Personally speaking by David Reynolds

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The Independent Online
This year promises to be a watershed in British educational history, since for the first time we are taking seriously the need to learn from other countries. Politicians refer remorselessly to our position in international educational league tables. Television has put the well educated, happy and high-achieving Pacific Rim children in the minds of teachers in every school staff room. Parents seem more and more uneasy with the quality of the education their children are receiving.

The blocks on this happening have been immense. We have been reared on colonial notions that it is we who possess good practice. There is our British ethnocentrism and our patronising, frankly racist attitudes towards the Pacific Rim. There is fear in our schools precisely because other schools may be doing better than we. But the remorseless logic of looking abroad as we seek to restructure our educational system has been difficult to avoid. International surveys show a poor British performance and a wide range of pupils' achievements, together with a long trailing edge of poorly educated children that cost us both lost production and state welfare expenditure we can ill afford.

Put simply, our past ability to earn a living by generating original and valid ideas and then working unreliably on them was based upon the ideas remaining within our geographical boundaries. Now, those ideas are in Taiwan in a millisecond where they are worked on reliably by an educated population.

What can we see if we look abroad? Firstly, other countries force us to examine our more cherished educational beliefs. As an example, what are called "reactionary" Taiwanese junior school classes do not move on until the last child has understood, do not group children in the class because it would hurt the less able, and ensure that children get their teacher teaching them for 80-90 per cent of lesson time. In Britain, our so called "progressive" practices involve reducing teaching time and leaving children on their own, put them in different groups, and then leave the slow learners behind so as not to hold back the able.

Secondly, we can learn from other countries how to improve school quality. British attempts to improve schools have merely given schools tool kits like development plans to do it - there have been no instructions about what to build. Good British schools invent their own excellent things to do, whilst poor British schools find it hard to invent anything, which is of course precisely why they are poor schools in the first place.

So whilst the ceiling of good British schools continues to rise, the floor of poor schools stays where it was, leading to the sad variation in school quality that marks us out internationally. This is what happens when a country expects schools to invent the wheel.

In the United States schools have access to "off-the-shelf designs" that tell them what to do to improve, ensuring the poor schools don't have to invent wheels that are beyond their competence. It is a sensible way of ensuring educational quality, but it is not a British way.

Thirdly, we can see in other countries individual policies that may improve our educational performance, such as:

Whole-class interactive teaching in Taiwan where lessons have pace, intensity and frequent questioning, together with highly involved pupils;

Keeping children down a year if they fall behind, as in Germany, thereby making the job of teaching easier by reducing the range of children that teachers have to deal with;

Providing high-quality text books for children as in Switzerland to prevent the necessity for British teachers to generate their own "home- made" work sheets in their exhausting nightly routine;

Providing teachers with a strong "technology" of teaching theory, teaching methodology, school effectiveness, and school improvement knowledge to ensure, as in the Pacific Rim, that all teachers have foundations for their development;

Concentrating on homework as in most other societies, to ensure teachers get information about children through short feedback loops that tell them who has missed material and who needs re-teaching.

In 1997 everyone is now declaring that the key to our future is "education, education, and education". We need to ensure that it is everyone and every country that we try to learn from. Good practice does not cease at the white cliffs of Dover - in many respects it may begin there. It is time to start learning hard lessons from abroadn

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. His report "Worlds Apart" was published by Ofsted in July last year