Do other European countries do better? Does a high-tax, high-spending country like Denmark offer better chance to its children?
Bob Jelley, one of FACE's founders and head of St Giles Middle, a 220- pupil school in Exhall, Warwickshire, spent a fortnight earlier this year at a 115-pupil village school in northern Jutland under a scheme financed by the Central Bureau, the national body for educational exchanges.
His opposite number, Arthur Corneliussen from Agersted School, has just gone back to Denmark after a return visit. Here they offer some thoughts on each other's systems .
The most obvious difference is in class sizes. The Danish government decrees a maximum of 28 and the average is 19. At Agersted there were just 14 or 15. Obviously, they can devote much more time to each child.
Here at St Giles we have eight classes of between 26 and 30. We can cope with that. But if I have to sack a teacher to meet the Government's spending squeeze then we could have three mixed-age classes of 36 or 37.
Marking 19 maths books is one thing; marking over 30 is quite another. Danish teachers don't have the same pressures. No wonder there's none of the manic hysteria that you find in English staffrooms at times.
The system over there is altogether more relaxed. There is no school uniform. Pupils and staff are on first-name terms. Form teachers are responsible for the same group of children from the age of six to 14, and that tends to forge strong relationships. Perhaps because of that, and the size of the classes, there appear to be few discipline problems.
There is more specialisation than we have at primary level. Each class has a specialist maths, geography or English teacher, as they do in our secondary schools. But in Denmark it is the teachers who move from one class to another. The pupils stay put.
Their classrooms are very well equipped. There seems to be so much space. Each child is like a little island, perched on the sort of swivel chair worthy of a draughtsman, and facing the board. Above the board is a map of Denmark, a map of Europe, a map of the world and a screen. No shortage of overhead projectors or, indeed, computers. Agersted School had three times as many as St Giles for almost half the number of pupils.
What's more, they're updated regularly by the kommune, the equivalent of our local councils. They don't rely on bingo sessions or summer fairs to buy equipment.
Their classrooms do appear a little stark compared to the equivalent in an English primary school. They lack some of the visual stimulation we try to give through pictures, charts and children's essays pinned to the walls. And the Danes don't go in much for the group work that we like to think helps to develop social skills.
Their pastoral care, though, is excellent. Before and after school, working parents can leave their children in a properly equipped and well staffed area that is far more than just a dumping ground. It caters for all ages, from the nursery to the youth club, and it works well.
Again it's all paid for by the kommune. Local government seems to be a source of pride in Denmark. It is trusted. There is cohesion with national government and vision that everybody shares. Children are their future and they invest in them."
It must be hard to be a teacher in Britain, working in these conditions. They do very well with the resources available. A school the size of St Giles would have double its funding if it were in Denmark.
This school is a strange mixture of formality and informality. You see the children lining up in the school yard, all wearing the same uniform, and you expect them to be taught very formally. But in the classroom, they work much more in informal groups than we do.
In Denmark we always believed that technology was much more advanced in America and Britain. From what I saw, there's not much evidence of that in a typical English school.
Perhaps it comes down to what people are prepared to pay. Our private sector is very small, and state schools are called "public schools". We pay very high taxes and of course we want them reduced. But we don't want to lose the services and resources that we have. Parents would be up in arms, for instance, if they heard that their children were having to share textbooks.
Parents in England also want well-equipped state schools, but are they prepared to pay for them through taxation?
The Danish system is far from perfect. Teachers are contracted to work 1,687.2 hours a year, including 37 hours of in-service training, and they won't do any more unless they're paid for it. The union is very strong.
English teachers definitely spend longer in the classroom: about 25 hours a week here compared to 16 in my school. Fifty per cent of a Danish teacher's pay is non-contact time. So if they teach for 45 minutes, they expect payment for another 45 minutes of preparation - even if they're only filling in for a colleague who is off sick. Don't forget that teachers, too, are high taxpayers. VAT is 25 per cent and the state takes away 70 per cent of my income.
I get the feeling that many teachers in England are feeling insecure about their jobs, which is not surprising in the present circumstances. Security would make for better teaching.
On the other hand, you can be too secure. It's almost impossible to sack lazy and incompetent teachers in Denmark. You would have to go on paying them for years.Reuse content