It was interesting to read the responses to Katherine Birbalsingh's book To Miss with Love insofar as most of the negative comments, and since it was in the Grauniad, most of the comments were negative, the 'counter arguments' were not so thinly veiled argumentum ad hominen. When your opponents resort to this, you know that they are bankrupt of ideas and your ideas are striking home and so, in desperation, they go for the provenance of the argument rather than the argument itself. This tactic is dishonest discourse, but it is disheartening that it is so effective, since so few are savvy enough to know the difference.
Nowhere in any of the comments and diatribes could I find comment from someone with experience of other educational systems and the British systems and the concomitant balance that these other perspectives afford. International educators do not only have experience of the international school system regulated by the conditions and stipulations of The Council of International Schools, The Middle States Association, the International Baccalaureate Organization and Cambridge International Examinations et c., but also of many other national systems. There are the national systems of their host countries and the systems of their students from national systems new to international education, necessitating the international educator to articulate the student's home system with the international system.
In the absence of anyone better to comment, I will step up to the plate. My credentials are: five years teaching in a London comprehensive, thirteen years as an international educator, one year again in the English system as a head of department and as a supply teacher and six months as a private tutor. I am a founding teacher of a heavily over-subscribed international school in Germany Lastly, my children have been in the German state system all their lives, since I did not want my children attending the same school in which I taught.
In comparison to the experiences of international schools and other national systems, I have found the current English state system trivialised, bureaucratic, hyper-accountable, dogmatic, anti-intellectual, politically correct, an inflexible, hide-bound orthodoxy and predicated on the lowest common denominator.
International comparisons such as OECD's PISA Study should shout Britain's failures to everyone. In Germany when the first PISA study was published, there was public uproar and outrage, since Germany did a lot worse than the Germans anticipated. It was in every news bulletin and big news in every newspaper and periodical. At the time I asked friends and teaching colleagues about it and found that there was almost nothing reported. Britain came eleventh in that study, not fourth as nearly every commentator insists. In a report in The Independent about a year later suggested that Britain had cheated in selecting the schools for the study. Britain declined to take part in the next PISA study on math in 2003. Very interesting, that. Taken overall, Britain has done very poorly, especially when you look at the types of questions given in the tests.
Many comparisons between different examination types have been done, but I find IGCSEs much more rigorous than GCSEs, with or without coursework. Ofqual and QCA say they are equivalent, but, as Mandy Rice-Davis said, “They would, wouldn't they.” Independent schools who offer IGCSEs take a very diplomatic stance when asked what the difference is, they would too, wouldn't they. It is instructive to read what students say.
My younger daughter spent two days in an English comprehensive school, when, due to family circumstances, she had to live with me. She found that, academically, she was at least three years ahead in most subjects compared to her English class mates. She based this on the grade she was in when she did the same material. Since she had to keep her place in her Gymnasium (grammar school) and this could not have been done in an English school, I had to home-school her. She also reported that in physics class, a subject she had only started that academic year, she had done all the work for the whole lesson within the first five minutes and was highly praised by her teacher. When asked by her peers how she did this, she said that she had read the instructions on the board and followed them. In history, she reported that all her peers seemed to know anything about was The Second World War and not much of that. In general, she found her English peers quite unsophisticated and parochial, and very indisciplined and lacking in diligence . This, from a girl who was on the point of losing her place in her German school for just these reasons. To put her assertion to the test, I downloaded some A' Level papers and mark schemes. She did them; I marked them; she did well.
My experience of class discipline was much the same. Mostly it took the form of a general buzz of off-task conversations and cross class calling out. These students were good kids who genuinely did not know what I was talking about when I spoke of discipline and diligence, since this behaviour was fine for every other teacher they encountered in their school lives so far. When I asked older colleagues who had experience of the changes in the last thirteen years of my absence, I was told that this is what the students have been culturised to expect – very little un-engaging content and only one logical step per lesson, and no sanctions to compensate for the lack of engagement.
