20 January 2018
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We do not have long to get a school system right

Text: Mervyn Bedford

Mervyn Bedford at one of the many Oxford landmarks of higher education.

Because I know Aage Myhre and his wife and very much respect what he is trying to do for Lithuania, I offered to write of educational values for the new version of VilNews. The Baltic nations have a perfect opportunity to change the map of educational provision in ways that better fit the rapidly changing world of the 21st. century. Education is not about buildings. It is not about systems and organisations. It is not about tests and inspections. It is about people and the relationships between those who want to learn, or need to learn, and those who already know it. For almost 150 years State school systems have imposed a model of teaching and learning that has hardly changed while society has fundamentally changed and, recently, very rapidly. Those changes are racing unseen towards our youngest children.

At a conference in Norway in 2009, reported in the respected UK magazine “New Scientist,” experts discussed how soon human beings will need to be wired to the super computers rapidly arriving in the work place. Earliest suggested date was 2045. At MIT in the US by 2029 they will have computers able to replicate human thought and decision by copying the chemical and electrical patterns in the human brain. Two Oxford University teachers have argued in print about whether it is right to allow students drugs to enhance their brain performance. Drugs to provide specific hours of sleep and brain implants that help deaf children to hear and paralysed limbs to move already exist. Job requirements in a very few years time and the character of society will change dramatically. We do not have long to get a school system right.


1 An Ideal School System

The Early Brain

School systems have been rooted in teaching mainly facts which pupils and students have only to remember and write down on test papers. Testing systems of all kinds, including the university sector, are seriously flawed. Research shows that at best they test speed if handwriting and memory. These are not the most desirable qualifications for employment. Business people in England and some academics openly complain that despite escalating results at 18+ we are still not producing enough people who can think for themselves. That is why future human beings, including my four young grandchildren, may have to be electronically plugged into the machines.

Modern scanning reveals that the human brain, even before birth, is imprinted for learning. The two senses- touch and hearing- are alive and working from the first day. "Feed them now" nature is crying, but how little we do to work them effectively. A baby's early experience is a total lottery. There is abundant evidence that the brain has enormous reserve power that even the Einsteins and Hawkings do not tap. School systems threaten the human brain with redundancy.

Early encouragement of free, natural learning experience in babies is now essential. The priority for national investment must now be early education. The obvious risks can be managed effectively. We have to build raw brain power in those early years, up to three and four, when the brain is plastic enough to believe anything is possible. That is the power needed to stay ahead of the machines. What we have built by around 4 and 5 will continue to mature and learn but we cannot much increase its raw power. If we do what is right for our youngest children we shall solve all the problems most countries observe with later education, including many costly efforts to repair the dame of educational failure.

Parent-Teacher Partnership

Research clearly shows the power for young children’s learning when teachers and parents are on the same wavelength. This is best found in smaller schools. Across the UK and elsewhere standards in small schools are at the top of national performance despite all the alleged “problems” argued for closing them. No educational evidence is ever offered to support closures. They are said to be too expensive but this is a badly flawed argument. When total education spending is calculated small schools generally cost less. It is not fair only to calculate their pupil unit costs. Small schools serve mainly rural areas and bring rural community benefit, but our urban children and their communities urgently need the same benefits. The “big is better and by the way cheaper” myth has never been right. Long-term, small-scale education delivers profit on its costs. Academic achievements are more widely achieved and are more enduring. This brings better qualifications and jobs and eventually higher tax revenues for the State while the healthy partnership between home and school reduces the heavy costs of later educational failure.  A wise government will invest in small-scale provision and partnership between teachers and parents.

Effective Teaching and Learning

Research has consistently shown that up to 50% of all outcomes still reflect home background- for better or worse. The other 50% is quality of teaching. This will also reflect quality of headteachers and school leadership.

There is much profoundly valid research showing basic factors which, if present in lessons, make them effective.  This important professional research never reaches classrooms while the government systems shaping what schools do and what universities demand distract their interest. The desired models, however, require the opposite of what most school systems offer..….not least the way time is used.  I worry about under-privileged and disadvantaged children, an often failing cadre of disaffected pupils, but I worry more for those who think they have succeeded. A wise government will invest heavily in giving teachers the tools they need to do the job. Teaching is not  mysterious but it is more complex than even many professionals believe.

For example the most effective learning comes when teachers in their planning exploit what their pupils already know and can do. As a result they often ask them to make important decisions about their work and take responsibility for much of it. Real-world experience like discussion and co-operation play their part. Teaching becomes a sensitive matter of fine-tuning the whole programme, leading when required and at other times supporting the learning. Teachers must always show they are in charge and know the goals. They need to demonstrate they not only have the tools but know how and when and where to use them. Successful schools have leaders who inspire such professional insight and vision and lead the practice by their own example. Their schools are places where flexibility and spontaneity feature significantly in everyday organisation.

Effective Accountability

The observation model I developed in Sweden is similar to the one recently adopted in New Zealand to replace tests and inspections.  If we inform teachers better and help them to inform each other by observing in classrooms, where the real action is, we shall change and improve practice in some cases overnight. Observation is such a revelatory practice. Its truths often have meaning for more than the teachers, but for the school and even the State. To invest in such a system needs only an independent, external validation system- checking that schools use it, and are learning from it. It will be much cheaper than tests and inspections.

If Lithuania adopted these principles and priorities it will achieve the paradigm shift in educational practice the 21st. century urgently requires. Heavy, top-down, bureaucratic and expensive procedures will be minimised. In England we are wasting billions of pounds on smart new buildings despite two major pieces of respected academic research showing that long-term the quality of school and college buildings impacts little on performance. We want clean schools, in good repair, with adequate working space, ventilation and sound-proofing. We do not need architectural palaces. No-one can tell me exactly what education will look in even ten years time, let alone 2099.  It will be very much at a button and the two resources our children will still most need will be good parents and good teachers. Those are the targets for investment. Let Lithuania lead the world.


Mervyn Bedford

Mervyn Benford is a former teacher, head teacher, local authority inspector and adviser who later worked for eight years  as a national school inspector in England and Wales. The school he led won recognition under the 1986 Royal Society of Arts “Education for Capability” award. He has throughout his career contributed media articles and interviews on education and more recently worked on and off in Sweden for 14 years training teachers to observe lessons and give friendly but constructive feedback as a better method of accountability than testing and inspection. He observed over 2600 lessons in Sweden across the age group from 1 to 20. He works voluntarily for an organisation designed to promote the virtues of smaller schools. He has a deep interest in the independent Baltic States and in 2009 talked at an international seminar in Riga on school quality issues. In England, as a member of the National Education Trust, he is regarded as one of its “Leading Thinkers

Category : Education research & development

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