Monday, June 12, 2006

Think Tank's Shock Report

Saw this headline in Schipol airport, had a read in the bookshop – and was duly shocked. The ‘Centre for European Reform’, a well respected London think tank, has issued a damning report this week showing that a "grim" educational "malaise" has gripped learning in Europe.

Achievement stagnant or slipping
Most of its universities are "clearly in the second division," and at all levels—primary, secondary and universities—America and Japan significantly outspend Europe. Study after study, by the OECD and others, has shown high-school achievement as stagnant or slipping.

Education systems stuck in another age
At the heart of the problem are education systems that often seem stuck in another age with European employers complaining that "The education system is sending us people who aren't even ready to be trained." Another scathing criticism was the gulf between universities and commerce. Business-university partnership, which plays such a powerful role in America's scientific and entrepreneurial prowess, is sorely lacking in Europe.

Future is Finnish
The only high spot is Finland, ranked by the OECD as having the world's best education system. It had problems in the 60s but radically devolved devolved decision making from Helsinki bureaucrats to the schools themselves. With centralised guidelines, schools and teachers are monitored for quality, and constantly evolve in terms of curricula and methods. Old-fashioned sorting and streaming into different-level schools has been abandoned and now Finnish 15-year-olds not only score highest in a number of skills, but also show the least effect of class background on achievement, a key measure of meritocracy. The result – an economically strong Finland with high growth and low unemployment.

So, despite huge increases in education spends over the last decade we have seen, at best marginal, at worst declining, performance. The key here seems to be outdated models and methods - basically Victorian schooling. Yet the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling.


Anonymous said...

Lamber and Butler's pamphlet is available from:

juuli said...

Why would meritocracy be good? Does it make Finland a better country than, say, UK?
Compare most students scoring high to some scoring very high and some very low - is there a global merit to this?
I see it rather as bringing happiness and fulfillment to each individual, being able to fulfill his/her potential.
Should this be a globally desired outcome? Which society is ready for it?

Donald Clark said...

Not often that you see that as a first sentence! To answer your question in your own terms we have to ask ourselves whether education, by raising the standards for all, leads to increased ‘happiness and fulfillment’. If we’re talking about the greatest happiness and fulfilment for the greatest number of people, then I’d say it does. Low educational attainment, for example in literacy and numeracy, consigns many to unhappy and unfulfilled lives. There is also evidence that one will be poorer, unhealthier and shorter.

There certainly is global merit in a meritocracy. Equality of opportunity is, I believe, a fundamental goal of any political, and therefore educational system. If you’re arguing that we should have a system whereby only a few should benefit (an oligarchy, not meritocracy), then we simply lie at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

juuli said...

Equal opportunity sounds good, and it has been touted as the official mantra in several countries for the past decades. Consider a society where you live (and learn) to your fullest potential until it is time to find a job. How many high-level jobs can a society have? Right, not enough for all its highly educated citizens. So a great many of traditional low-level jobs are held by highly educated people. Would you still say these people are happy?
This works in Finland where the tempers don't run high, but would it work in other societies? I repeat my question: if this is the desired outcome, which society do you see being ready for it? Everyone equally highly educated, but not equally employed?

Donald Clark said...

Let me see if I’ve got your arguments right:

1. Equal opportunities in learning are wrong
2. It leads to highly educated, unhappy people with low-level jobs
3. Finnish people can cope with equal opps because they’re emotionally stunted

You’re confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. A meritocracy, on moral grounds alone, is just fair. It simply means giving everyone an equal chance. In practice, this still produces standard deviations on outcomes.

Most countries are crying out for higher skills in the workforce. In the UK this exists even at the level of numeracy and literacy. We have also seen a surge in knowledge workers and skills shortages in these areas. So there is still a huge gap between educational output and employer demand. We have countries such as the US that have clearly benefited from having much higher levels of tertiary education success than most European countries. It has led to higher levels of productivity.

The idea that education is purely instrumental, namely that it must lead to ‘high-level jobs', is, I’d also say, a rather myopic view. Education allows many to live much more fulfilled lives. You have a point on the pure measure of happiness. Utilitarianism, measured on a simple calculus of ‘happiness’ is too simplistic a measure.

The last point is a bit patronising – I apologise to any Finns who read your post!

juuli said...

No, you didn't get me right!
I didn't say 1/ equal opportunities are wrong. They are right.
2/ It leads to highly educated, unhappy people with low-level jobs - if you want to generalize, yes.
3/Finnish people can cope with equal opps because they’re emotionally stunted - now where does this come from? This must be your opinion.

Anonymous said...

Innovative Pedagogical Practices in Technology-Enhanced Education – Finnish Perspective is a long and detailed October 2005 article/commentary describing, from a "central" point of view, how ICT is used in the Finnish school system.

According to the article, the Finnish approach is "decentralized and broad-based, linking the educational system to the civic and business communities. It is also characteristic to Finnish approach that decisions on curriculum and instruction are made by local schools and teachers..... this kind of distributed effort is coordinated by a vision of a Finnish information society in which technology and information sharing support economic growth and social development".

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Seb. Finland was so successful across the board in OECD tables that the US created a 'small country' category to fix the tables. Their integrated focus on a true meritocracy takes some beating. It seems to be this optimal balance between centralisation of quality control combined with decentralised activity that works in education. Note the differences between Finland and the UK:

The system is wholly comprehensive

Children start formal education when they turn 7

For the first 6 years they have the same teacher for all subjects

Last three years are taught by subject specific teachers

Strong set of vocational choices (75)at secondary level

Adult education and lifelong learning is free and widespread