GOOD SCHOOLS-analysing what they are

PISA_21CENTURY_SKILLS3“What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.                                           Eleanor Roosevelt Originally published in Pictorial Review, April 1930: (Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education)

 “The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”                                                     Jean Piaget

Education began in the earliest prehistory, as adults trained the young in the knowledge and skills deemed necessary in their society.”

This article is basically the third in the trilogy, on  “Exams, Ofsted & Schools”. This is the first sentence from the one on exams:-

“In 1963 my life was radically changed because I passed an examination, called the 11 Plus, which meant that I would go to a school, very different from my local one, five miles away. My parents knew nothing about these ‘posh schools’, as we called them, and we had no idea how I had achieved this apparent success.”

It then focuses on my research into exams, what they assess, how to become successful in them and why they are so restricted in their usefulness. However, this one is on my research into “What is really meant by the term ‘Good School?”.

When I was 11, I was sent to a school five miles away because my parents believed I was going to a ‘good school’, but actually we had no idea what that meant. 10 years later I returned to the same school, no longer as a pupil but as a teacher, but I still had no idea if it was a ‘good school’ or what that meant.

In the eighties, I became a Governor of my school and my daughters reached an age that meant they should go to a school’, so I focused on researching why schools would be considered to be ‘Good’. I was doing a part-time post-graduate study I had access to the college library containing lots of books on education, since this was before the days of the internet, this was very fortunate (and essential).

When I began this research I had been teaching for 10 years but I had almost no knowledge or understanding of how schools had evolved over the centuries. I expected to be ignorant in this since I’d only recently begun to read or study books but I was surprised that few people (especially teachers) seemed to know little more than me.

Did You Know?

I was actually surprised by quite a lot of the information in my research into the history of education and schools, particularly how little had changed. I’ve since discovered that it has a similar effect on the numerous people I’ve presented to in the last 10 years.

  • In England, ‘Grammar schools’ are known to have existed before 1066, they taught mainly Greek and Latin curriculum to assist understanding of the scriptures (ie.literacy)
  • In England in the 1850s, exams organised by examination boards were introduced (for boys only, of course) in subjects such as Arithmetic, English Language, English Literature, French, German, Greek, History, Latin, Law, Mathematics, much the same as today.
  • These schools (and exams) were only available to the (rich) upper and middle classes who believed that academic achievement would prepare the student for university, from which they would become a success and leader.
  • In 1840’s America, Massachusetts became the first state to provide all of its citizens access to a free public education to prepare American youth for the industrialized economy applying the ‘factory- based classroom model’ seen in Prussia (about 30 students of similar age are taught by one teacher).
  • In the UK, the 1902 Education Act introduced national secondary schools ’the intention was to preserve as much as possible the traditional grammar and public school emphasis and spirit’.
  • In France, about 1900, psychologist Alfred Binet was asked by the French Ministry of Education to help determine who would experience difficulty in school (‘dull and defective children’). He introduced a series of questions to achieve this – the first ‘intelligence test’.
  • In the USA, the test was used to determine who was fit to serve and to lead in the Army and it was soon used to assess “normal” children to identify the “gifted”, and by the 1920s the intelligence test (soon called I.Q. tests) had become a fixture in educational practice in the U.S.A. and much of Western Europe.
  • In 1945, Britain began a national system, with grammar schools taking, on average, the ‘top twenty per cent that pass’ tests in English and arithmetic (possibly measuring I.Q. at age 11).

Discovering these facts in the eighties had a profound effect on me, or perhaps more accurately, my self-awareness underwent a big development. I realised that I was teaching in a school and education system based on concepts from 19th century for the English aristocracy and the middle classes.

I listed a number of items that seemed to have remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century.

  1. Pupils change (start high or secondary) school at about 11 years.
  2. School year begins in September
  3. School year is 39 weeks (or less) in 3 terms.
  4. At least 6 weeks holiday is provided at the end of the summer term.
  5. School week is Monday to Friday.
  6. School day is approximately 9 to 4
  7. Schools provide short break in the morning and a lunch break
  8. Pupils are placed into years groups.
  9. Pupils are taught in classrooms in groups of about 30.
  10. Different subjects are taught by different teachers.
  11. Pupils move from one classroom to another for different lessons.
  12. Each lesson lasted for about one hour.
  13. Bells rang to denote a change of lesson.
  14. Subjects taught were English, Maths, Sciences, Geography, History, Languages, Religious Studies, Physical Education (Games).
  15. Extra study is provided outside lessons (homework or prep)
  16. Pupils are assessed by written exams.
  17. National Exam boards prepare and mark external exams in the summer term.
  18. National external exam grades at 16 and 18 are used for university entrance.
  19. School uniform worn (smart and distinctive) by all

This list has surprised and amazed many hundreds of people (young and old) since I first compiled it in the early eighties but perhaps even more amazing is that most of this list still applies.

