Michael Gove has hopped around the globe to find the ideas and the justification for his education policies; Singapore, Sweden, the U.S, Canada and Finland regularly pop up as the inspiration for everything from free schools to curriculum reform.
Of course, it would be wrong-headed to close our eyes to innovation, whether it’s in a school next door or a classroom in Kuala Lumpur.
Equally, there are difficulties with directly importing policies from overseas, not least because of the social, economic, cultural and historical differences from one country to the next.
As such, transplanting ideas is not simply a case of ‘cut and paste’, much like the wine that tastes sumptuous when gazing at the Adriatic breathing in lemon-scented air, which turns to vinegar when you’re back in blighty watching Eastender and tucking into a chicken chow mein.
With wine and with policy, you have to take great care with what goes in the suitcase for the homeward flight.
It is hard to know what to pick. The easiest option is to establish your point of view and merely scour the globe for ideas that closely match your own preconceptions. This, however, lacks objectivity. It rules out the genuinely innovative – you look but you don’t really see.
Looking at Gove’s plans, it’s not clear whether this really has been a genuine attempt to scrutinise our friends and competitors and to match – or exceed – the best of what they do (have a read of this excellent article on the school system in Finland, a country often cited by Gove as as an inspiration, not least because they regularly appear top of international league tables – make a tally of ‘similarities’ and ‘differences’ and see which comes on top).
Hence, we choose to import the concept of free schools from the U.S and Sweden, but ignore the fact that Finland has no equivalent. And, where a child aged seven in Helsinki will just be starting school after a play-based introduction to learning, in England we have decided to introduce a reading test at the age of six to see whether they can read not just simple words, but also non-words like ‘koob’ or ‘zort’. Madness!
Yet, staring us in the face, there is one area where we should replicate our Finnish friends precisely; it would make a huge, tangible difference to the quality of education in this country. And it’s quite simple: teachers should be qualified to Masters level.
Imagine this: every teacher undertaking further to study to improve their classroom practice; every teacher familiar with the latest research (and knowing themselves what the best schools in Alberta and Stockholm are up to); every teacher developing specialist knowledge and applying it in their classrooms; every teacher understanding research methods and continually investigating ways to improve what they do.
Imagine the potential for improving the quality of teaching – and try to imagine the difference this would make to children’s learning.
This would not need radical upheaval of school governance, nor (relatively speaking) bags of cash. There would certainly be no need for a shiny new Education Bill. But maybe that’s why it’s been ignored by Michael Gove – the best ideas don’t always catch the eye, particularly when you aren’t looking closely enough.