Education in England: What can we learn from an international perspective?

In this guest blog post, Dr Paul Cappon, former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Council on Learning, writes his thoughts on education in England from an international perspective. Dr Cappon’s paper ‘Preparing English Young People for Work and Life. An International Perspective’ is published by The Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) at Oxford University.

In education circles, international comparisons are all the rage. Many countries hang on the results of OECD standardised tests or Pearson Learning Curve league tables.

In search of “best practice” from higher-performing jurisdictions, delegations from others stream to the putative temples of learning. Curiously, many leave somewhat disappointed from the observation that education leaders in these places appear bemused, unable initially to identify their advantages…

Further complicating facile emulation is the fact that high-performing systems like Finland or Korea operate from extremely different – often opposite – cultural, theoretical and methodological platforms.

However, once we acknowledge that “best practices” do not exist in the sense of a required transfer of approaches from one cultural context to another, comparisons become potentially quite enlightening and useful.

As a Canadian who recently completed a review of English education at the request of the Department for Education (Cappon, P., 2015. ‘Preparing English Young People for Work and Life. An International Perspective’, SKOPE Policy Paper No. 2, Oxford: Oxford University, SKOPE), several useful comparisons and contrasts between English and Canadian education suggest themselves.

At the outset, I expected to find our systems relatively similar in approach since much of the Canadian context evolved naturally from that of the British home country of those who originally constructed it. My greatest surprise, therefore, in assessing the preparedness of English young people for work and life, was to discover not only how dissimilar our systems were, but also how distinctive is English education from that of partner countries in the OECD. My review did not find this English distinctiveness to convey many clear benefits.

Let’s examine briefly three of the English-Canadian divergences*, and then list three of their similar problems.

Inertia versus intervention

The most obvious structural difference between Canadian and English systems relates to clear differentiation in the role of ministers. In Canada, ministers of education (all provincial, there is no national ministry for education) tend not to be senior ministers of great ambition to “make their mark”. Irrespective of party, they rely heavily on civil servants for advice and direction. Change is therefore careful and slow. Some might characterise this as too slow, “inert” – especially when compounded nationally by the enormous difficulty in obtaining the cooperative action of the many ministers who sit at the table of the Council of Education Ministers. Consensus is the norm, rather than the exception. Ministers’ positions on various issues tend to be based on regional and language issues, rather than on party or ideological grounds. Therefore, much power and leadership is devolved to local bodies and to teachers themselves.

The advantage of a consensual system like this is steadiness, consultation, consistency and frequent “buy-in” from non-government interveners. The inconvenience is slowness in reacting to change and to international competition, and a general complacency.

In England, by contrast, leadership and power are centralised. Ministers (or prime ministers and their offices) tend to interventionism, empiricism, even acting occasionally on personal preferences regardless of the evidence or the views of social partners. Ambitious education ministers here may exhibit innovativeness, experimentation, risk-taking. But are not these attributes de-stabilising for the educational environment at the national level? Should they not be precisely the characteristics that we would wish to pertain at the local level instead?

The accountability triad compared with local responsibility

OFSTED, proportions of pupils attaining good GCSEs, and league tables provide a rigorous accountability framework for individual schools. But is this triad effective? Or does it instead carry perverse effects that actually diminish educational achievement at population level? There is little evidence for its effectiveness – but much data that suggests England failing to augment educational success: measures ranging from disappointing scores on PISA, alarming levels of adult competency in literacy and numeracy, and poor outcomes in relation to vocational training and apprenticeships.

In Canada, accountability rests principally with local authorities and tends to be taken more collectively than individually. “Failing schools” are not usually ascribed to deficiencies of teaching staff or head teachers. Since Canadian schools do not possess the heavy governance structures of English boards of governors, there is little temptation to hold these professionals “accountable”. Instead, the tendency is to remediate through inter-school partnerships.

Streaming versus flexible pathways

The English tendency to stream early has undoubted deleterious repercussions for study and the careers of many; far more serious is the relative inflexibility of student choices and pathways. English students who are shunted away from academically-strong programmes may find themselves on dead-end tracks, with little latitude to change direction and to push on to university.

Clear benefits for Canadian young people are: the privilege themselves to choose the degree of rigour of their secondary programmes; and the ease of bi-directional transfer at post-secondary level between technical and academic tracks. In such an environment, the motivation to continue study may be considerably higher.

Shared problems

It may be comforting for English readers to know that Canada does share with England some salient problematic features: too many males who do not progress educationally and who represent a “loss of human capital”; too much parental emphasis on university study and not enough on technical skills; and recent stagnation in scores on OECD standardised testing relative to OECD partners.

But this is another story for another time.


*Readers will need to judge for themselves to what extent my observations in England may have resonance for the other home nations

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