My initial concern was that my school, I had been a pupil, now a teacher and governor, was basically operating and reflecting  very old-fashioned thinking, but it seemed that virtually all the other (high) schools were also.

My task was to discover the criteria for being a good school and  following many interviews with many people (pupils and adults) the response was simple – ‘reputation’. However when I enquired as to what criteria was considered to contribute to the ‘reputation’, I obtained a number of factors.

  • Perception of behaviour of pupils to and from school.
  • Perception of pupil and parents of teachers (effective or caring)
  • Perception of external exam results at 16 and 18
  • Perception of how well pupils are supported.

Remember that my parents believed that when I was offered a place at this school in 1963 they perceived it to be a ‘good school’, but I discovered that their perception was simply because only children who passed the 11+ exam could go to it and I had to wear a ‘smart and distinctive’ school uniform. Since we lived 8 miles from the school my parents had no idea of the behaviour of pupils, the teachers, exam results or the support for pupils. 20 years later, the 11+ exam was no longer being used to select children for my school and most were local, coming from within 3 miles of the school. In the eighties, parents relied on ‘gossip or local news’ to discover information about my school (and others).

I continued this research throughout the eighties and my conclusion was.

  • Our society needed a clear explanation and understanding as to the purpose of education and schools.
  • The schools need to measure what really matters in the development of pupils, which needs to be regularly communicated and discussed with pupils and parents.

19th Century Measures

At the start of the nineties, in the UK, the  Education Secretary, John Patten, said he was ‘consigning to the dustbin of educational history’ a system which ‘denied parents the right to know how schools are performing and prevented them from making informed choices about where they want their children educated’. He said this at the time of the first publication of national school performance tables at GCSE (the national external exams for 16 year olds) for England, soon to spread to the rest of the UK.

Basically, this government had decided to make academic achievement measured by exam results the measure of success of pupils and schools, much as it had in the 19th century.

In 1996 it was followed up with the introduction of tables reporting exam results for 11 year olds in primary schools in England, with the Key Stage 2 exams replacing the 11+ exams, 50 years previous.

In 1992 in England,, to support or perhaps emphasise (ensure?) the importance of academic achievement in schools another Education Act introduced a national organisation, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), to keep the Government informed about the quality of education provided by schools and the educational standards achieved in those schools. Ofsted’s remit is to improve standards of achievement and quality of education through regular independent inspection, public reporting and informed independent advice.

            “educational standards” – I suspect unless you are familiar or employed in the education system in England you may not understand the meaning of this term, basically it is the academic achievement of the pupils in the school, measured by their grades in external exams. Consequently, this Education Act effectively introduced a method, using Ofsted, to judge schools using the exam results of the pupils in school.

This meant that in England in the nineties, the Government and the media used exam results as a measure of how good the schools were, resulting in the parents and pupils following this belief so that by the late nineties –

‘good exam results meant good school’

I had spent about 25 years teaching and researching when this belief had become accepted by much of English society and a key focus throughout this time had been trying to discover ‘What do we really need to learn to achieve a healthy, happy, successful life?’. Consequently, it was clear to me that this shift towards a 19th century measurement of schools was not helpful. However, the new century was to provide a lot of evidence to rectify this.

Pisa and Finland

At the start of the 21st century the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was introduced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to compare worldwide 15-year-old school pupils’ performance in mathematics, science, and reading. First carried out in the year 2000 and repeated every three years with almost half a million students from 65 nations and territories participating in PISA 2009.

Each student takes a two-hour handwritten test, part of the test is multiple-choice and part involves fuller answers, there are six and a half hours of assessment material, but each student is not tested on all the parts. Following the cognitive test, students spend another hour answering a questionnaire on their background including learning habits, motivation and family. School directors fill in a questionnaire describing school demographics, funding, etc.

The aim of this huge exercise is meant to compare ‘educational standards’ worldwide since according to the Division Head and coordinator of the OECD, Andreas Schleicher,”Your education today is your economy tomorrow,” and governments were being compared on how much cash they were spending on education, rather than levels of achievement.

The results of these first ‘Pisa tests’ produced a number of surprises (“Pisa shock”)

  • Germany were below the OECD average in mathematics, science, and reading, and the
  • USA were only above average in Reading (just!),whereas
  • Finland were top in reading, 3rd in maths and 4th in science and
  • Canada in the top six in all three.

