School systems are distorting mirrors for the society around them

Chris Husbands

For any country, doing well in education league tables is – frankly – a mixed blessing. It attracts a good deal of international attention, and in theory it means that your young people should be better prepared for the labour market than those from less successful countries – although all of this depends on human capital theory being right, which it may well not be.

Your ministers of education can look forward to building their air miles points. On the other hand, success can make it more difficult to address underlying problems and challenges – the policies which got you to the top may well not be those which sustain high performance, and, depressingly, you can look forward to being misrepresented and traduced in editorials and blogs the world over. Everyone will have something to say about you.

Take Finland for example. For almost a decade, Finland has been lauded as the poster boy of global education success, and its admirers have argued that it achieves success without testing, high levels of school accountability or extensive inspection. It’s presented as a heaven on earth for teacher professional development: its teacher education programmes are difficult to get into, extended and highly regarded and teachers have high status throughout Finnish society. And, outside schools, a well-planned social care systems intervenes early with those at risk of failure. Or not. Some – admittedly rather ideologically mounted – critics have argued that this is simply wrong: that the policies which took Finland to the top of the tree were nothing short of an educational boot camp: inspectors in every classroom, annual testing, a prescriptive national curriculum. For these critics, Finnish performance is now in decline.

Or take Shanghai, since the 2012 PISA (they weren’t in it before), lauded as an education success story. You can pray this success story in aid of any number of narratives. Shanghai’s teachers, it’s pointed out, have access to rigorous professional development at school, cluster and municipal level – not compulsory, but try getting promoted in Shanghai without extended engagement in professional development. Shanghai’s schools have been seen by some as bastions of transmission teaching, teachers lecturing from the front. Or they have been seen as places where a pedagogy based on ‘mastery’ means all children have to grasp basic concepts before any move on: a triumph of inclusion. Or they have been seen as structurally exclusive, since impoverished families without residence permits simply don’t get into Shanghai’s schools.

Or South Korea: a hugely efficient school system which produces near universal enrolment in higher education? or an example of how the failings of the school system are masked by a massive use of private tutors (almost four in five South Korean children have a private tutor) and a culture in which school success is so highly prized that (and I am not making this up) the police have to break up illegal homework clubs at ten o’clock at night.
And so on and so on. Education is complex, and the ability of commentators and politicians to be blind to what they don’t like and to cherry pick what they do should never be under-estimated. This is one of my last blogs for the IOE. One of the IOE’s most influential academics of the last century, Basil Bernstein, is widely known through a much quoted aphorism: “education cannot compensate for society”. It was the title of an article he wrote in the (by me, still lamented) magazine New Society in 1972. His argument, which has not really been unraveled in the last forty years, was that it was naïve to believe that schools could overcome the inequalities in the society in which they were located. Schools mattered, but it was important to be realistic about what they could do.

Perhaps I have spent too long reading the research and talking to the protaganists – in England, Finland, Shanghai, Korea, and, beyond that in Ontario, Beijing, Victoria, New Zealand, Chile and so many other places. But it does seem to me that, by and large, societies get education systems they deserve. Societies in which education has a high cultural value produce valued schools, have fewer difficulties in teacher recruitment and in pupil motivation. Societies in which examination success drives everything by and large get the buy-in of more advantaged groups who identify with the value systems, but risk high levels of pupil stress.

Unequal societies produce unequal school systems. Inclusive societies produce more inclusive school systems, with flatter distributions of cognitive outcomes, but with the risk of lowering attainment at the very top of the range. And in each case: why wouldn’t this be true? Schools and school systems are distorting mirrors for the society around them. Teachers matter; cultures matter; systems matter – schools can compensate for society, but only a bit – though this bit is always, always worth working at. This in itself means that teachers, cultures and systems matter much more than the policy levers which ambitious, here-to-day-gone-tomorrow politicians like to pull – curriculum reform, examination reform, structural reform. The 2015 OCED Education Policy Outlook report despaired about the tendency for politicians, like so many bored and spoilt children, to pick up and then abandon policy reform proposals rather than to stick with the unglamorous, long-haul of system development.


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Posted in Education policy, International comparisons, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
6 comments on “School systems are distorting mirrors for the society around them
  1. Graham Holley says:

    Quite right, Chris. I hope you will continue to blog from Sheffield.

  2. Chris Culpin says:

    I agree that”Education cannot compensate for society” – – but it can and should be a better place than society

  3. Ian Gilbert says:

    Typing this from Chile where we are researching different schools across their (soon to be disbanded) neo-liberal education model. You rightly say ‘Unequal societies produce unequal school systems’. I would add, based on what we see in Chile and are increasingly seeing in England, ‘Unequal school systems perpetuate unequal societies’. But, if you were to be cynical, maybe that’s the point…

  4. mikeollerton says:

    Brilliant, just brilliant. Thank you for writing this blog

  5. Josephine Molyneux says:

    This is a brilliant article. I like you look critically at education having been in education over forty years.I have had many leadership positions and was promoted because of my excellent results when it came to performance. I follow education systems that have been successful.
    Your research is an “eye opener” I believe in equality and if need be private tutoring. But, to enable a student to excel to the best of their abilities. I detest parents who are after high scores at the expense of the emotional welfare of their children. I also detest education becoming a business where figures take precedence over the development and progress of students.
    Australia has much to learn and seems to adopt educational policies that now seem to be failing across the world.I believe a system of inspectors does ensure that quality teaching is in progress. To be given a bonus as an incentive. Alas, is it not what a teacher/lecturer should be delivering? Once more a numbers game.

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