The ever-shifting foundations of Good Curriculum design and practice – using PISA/OECD data!

In December 2013, the OECD PISA triennial international survey hit the news stands and England was pilloried for being so far behind the leading nations in the world. In addition to their somewhat arcane abilities test in reading, maths and science (questions in which differ by the way from country to country, though the OECD think that’s not an issue) which compared test scores from 65 countries. Happiness was ranked based on the percentage of students who agreed or disagreed with the statement “I feel happy at school.” The picture above shows us Brits firmly in the happy, somewhat above the learning neutral zone. Sure there are happier more able children, but some of the most academically successful are deeply miserable, with the Koreans most likely to commit suicide. Frankly the Slovaks, other eastern blocks and the Argentinians and Qataris have got a lot more to worry about – put simply hopeless at school and miserable about life in general.

According to the Independent Schools Council, our sector of schools performs up there near Korea, Shanghai and Singapore, and with so many of our schools benchmarked as excellent for pastoral care and spirit, we might actually be top right in the ‘highly happy at being highly successful’ section of the graph as a sector. But not so fast, Pal. Analysis of the PISA surveys by their owner OECD highlights that in both the UK and US,  performance within schools is often much wider than the performance between schools.  Of course OECD are talking about performance in solely academic terms in this analysis of schools, and they point out that this variance is much reduced in the highest performing education systems.

Comparing the top 6, what is the magic bullet that Singapore have achieved that Shanghai is moving towards, and that South Korea is so off beam about? What is it that Singapore did over 10 years ago (1998, 2005), that China is now directing (from 2012) and that is informing everyone’s next steps?  Answer: reduce the content to be taught, learned and tested.
Singapore reduced the content in their curriculum by first 30% so they had room to teach thinking skills and ICT and then by 20% at the subject teachers level so that teachers had time to tailor the curriculum to meet individual needs – “Teach Less, Learn More”.  That’s right – don’t believe me – read the Singaporean parliamentary reply here – http://goo.gl/wfeObf.

One paragraph sums it up perfectly “The aim of the ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ movement was to steer our educators towards adopting a range of effective teaching approaches to better engage students and enable them to develop enduring understanding and skills for life. More classroom time was given for student interaction and exploration, opportunities for expression, and learning of life-long skills. Based on the Ministry’s internal studies, student engagement levels have risen since the implementation of ‘Teach Less, Learn More’”.

What Singapore is now doing is seeking to move its offer even further, because its citizen outcomes at 18 still point too much at a closed, non-growth, mind-set. There is not point promoting the leading learners of Singapore into government and civil service. That’s not where wealth comes from, particularly in an island nation surrounded by bigger and more powerful trading groups. Wealth comes from innovation, creativity and a can-do mind set, close coupled to a well ordered society in which liberal values and a civil community exists. Sound’s familiar? Quite – in so far as that GB is like Singapore, but scaled up somewhat. As I listen to this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4, which was focussing on why there are now almost 0.5 Million French nationals living in London, it was quite obvious that our capital city has a really attractive, vibrant positive achievement culture that attracts our neighbours.

Singaporean schools display less of the variability than UK schools, and where we need to take care is to ensure that our schools continue to develop the whole child, not just pressure cook the more able to be even more able, because focussing on performance to improve performance further simply doesn’t work. And those under that pressure slip bit by bit in terms of self-esteem; that’s the South Korean way, and look what effect that has on their young, with that unenviable record for teen suicide.

What is remarkable about the Singaporean approach over the last decade is just how close to the Claires Court Essentials they are moving their programme.  They are just abolished academic banding (we have never felt that educationally sound). They have renewed their focus on Arts, Music and Physical Education. Here’s their infographic. They also have begun to focus on a 21st Century set of skill competencies (that’s the Risk-taking, resilience, creative, collaborative set we have established here). And we both agree that by holistic, we do mean all-round education, and we have mapped the skills into the curriculum so that there is no chance some of the skills are missed through teacher variation.

Where I doff my hat to Singapore is that they made Google Apps for Edu available for staff in September 2009, a year or so before us.  We overtook them in 2012 when our major influx of Chromebooks arrived, and as these devices have just landed in Southern Asia last Summer, it is taking time for the schools and Ministry to find the budget to make that next step. All who use Google Apps for Edu have become passionate evangelists for the technology.  Other products exist, and most noticeably iPads in schools throughout our area. What GAFE and Chromebooks permit most obviously is multiple collaborative working within seconds, and that is the essence of how we are managing increasingly to ensure that none (except the disengaged, perish the thought) are left behind.

And finally, wherever a Curriculum is planned to go, it must be underpinned by enduring values and mapped using excellent assessment tools. For Singapore: Respect, Resilience, Responsibility, Integrity, Care and Harmony. For CC: Responsibility, Respect, Loyalty and Integrity. Resilience sits as one of our competencies to be built, and I think we have that right. Values are caught as much as they are taught; Resilience I suspect is not just one thing, and builds in layers as children meet and respond to a wide variety of challenges – more of a skill to be learned and developed.

For England Edu PLC per se, I feel the country has much more to do. So many ways of ‘birthing’ and running a school now exist, and there seems to be no common denominator. PISA data might show that the difference within schools in the UK is pretty wide; like all data, it is historic and is only sampled every 3 years, and I wonder in 3 years what their findings will show for the State sector here. My heart hopes that all schools and the professionals that reside therein get ‘Learning’ as we do. My head tells me otherwise sadly; just this week the Making Education Work report highlighted that the direction the country needs to take is the way we have gone – and the DfE (in all their wisdom) have a closed mind set and has focussed on a core  narrow syllabus driven by exams only for 16 and 18 year olds, with no attention given to the need to develop emotional literacy, team working and empathy for others. Fingers crossed, the Authors of the Report manage to persuade a broader political coalition to change for the better. Because I don’t believe in ‘hope’ alone, our school leadership has lead that change such that our Claires Court Essentials is indeed a Curriculum to be admired and advocated – which we do. Often. ☺

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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