The following is an extract from Donald Hirsch, Policy Consultant to the OECD on education (©OECD Observer No. 230, January 2002) How good is our global education? “The new PISA survey of student knowledge and skills tells us more than we have ever known about which education systems do well. It reveals some interesting surprises, too. The results may point to a need for improvements to education systems worldwide, though this does not mean a standardised curriculum for all countries.

PISA — the Programme for International Student Assessment — has now provided a missing piece of the jigsaw. It assesses how well students nearing the end of compulsory education (age 15) are able to apply the knowledge and skills developed at school, to perform tasks that they will need in their future lives, to function in society and to continue learning. Are students able to find the information that they need in a newspaper article? Can they distinguish opinion from fact? Can they use broad scientific understanding to draw valid conclusions from evidence on matters that affect their lives, such as the environment or food safety? These kinds of questions are answered in PISA’s assessment of reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy.

Co-ordinated by the OECD, PISA is a collaborative effort among the governments of 28 OECD and four non-member countries. The first results, published in December 2001, provide an indicator of the outcome of initial education that is officially recognised across the developed world. Crucially, the survey will be repeated every three years, allowing countries to monitor progress regularly. In 2003, all 30 OECD countries will take part, while at least 13 more non-members, from China to Chile, are joining the survey.                What do the PISA results show?

  • Finnish students did particularly well in reading, and
  • Japanese and Koreans excelled in mathematics and science.

PISA also tells us more about performance differences and social background. It shows that while privileged students do better everywhere, the gap is not immutable: it is two to three times wider in Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, for example, than in Korea. PISA’s results may reveal, when we examine them more closely, some things about which kinds of school practices might lie behind good and bad results, such as the atmosphere in the classroom, or policies on setting homework.                                                 Yet they may only hint at the answers to some of the deeper questions about why, for example, students in some countries are so much better at thinking and reflecting about what they read than students in others.”

The impact of these PISA tests in the 14 years since they were first introduced has been huge worldwide, and in 2009 an initiative was launched at the Learning and Technology World Forum in London to set up The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) project, created by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft. The focus of the project was set on defining 21st century skills and developing ways to measure them with the objective of

“What is learned, how it is taught and how schools are organized must be transformed to respond to the social and economic needs of students and society as we face the challenges of the 21st century.”


The section on ‘21st Century Skills’ attempts to provide much more information and explanation to these skills.

Although these PISA tests only focused on assessment of reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy, it provides a lot of support for assessment of 3 of the 8 skills, Effective Learning, Cognition and Communication. However, more importantly, the research into the different educational systems in the various countries revealed some excellent support for the 8 skills being at the heart of education. Finland is a fascinating case study and research into the Finnish education system provided some clear evidence into how societies could be improved, as these headlines indicate.

Why do Finland’s schools get the best results?

Finland’s schools score consistently at the top of world rankings, yet the pupils have the fewest number of class hours in the developed world.                                                                         By Tom Burridge    BBC World News America, Wednesday, 7 April 2010

 Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?

EDUCATING AMERICANS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY – The country’s achievements in education have other nations, especially the United States, doing their homework By LynNell Hancock SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | SEPTEMBER 2011

In April 2011, the OECD published “Lessons from PISA for the United States, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

This brief history should illustrate that systemic thinking and a long term strategy is required to overcome the problems created by the established traditions in the UK, USA and many other developed countries.

In 2011, the documentary film “The Finland Phenomenom: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” was broadcast in the USA, created by Harvard researcher Dr.Tony Wagner and documentary filmmaker Bob Crompton, who were invited by the Finland National Board of Education to discover the keys to success in Finnish system. The excellent film demonstrates how the emphasis on developing the skills needed to achieve good health and well-being also leads to outstanding success.

My quest into “What is really meant by the term ‘Good School?”, began about 30 years ago, but I feel it is only really been in the last 10 years that the evidence from the international research has been available to be confident of answering that question for the 21st century.There finally now seems to be clear evidence that the focus on academic achievement and testing is unsuitable for preparing children for the 21st century, even though, perhaps ironically, this will still be attained as shown by Finland etc. The importance of learning and measuring on what really matters, the 8 skills of healthy, happy successful people, comes across loud and clear in these quotes from the extract.

  • “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,”
  • Rintola will teach the same children next year and possibly the next five years, depending on the needs of the school. “It’s a good system. I can make strong connections with the children,”
  •  “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”