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Stephen Eastwood
December 2016.
190
Which country has the best school system, and why?
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Well, if you look at the international league tables, then it’s possible to identify which are the high performing countries. But too often what we’re assuming is that those league tables tell us who is doing the best. League tables like that cannot tell us who’s best.

Actually what they’re telling us are particular things about particular aspects of particular education systems – but they don’t give us anything like a broad enough picture to tell us anything more meaningful. The real picture is far more complicated, deeper, and reflects different aims and aspirations. So part of the issue is that we need to get away from this obsession with ‘the best’ without questioning what we mean by that term.

"We’ve introduced free schools into the English system even though they were performing poorly in Sweden, and there’s no evidence the policy is working well in England."

There are lots of fantastic things happening in other parts of the world, and we can learn from those systems. But it depends on what you want to do. Part of the problem is that people ask “who can we copy?”, and that’s the wrong question. Not least because we know it’s enormously difficult to replicate something from one system and expect it to work in another system. There’s a huge amount of policy copying, but often policies don’t travel very well, because context matters.

A competitive approach to education is then reinforced through global league tables, encouraging the idea of “let’s copy Finland” or “let’s copy Shanghai” – a simplistic answer to a question which isn’t the right one to be asking in the first place.

For example, look at David Cameron’s exaltation of free schools in Sweden, which was based on no real evidence, yet it’s a policy that we have adopted (albeit without the ‘for profit’ schools – for now). So we’ve introduced free schools into the English system even though they were performing poorly in Sweden, and there’s no evidence the policy is working well in England.

What it’s done is create a chaotic system, where you get schools in places where they don’t necessarily need them the most, and you get increased evidence of what’s called ‘gaming’, which is schools playing the system in a way to make themselves look better in comparison to their so-called ‘competitors’. A system where there are hidden forms of selection or social selection taking place is not one that’s starting from the point of view of catering for the children with the greatest need – it’s actually doing the reverse.