The amount of paperwork I had to complete was huge. This would not have so bad if it served any purpose, but it does not very much. This was soul destroying to document something that in all probability would not be read in support of, and given tacit agreement to a system that seems to be devoid of real education. When I asked colleagues about this, they said they just got on with it, but knew it was a waste of time. They also said that they got a lot of bureaucrat stuff from other schools and just changed the wording here and there. One teacher I came across taught engaging stuff beyond the scheme of work, just so she felt she could look herself in the mirror and still call herself a teacher. She was very well regarded by her students, but felt always in danger of denunciation as a heretic.
To assuage this mountain of pointless paper productivity, many schools had bought in schemes of work and lesson plans and one was expected to stick to these plans rigorously. I asked about the sense of this, since the people drawing things up have no knowledge of my teaching style and pedagogic strengths or my individual students' needs. I was told that these were very old-fashioned ideas, except the students' needs and I was referred to 'personalisation', Assessment for Learning, differentiation and Individual Learning Plans. But these plans could not, by their nature take the students' needs into account. These are not new ideas, but have been assumed traits of great teachers for years to such an extent that the new associated jargon was unnecessary. The fact that it is now jargonised is probably a good thing to raise the awareness of these traits to the mediocre teachers, but to document them to the detail dictated is absurd. The standards in my school in Germany are very high, there are no discipline issues worth mentioning, there are great student/teacher relationships and teachers are not always looking over their shoulders in case The Evil Elf of Safety and his Safety Nazis or some other witch-hunting statutory body starts rooting around in their professional lives, and all accomplished by great teachers who have the trust of SMT, parents and students without the need for the hyper-justification paperwork. A standard timetable in most international schools is 28 lessons out of a 40 lesson week. Extra-curricular activities are voluntary, but are very popular with both students and teachers. The teachers are very hard working, not from fear of being seen as slackers, but for the joy of their vocation and this extra work has direct effects on their students.
The beauty of the International Baccalaureate Organization's system of education is that the curricula is designed with close cooperation and significant input from the teachers who deliver the programmes. The skills, attributes and learner profiles are set out clearly in nearly every document the organization produces and sees skills and content as mutually dependent, rather than the so-called 'skills based' education in the UK, which seems to suggest that knowledge content is unimportant. I find it astounding that this decoupling has such wide currency in the UK system. It is like trying to learn to ride a bike without the bike.
I could not imagine UK state schools running the IB Diploma, since the teaching of one of the core subjects, Theory of Knowledge (ToK) would run counter to many pieces of dogma held sacred to the politically correct. The amount of times I have been told that I could not say this or that, or use certain vocabulary, since the students would not understand. Well, the more you can say, the more you can think and if that were the case, none of us would ever learn to talk at all. I do know of a state sixth form college that did the IB Diploma, but stopped it, because its students understood it required a lot more work and involved tougher exams than taking three A' Levels.
The current regime seems to be predicated on a curious interpretation of equality that assumes success as the lowest common denominator and is patronisingly and condescendingly class based. I am from a poor, working class, single parent, Northern Irish, Catholic family at a time when violence and death on the streets was quotidian. Deprived? You would be forgiven to think so. But no, I had teachers who taught me to question everything: to be relentlessly curious. I have managed to gain degrees from UCL (2010 world No. 4) and Cambridge (2010 world No. 1) and had a mother who knew the only way out of poverty for us was education. Mom and my teachers afforded me an interesting, eventful, enjoyable and fulfilling life. They expected the highest standards and did much to assuage any material disadvantage in my young life.
In my tutoring of GCSE and A' Level students, I help them to develop bite-sized, rational, global conceptual frameworks from which to view all the material for the whole course as presented in their schools. This proves very helpful for my students, but is an unacceptable approach in the schools of which I have experience. Is it not strange that in one educational paradigm I am an exceptionally gifted teacher, as my former students' testimonials attest, but in another, I am . . . Something else. It is just this point that will make change so difficult to effect. The excellent practitioners in one paradigm are something else when the paradigm changes. The system needs a paradigm change and necessarily this will be resisted, not just for reasons that paradigm changes are difficult in themselves. So many educational professionals have bought into the paradigm and their salaries and careers are predicated on it, from the NQT to those in educational research.
What is the answer? Well, Free Schools look promising, but adopting an independent structure like the IBO for GCSEs IGCSEs A' Levels, PreU, MYP and IB Diploma and employing bodies like CIS to ensure standards. Where would that leave Ofsted and QCA? Well, we could save that money.