Lessons for England from Finland

In a week that produced figures showing that 40% of trainees have quit teaching after one year there is clearly much wrong with the way we attract and train teachers. This figure represents a huge wastage cost to the nation’s hard pressed finances not to mention the disruption to schools. The shortage of teachers is a very serious problem currently being kept under the carpet, but sooner of later will surely manifest itself. No doubt the inevitable impact on school performance will be used as an excuse for further state control of both schools and the curriculum. This will likely make the problem worse.
Finland has often been held up as a model (one often rejected in the UK on the grounds that the UK has to find far more teachers than a high qualification entry bar will allow). However, what is often missed about the Finnish system is apparently a more subtle and sensible approach. Their starting premise seems to be that the best qualified academically do not always make the best teachers. The skills required are far wider than just a good first degree.Enlightened countries like Finland encourage the best suited to the profession and support them, if need be, in gaining good qualifications. They are selective but do not permanently eliminate a large percentage of potentially brilliant teachers on the grounds of academic qualifications alone. This adds to the prestige of becoming a teacher, as it recognises the supreme and precious skills relating to the establishment of a good working relationship with young people.
Important election issue anyone? It surely should be or have we lost our way completely?

Once a classroom teacher (QTS) by Rob Knee QTS

As the pressures, negativity, dictats and demoralisation increase so does the turnover of staff in schools. Recruitment becomes a crisis (a crisis which is currently with us although it will not be reported). And so this particular educational cycle wearily follows the well trodden path. What could change? What can be done to redress the resulting damage to the futures of children and young people?

Probably not the government’s appallingly cynical meddling for perceived political gain.
Here’s a an idea/suggestion. We encourage anyone who has taught to make a point of using, whenever they can, their QTS initials and to look for opportunities to continue to fulfil part of the role of a teacher at home, at work or in the community. Teachers are trained to be ambassadors for the safety, wellbeing, encouragement and development of young people. If we produce around 40,000 teachers each year and the number currently employed is around 400,000 then the number qualified and not currently teaching must be in the millions (many in high profile jobs and roles). We should celebrate the time these teachers gave and understand that many move, quite naturally, into and out of the profession. We should also continue to encourage and value the contribution that the ‘have moved on from working in school cohort’ can make. We should raise the profile, and society’s awareness, appreciation and use of, the millions of skilled ambassadors for education in their midst.

Memory

There is an art of memory that can have profound implications for learning and thought.

In the Middle Ages memory skills were sometimes viewed as a serious and heretical threat to the religious orders of the day. In the Campo Di Fiori in Rome there is a statue to Father Giordano Bruno, who was martyred for his interest in science and zodiac inspired memory devices.

The basic principles of memory are universal; the visual, the ordered, the associated and the repeated. We are told that Simonides of Ceos, recited a poem to a nobleman of Thessaly which contained reference to the Gods Castor and Pollux. There upon, the haughty lord instructed Simonides to collect half of his performance fee from the Twin Gods. Simonides was called outside where two strangers wished to speak with him. Whilst outside, the building where he had performed collapsed, killing all inside. The bodies unrecognisable, Simonides was able to recall the identity of each one by remembering their position at table.

We can recall many things by using signs and symbols, by divination of words and images and by other mnemonic devices. Some believe that it is possible to share in the mystic experiences of our ancestors by a process of orthopraxis .
(The link also refers to a seminal text by Mary Carruthers : The Craft of Thought)
We might walk in the footsteps of monks in a cloister or retrace the steps of an explorer and connect with their experiences. Architecture is also a useful metaphor for memory and Cicero apparently used this device to memorise his long speeches in the Forum by walking through imagined rooms and using the contents to prompt his flow.

We have the opportunity to develop our own machina memorialis, a device for successfully and profitably reading the book of one’s own memory. Perhaps this comes more naturally with age but sometimes is accelerated by circumstances as with solitary confinements.In an ‘Evil Cradling’, Brian Keenan underlines the importance of memory – particularly as he tried to entertain his fellow hostage John McCarthy during their years in a Lebanese cell together.

Teaching of Maths

So, the latest headline gimmick to support the teaching of maths in the UK – send for the Chinese!

