Learning from Britain’s Lost Decade in Education

by Tom Startup on December 12, 2016 at 7:01 pm in: Education, Knowledge, United Kingdom
by Tom Startup on December 12, 2016 at 7:01 pm in: Education, Knowledge, United Kingdom

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, remarked last week that Britain had experienced its first ‘lost decade’ – 10 years in which average living standards haven’t risen – since 1860.  Scores from the latest PISA assessments highlight another less-noticed lost decade – in educational performance.

Britain’s fifteen-year olds perform pretty well on international test scores in reading, science and maths, but over the past ten years that performance has plateaued.[1]  These children entered primary school in 2006, so these results are largely a verdict on the educational reforms of the Blair and Brown governments, and to a lesser extent, those of the Cameron era.

Consider how remarkable that is.  By 2006, education spending was 50% higher in real terms than it had been in 1996.[2]  After Labour came to power in 1997 there were also some important educational reforms such as the introduction of teaching assistants, Specialist and Academy schools, and programmes aimed at under-performance in inner city areas.  Meanwhile the growth of the internet, e-books and the development of smartphones were revolutionising access to knowledge.   And yet, on these tests at least, students are no more knowledgeable than they were a decade ago.

The UK is not the only country struggling to raise attainment.  Many other Western countries have experienced stagnant or declining educational performance.  Average OECD scores haven’t risen in that period, and countries such as Australia, S Korea, Canada and the United States have all failed to improve their performance since the last assessment in 2012.   Even Finland, the poster-child of education policy for many years, had a rude awakening as its scores across reading, maths and science fell significantly.

This matters, because while these test scores are a verdict on past education policy they also offer us a glimpse into the future.  Today’s students are the workers, entrepreneurs and innovators of the next several decades.  If they aren’t better equipped to imagine, create, and produce then the prospects for prosperity are grim.  The slowdown in productivity growth[3] that most Western countries have experienced might well continue, causing a stagnation in living standards.

Why is it so difficult to raise standards?  There are many reasons.  Because the costs of any change are felt now, but the benefits only in years to come, politicians often shy away from important reforms and instead opt for easier, but less beneficial projects.  Furthermore, teachers are often highly unionised, making it difficult to reform their working practices.  Changes in hours, pay, or lesson formats are usually strongly resisted.  In addition, education is not standardised.  Unlike other industries, successful approaches to teaching invented by one teacher or school are not easily replicated across the education system but may remain confined to one school.  That prevents innovations from raising performance for all students.

Another reason is because the benefits of technological advances have not yet been brought to bear on the, still largely traditional, classroom model.  Schools now use interactive whiteboards, post homework online, and use email to communicate with parents.  But the basic model of students sitting in front of someone talking is unchanged.  The potential for video-conferencing, online assessment, or automated teaching (possibly utilising artificial intelligence) is still largely unexplored.

Lastly, schools no longer have a monopoly on teaching.  Many countries have experienced an explosion in private tuition in recent years.  About 70% of students in South Korea and 60% of those in Japan (two of the best performing countries on PISA) have private tuition, and it’s growing fast across many Western countries.[4]  So the performance we are seeing in the PISA test results can no longer be fully attributable to schools.

Successful educational reform is hard.  But it is not impossible.  In the 1990s London’s schools, particularly those in the inner-city, were run-down places where behaviour was poor and educational outcomes worse.  But a series of policy reforms introduced under the then Labour government – to the recruitment of teachers, targeted support for underperforming schools and new models of school provision – meant that London went from one of the worst performing to the best performing regions in the country in the space of ten years.[5]  It would be a lot to expect that sort of transformation at a national or international level.  But learning how to overcome the inherent barriers to educational reform is the only way Western nations will avoid another lost decade in education.

Edited by Bill Emmott

 

[1] http://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA-2015-United-Kingdom.pdf

[2] https://www.ifs.org.uk/tools_and_resources/fiscal_facts/public_spending_survey/education.  Comparing 1995/6 with 2005/6.

[3] https://data.oecd.org/lprdty/gdp-per-hour-worked.htm

[4] http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPUBSERV/Resources/Dang_private_tutoring.pdf

[5] https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/~/media/EDT/Reports/Research/2015/EDT_SchoolImprovementInLondon_WEB.pdf).

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    Demography
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    Resilience

    Demography
    Knowledge
    Innovation
    Openness
    Resilience