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On the trail of the ideal school, no 'love sticks' required. Plus, the politics of going it alone

Michael Gove tells teachers as they prepare to strike over pay and conditions that their profession has never been more rewarding
  • @janemerrick23

My three-year-old daughter got her first exercise book last week. OK, so she's still at nursery (but this term has started in pre-school room, as she insists we call it) and the book is for her first attempts at scribbling letters of the alphabet, not homework. But the cover – dark blue with lines for the child's name – and lined pages inside make it unmistakably a school exercise book. My initial reaction was excitement, but then came my delayed reaction, which must be familiar to all parents and is summed up perfectly (as most things are) in a Bob Dylan lyric: time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.

Is three too soon to start learning how to write? It instinctively feels so. But given that she has to be able to write her name by the time she reaches reception year, maybe our nursery is right. I don't want her sitting still all day copying out letters that mean nothing to her, but a combination of play and learning seems good. Soon the day will come when it is all about the study.

Achieving the perfect education still eludes schools and government in Britain. Why else would Michael Gove want to emulate Sweden and other Nordic models of brilliance? What is it about other countries that makes their children achieve the best international ratings, under the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) system?

A new book, by Time journalist Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World tries to figure out why Finland, South Korea and, lately, Poland, are top of the class in Pisa ratings. Instead of simply talking to educators in those three countries, Ripley follows the journeys of three American teenagers who each spend a year in one of those model countries to find the mystery equation. Barack Obama once said he envied South Korea's schools, while Ed Miliband, in his conference speech last year, said: "If you want the American dream, go to Finland." Yet the results are mixed. South Korea's schoolchildren are so exhausted from studying until 11pm – in after-school private tutoring academies known as hagwons – they have to be tapped with "love sticks" (a "gentle" form of the cane) to keep them awake in class. Poland's children work hard, but they have no PE lessons. For parents like me who believe that the teaching of sport, music and art are essential to a child's well-rounded education, the Polish model is unpalatable. Because if there's a key lesson from Ripley's research, it is that best isn't always right. The rigours of a South Korean education may get the top marks, but their children suffer.

So what about Finland? It is not breaking news that Finnish education is excellent, but the secret is not intensive hours of study. In fact, Finns don't start formal education until seven. There are two ingredients that make Finland brilliant, as Ripley discovers, and as my British aunt also found out when she married a Finn and watched her children go through school there. The first is something in the Finnish psyche and culture, called sisu, meaning possessing an iron will or inner fire to persevere in the face of adversity, such as, says Ripley, hacking potatoes out of frozen Arctic Circle earth. The second is the high status afforded to teaching. Only the best, the most inspirational, are recruited to the profession through demanding teacher training programmes. These stellar teachers are given autonomy, and are therefore more likely to remain in the profession. They breed a culture of striving to be the best– a sort of sisu times table – but also give children the freedom to challenge their teachers.

With one in four schoolchildren now receiving private tuition, and Mr Gove telling teachers as they prepare to go on strike over pay and conditions that the profession has never been more rewarding or attractive, there is plenty for us in the UK to learn. Mr Gove is right to attempt to emulate Finland by raising the status of the teaching profession (and the Labour Government's Teach First programme has already contributed towards this), but the Education Secretary should resist insulting existing teachers, as he so often does.

Women to watch

After my despair last week at a lack of good female role models, this week's Women Watch is more encouraging: Marin Alsop conducting the Last Night of the Proms and Malala Yousafzai opening Birmingham's new library. Her inspirational speech declaring that books were the weapon to defeat terrorists, that "some take you into the core of your heart and others take you into the universe" shows a girl that has sisu in spades. I would love to hear more suggestions through Twitter: #womenwatch.

Norman's slippery pole

The Prime Minister's respect for the views of those Tory MPs who voted against or abstained on the Government motion on Syria clearly only extends to backbenchers or people who could think of a good excuse for not showing up. It doesn't apply to Jesse Norman, a Tory MP who abstained from the 29 August vote, who has been kicked off the No 10 policy board. He was only given the job in April after months of being persona non grata after clashing with David Cameron over his rebellion on Lords reform about a year ago.

Where does this leave Mr Norman, who is tipped as a future leader? His one-step-forward, two-steps-back situation reminds me of something attributed to his namesake, the opera singer Jessye Norman (though I believe it is, sadly, apocryphal): struggling to get out of a lift, the attendant suggested she walk out sideways. The large- framed Jessye is said to have replied: "Honey, I ain't got no sideways."