I am not convinced that the problem with maths is as serious as some like to make out. We don’t measure up well educationally when compared to places like China and Singapore and this is perhaps as much to do with culture as it is with teaching. Also, the data can be unreliable and skewed by a sizeable under achieving tail. The oft quoted group of critics, the employers, will probably always find fault with job seeker’s basic skills – standards are never what they were!

One cultural problem we do have is that many of us regard maths with trepidation and do not have good classroom memories – we probably transmit some of this to our offspring and round we go. I suspect that we do need a serious change in the way the subject is taught and by whom. If we are to change the culture we need to focus on younger children and their parents and perhaps we need to recast maths as a language – we make sense of the world in words and in estimations – both things our brilliant brains do well. ‘What is it called?’ and then ‘How big is it?” How far away is it?” – both questions having both a word and a numerical answer, from the very earliest age. Specialist maths teachers are not necessarily the only or the best qualified to address a subject that can be defined as ‘philosophical’. As ever, it is parents who hold the key.

I suggest that this is where we need to have a debate. I also suggest that, along with everything else in education, the constant political interference is part of the problem. I can remember vividly being taught the binary system in the 1960’s – this was to equip us for the computer age! I think it was soon dropped. I rarely remember any one explaining to us clearly why we were doing this. Even in today’s pressured classrooms, time to explore the relevance of a topic can often be squeezed out.

How to make words and number equal partners in how children begin to make sense of the world – now there’s a research project.

Parental anxiety about choice of school

It is about this time of year that parents get to find out where their offspring will be attending school this September. More and more, parents seem to be feeling enormous pressure to secure a place in the ‘best’ school, even moving house and sacrificing much family time and energy in the process.

The ‘best’ school for one’s child may not be the one that everyone claims to be the best or the one that sits on top of the league tables. All the evidence points to home support (support and interest, not heavy pressure) as being the main precursor for a child reaching its potential. Academic success is indeed important, but the supported child that copes well in the local neighbourhood school, may well achieve both social, emotional and academic success. I suggest all 3 are equally important for coping with the future world. Showering children with too many material ‘things’ or treats is likely to be bad for them. Indulgence with choice of school can be similarly unhelpful.

A final point. Each time parents manage to ‘beat’ the system and manage to secure a place for their child in a sought after school, another child, possibly needing the place far more, will be disadvantaged.

Education v Propaganda

The times we live in appear to be feeding trends which represent a serious threat to democracy.

On the one hand, the appetite for learning appears to be suffering from the lure of the social media and all the attendant distractions. The attraction is to know about the now, the sensational and the ephemeral rather than about the past, the basic and the established. On the other hand, the appetite for learning seems also to being dulled by a feeling of exclusion, a feeling that no amount of education can overcome the barriers to social mobility, of class and of inherited advantage.

The times have also fed the ubiquitous process of scapegoating that accompanies economic hardship, a hardship that is likely to continue permanently in some quarters. Newspapers and news channels discharge an endless stream of poisonous misinformation to suit the avarice and ambitions of their owners. No surprise then when a You Gov poll reveals that the population believes that 25% of all benefits are claimed fraudulently when the actual figure is less than 1%. The poll also revealed that people believe that immigrants make up 31% of the whole population rather than the true figure of 13% and that 24% of the population are Muslims when the actual figure is 5%. People believe that 15% of all under16 year olds are pregnant when the true figure is 0.6%. Perhaps most worryingly is the pedalled myth that nobody bothers to vote, such that people think only 43% bothered at the last election rather than the 65% who actually did.

Perhaps the most critical purpose of education is to encourage young people to question and to use the internet wisely in order to establish fact, to expose lies and to bear witness to their findings. We are also surely bound to explain to them the calamities that can follow if we do not demand the truth.

Schools compensating for society

It seems that overall educational achievement is being increasingly threatened in the UK by external factors, ranging from lack of family support, poverty and health.

Politicians find it easy to blame schools for the apparent drop in standards of literacy and numeracy – this is no help. The real answer lies in providing greater support for families. Schools have the capability to do this but lack the capacity. They are shackled to a unforgiving performance regime.

If we could free up schools and fund them to support families, we could make a difference. Schools could co-ordinate local care and health services to provide guidance and support for parents. If we can no longer rely on families to fully support the development of children, then schools, with the help of the community, will have to fill the void.