“Before I set out upon my embassy to China I perused all the books that had been written upon that country in all the languages I could understand. With everybody from whom I had hopes of information I endeavoured to converse and where that could not be done I corresponded with them by letter. Having thus stored up in my mind all the materials within my reach I shut my books and as soon as I arrived in the Yellow Sea I began a different course of study upon the same subject. Instead of reading any longer the accounts of others I turned to the originals themselves, and lost no opportunity in my power of pursuing and considering them”.
Lord George Macartney (1794) An Embassy to China
Apparently our children have recently been entered in a global race. Now, I recall the great excitement that permeated this country when the Olympic and Paralympic Games came to London. The legacy of that great event lingers and indeed Sara and I look forward to attending a cycling event at the London velodrome this coming weekend. Many people in England, as elsewhere in the world have a great passion for sport, and attendance and participation is reaching record levels. However, the global race is one for which I find some difficulty in gaining much enthusiasm.
One of our education ministers, Elizabeth Truss, has recently returned from Shanghai having embarked upon a mission of exploration to discover why children in that particular city outperform the rest of the world in mathematics. Unlike her more famous and learned predecessor Lord George Macartney, who in 1793 made the long voyage to China unsure about what he might find in this vast and largely unknown region of the world, the minister arrived in China with her mind already fixed on what she expected to see. There was therefore no great surprise, when on her return to the UK she made a number of statements about the excellence of mathematics teaching in China and the largely disastrous approach to the subject adopted by English schools.
Fortunately the minister has returned just in time to save the nation’s children with a cunning plan. We are informed by the BBC today that “up to 60 Shanghai maths teachers are to be brought to England to raise standards.” I suppose that parents, teachers and parents here in England on hearing this news were supposed to heave a collective sigh of relief. The Chinese cavalry have been sighted on the horizon and soon we are to be rescued from the ineptitudes of our own pathetic efforts in providing an education to our children.
I actually believe that the sharing of educational experiences and practices around the world is a very good idea. I know that I have learned much from the time I have spent in classrooms in different countries from Ireland to India, in Georgia and Estonia, in Finland and yes also in China. It is rare that I come away from a school in a country where I am a guest, without having seen interesting practice and shared ideas with often enthusiastic and highly professional teachers. The same incidentally happens when I visit schools in my own country. I believe that there is a great deal that we can learn from each other through sharing our ideas and experiences and by debating our varying interpretations of the purposes of education and how these may be most effectively delivered – hence this blog. So why then am I so uncomfortable with this latest initiative from a government minister?
I have written on several occasions, including at various times on this blog, of the need for cultural respect and collaboration rather than imposition. Coming from the UK I am acutely aware of the difficulties caused when educators from one country believe that the approaches with which they are familiar can be simply transferred to another. The late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century provided plenty of evidence of the cultural dissonance that can occur when the teaching methods from one country are imposed upon another. As a teacher who has been privileged to work with teachers in many other cultural contexts, I have always believed that I am as much a learner as a teacher and need to be respectful of the reasons why education is often delivered differently from that with which I am most familiar. I suspect that there is much that we can learn from visiting Chinese teachers, but I hope that they are afforded an opportunity to discuss the cultural influences upon the education system here in England.
Of far greater concern is the language associated with the reasoning behind bringing these expert teachers to the country. Elizabeth Truss has stated that:-
“As part of our long term economic plan, we are determined to drive up standards in our schools and give our young people the skills they need to succeed in the global race… Good maths qualifications have the greatest earnings potential and provide the strongest protection against unemployment,”
Throughout my teaching career, it has been evident that for many children the clearest route to successful learning comes through collaboration and the ability to work effectively alongside their peers. Competition within classrooms has often been a healthy part of the education process, but I find myself feeling less than comfortable with the language used by the minister. Here we have a statement about children as part of “our” [presumably the government’s] “long term economic plan.” And this is followed by an implication that an appropriate measure of successful learning outcome is “earning potential.”
Had the minister discussed mathematical skills as an essential component of a well-balanced education aimed at developing children as confident, competent and thoughtful citizens I would have found myself in whole hearted agreement. But I know that I am not the only teacher who has concerns, that in some political quarters education is being narrowly defined, and reduced to a process of filling empty vessels with the kind of knowledge that will equip them for a life of employment with little regard for their social, cultural, intellectual and moral well-being. I suppose that if we are to now use earning potential as measure of the effectiveness of education, those children who aspire to careers in the caring professions such as nursing or charity work are only to be bystanders in the global race created by our political betters.
I wonder who, in the near future, will stand atop the podium in this great global race? Have the participants entered by their own choosing and do they know the rules of the race? What will happen to those who are eliminated in the knock out heats, those who I suspect are not destined to win the tantalizing economic prizes on offer? And what of those who are not to be motivated by greed and therefore become onlookers at the event? Will these be the future outsiders in our education system and will some of us in the future be campaigning for a more inclusive education system that addresses their needs?
Is this an angry rant? I hope not, but I do wish someone would explain to me what is to be gained by reducing children to economic units.