Experimental Education: Are Our Kids Tough enough?

Not long ago, the BBC’s Are our kids tough enough? three part documentary delved into Britain’s education system to ask whether, in an increasingly global market, British schools are up to par – “in a unique experiment, five teachers from China take over the education of fifty teenagers in a Hampshire school to see whether the high-ranking Chinese education system can teach us a lesson.”

The result: a mixed bag. Admittedly the ‘Chinese School’ scored higher in the final results to those in the ‘British School’, but at what cost?

To answer this isn’t as easy as declaring one system better than the other – a number of important factors must be taken into consideration. Perhaps the most glaringly obvious of which is the difference in culture…

In China education is revered, and is the means by which one will be judged successful by society and peers. It is precisely why those in the teaching profession command respect and are held in high esteem. Juxtaposed with this is Britain’s unfair adage “those that can’t do, teach”. In the media the education system and those that are part of it, namely teachers, are often harangued despite contending with a whole host of issues that are out of their hands. For some students, though not all, education is also taken for granted – interestingly the Chinese teachers commented on how this might in part be a symptom of the welfare state, a safety net that is not afforded to those in China.

Directly related to this is the difference in discipline – it was noticeable that the year 9 students were misbehaved at times, talking over the Chinese teachers and disrupting teaching. No doubt some of this is due in part to students taking advantage of new teachers in a somewhat unfamiliar setting. But on the other hand, tellingly at the emergency parents meeting held at the Chinese school, one parent whispers to another “can I just say, isn’t it the school that should be getting the discipline going?” – the answer to which is no, it should be there to reinforce discipline.

Thirdly is the difference in school hours. The Chinese school day last considerably longer than the British school day. Naturally, for the group of 13-14 year olds the prospect of early starts and late finishes was decidedly unwelcome, but for the Chinese teachers this meant more teaching time.

And lastly the style of teaching. The difference could not have been greater between the British and Chinese styles – the latter involved lecturing from the front and dictating information with little engaging interaction with the students, whilst the former relies on allowing the students to work out information, experiment, explore and most importantly, question.

But if the Chinese school got better results, what does this matter? Well, that depends entirely on what we want for our kids. The Chinese system caters for students that learn in a very rigid manner, removes a lot if not all of school’s creative elements, and leaves limited or no time for hobbies and relaxation. Sure, there are things that we can learn from the Chinese education system, but school is not just about results – it’s about equipping students with skills that they can take with them long after they leave.

Already, with the seemingly endless culture of targets that change with every government, we have forgotten about this sentiment. School shouldn’t just be about academic achievement, not every student is suited to A-levels and university. That’s ok, except with the emphasis constantly and consistently focussed on achieving the right grades, important vocational skills such as construction and mechanics are forgotten. It’s time we remembered them, although judging by the rise of free schools, the riddance of modular exams and proposed longer teaching days, all in a bid to better academic targets, this seems unlikely.

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