Finland, Japan, Wherever Next? Labour Twigg Fails To Impress

The BBC report that the UK Shadow (in the broadest sense of the term) Secretary for Education, Stephen Twigg, believes “England’s schools should learn from Japan”.

He obviously hasn’t been reading the Economist recently.

“THE yells of children pierce the night, belting out the elements—“Lithium! Magnesium!”—as an instructor displays abbreviations from the periodic table. Next, two dozen flags stream by as the ten-year-olds shout out the names of the corresponding countries. Later they identify 20 constellations they have committed to memory. Timers on desks push older students as they practise racing through tests. The scene at Seiran Gakuin, a juku or crammer on the edge of Tokyo, repeats itself nightly at 50,000 juku across Japan.

Seen as a brutal facet of Japan’s high-speed post-war growth, crammers are as powerful as ever. Almost one in five children in their first year of primary school attends after-class instruction, rising to nearly all university-bound high schoolers. The fees are around ¥260,000 ($3,300) annually. School and university test-scores rise in direct proportion to spending on juku, often a matter of concern in a country that views itself as egalitarian. The schools are also seen as reinforcing a tradition of rote learning over ingenuity.

Yet the sweatshop image is outdated. As Japan’s population declines, some schools are becoming a source of grassroots policy innovation, says Julian Dierkes, a rare expert on juku, who happens to be at the University of British Columbia. Many juku operators were left-wing activists in the 1960s, later shut out of business and academia.

The share of enrolled students is higher than a quarter-century ago. In a 2008 government survey, two-thirds of parents attributed the growing role of juku to shortcomings in public education. Their service is more personalised, and many encourage individual inquisitiveness when the public system treats everyone alike. “The juku are succeeding in ways that the schools are not,” an OECD report says. In Tokyo, students say, they are a relief from cramped quarters, siblings, television and the internet.

Oddly, Japan’s education ministry refuses to recognise juku, dismissing them as a mere service businesses. The powerful teachers’ union resists them on grounds of undermining equality. Meanwhile the juku concept is being exported. Japanese operators are expanding to China and elsewhere in Asia. There, too, they may prove a response to broken state systems.”

According to the article, then, the Japanese model isn’t so great after all:

1. “the public system treats everyone alike.”

2. ” “The juku are succeeding in ways that the schools are not,” an OECD report says.”

2. “broken state systems.”

Dear, oh dear.

And Twigg is going on a fact-finding mission? Doesn’t he employ a researcher with an internet connection?

Apparently, non-teacher Stephen Twigg thinks that “despite many school reforms, there has been little change to the style of classroom teaching since Victorian times.”

Is he seriously saying that since the days of chimney sweeps, slate, benches and classes of 70 to 80 nothing has changed?

Also, if, as he claims, “Labour’s number one priority for education is raising the quality and status of teachers” then it should start with pay and conditions rather than, as we suspect he’ll keep harping on about, promoting non-sensical programmes like TeachFirst that do nothing but encourage the idea that teaching is not a proper job and can be discarded for ‘better’ things once your CV is buffed up a bit.

What Twigg also shows a complete lack of awareness of is the fact that – and despite what Wally Wilshaw says – teachers haven’t got the time to get together to plan lessons if they have to do all the other non-teaching work that goes into the mad, mad world of the UK teaching profession today. How many hours in the day does Twigg think teachers should be working? Obviously more than MPs.

Twigg should also take more notice of his own words. He is quoted as saying, “Education in England has had years of reform to structures, exams and accountability measures. But the style of classroom teaching has changed little since Victorian times.”

This is not for want of trying, however.

Any reasonable person would think that with decades of reform not making any difference then the problem was perhaps a political one, not a professional or technical one as politicians – deflecting attention away from their own failings/immateriality – would have us believe. Indeed, any reasonable person may wonder why politicians get involved in education at all given the fact that they can’t ever seem to get things right.

And, apparently, he was raving about ‘trial-and-error’ to the Beeb? Is that a serious suggestion? Trial-and-error?!

Finally, he adds: “If we want to change teaching, we can’t just change teachers – we must change the culture of teaching, its very fabric and DNA.”

However, we think this should read: “If we want to change education, we should leave teachers, schools and students alone – we must put an end to political interference in education, put an end to the fact that MPs still believe that they somehow know better than the rest of us despite the appalling track record, we must change this failed and counter-productive political culture, its very fabric and DNA.”

Here’s hoping.

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