetings, longer school days, more after school clubs, more homework. The belief is that ‘more begats more’ but it is a false economy. Our children are more stressed, more disaffected and often anxious. The teachers are, increasingly disillusioned hence why 50,000 left the profession in the UK last year alone. 40% leave the profession within twelve months.  Jersey is no exception, struggling to find quality teachers, and to retain them.

 

What if Jersey had an education system that was the envy of the UK; one which raised academic achievement for all, beyond expectations, whilst ensuring our children’s positive mental health and wellbeing; one that could reduce overall costs? Too good to be true? Well we could have our educational cake and eat it. Oddly the answer lies in an ethos where ‘less is more’.

 

Finland lies 6th in the PISA league just a few points behind the draconian practices of the Far-Eastern countries and way ahead of the ‘wannabes’ below.  It has evolved an education system that many countries are taking a serious look at, including those from the Far-East.  Class sizes in Finland are between 15 and 20, giving the teacher plenty of time to get around each pupil in the class. They have a short school day, generally four lessons and 15-20 minute breaks between each in order to refresh and reflect. The subject content is less allowing more time to engender understanding.  Interestingly, children do not start full time schooling until they are 7 years of age and, crucially, receive only one formal test, at the age of sixteen.  How do they achieve higher grades if they spend less time studying?

 

The, teachers are highly trained (Masters degree or better) and are specially selected to ensure capability for the job. Only 10% of those that apply are successful. Teachers pay is on a par with doctors and lawyers, ensuring a highly motivated work force. Perhaps, most important is the fact that the teachers are empowered to get on with the job. There is no competition between schools and no performance targets.

 

It is an education system based on equality and egalitarianism and it is inclusive. Pupils with special educational needs are brought up to pace using specially trained teachers. The difference between the lowest performing pupils and the highest is the lowest in the OECD rankings. If Jersey were to introduce the Finnish education model, achievement across the bailiwick could be around 20% higher than the maximum 3% that the pupil premium appears to offer.

 

Costs are reduced by improving efficiency. If teaching is of a high quality there is no need for the circus that surrounds the profession. Jersey’s educational system is top heavy with administrators and ‘support’ services. The secondary schools have far too many ‘managers’.  The one million pound subsidy given to the private sector, would cover the cost of more than twenty new teachers in state schools. That is at least one extra teacher for every primary school, reducing class sizes and improving educational standards at a sweep.

 

Jersey cannot afford not to look at what the Finnish system can offer.

 

 

Colin Lever is the author of: Children in Need Education, Wellbeing & the Pursuit of GDP

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