Democracy at risk in education?

Government ministers are planning to adopt Singaporean educational practices in English schools.  We need to keep in mind that children in Singapore may currently be better at doing sums, but they do not live in an open democracy

Ruth Merttens
28 May 2012

The British government is currently rewriting the entire maths and science curricula for primary and secondary schools across England. This means that they will be implementing far-reaching changes, both in terms of what is covered at each level and also as to how it is taught. These changes are not only going to affect all of us who have children or grandchildren at school.  They may threaten the very nature of an open democracy with regard to education.

The ministers, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb,  are enthusiastic about the wholesale adoption of Singaporean educational practices in English schools. and they are undoubtedly motivated by the empirically verifiable fact that Singapore does extremely well on the international comparisons, specifically in relation to maths and science. Since 1995, they have always been in the top three, and mostly in first place, in the hierarchy of countries generated by the TIMSS data, the best known and most respected international league table in this area.

What are the key factors in Singapore’s success?  Following a lifetime of research in this area, Lianghuo Fan identifies  the following aspects as significant. Firstly an extremely centralised curriculum, which, allied to national textbooks eliminates any diversity of materials used in schools.  Secondly, a highly competitive selective system, where the presence of high-status, high-pressure tests at 11/12 years of age utterly determine a child’s future career in secondary education. Teachers therefore teach to the test, with a preponderance of mathematically closed rather than open-ended problems.  Thirdly Fan explains that the social context of compliant, quiet pupils with competitive and highly motivated parents means that not only are children well behaved in school, but also that a high percentage of children receive extra tuition outside school.

This all points to a very different type of educational as well as socio-political context, and one which must crucially be taken into account if we are to follow the proposed route of implementing a Singaporean centralised curriculum - and associated pedagogy in English schools. In order to endorse this adoption, it seems to me that teachers and parents alike would need to be convinced that the two societies have sufficient cultural similarity for the methods used in Singaporean education to have a good chance of working here in Britain, that these methods would play to our strengths, rather than be derailed by our weaker traits, and that we are prepared to risk the unintended consequences of such an approach -  as well as the hoped for outcomes of improved maths and science scores.

The cultural similarity – or lack thereof – is perhaps the most problematic of the assumptions which need to be made. Even a slightly deeper probe into the facts about Singapore generates concern. There are 5.18 million inhabitants of Singapore, and 3.27 million of these are residents. This statistic alone invites questions. Almost 2 million non-resident residents. Where are their children in the schooling system? What percentage of these children figure in the international comparisons? We do not know.  A statistic given by Professor Fan relates to relevant cultural disparities and asserts that the children of the poorest paid workers, comprising perhaps the bottom 20% of the population, are not in school.  Many head teachers in England and Wales might want to reflect how different their schools might be were one fifth of the children, those of lowest socio-economic status, to be removed. This is not to impugn the ability of this section of the cohort, but simply to recognise that being the children of greatest socio-economic disadvantage, these are often the children with greatest educational need, which has evident implications for resources and teacher's time.

Singapore education is a highly competitive and selective endeavour. At the end of P6 (age 11/12) children sit a set of high-stake tests which effectively determine their life chances. The effects of this are many and various. School is a ‘job’ for Singaporean children – they are expected to be both obedient and submissive. They are not encouraged to argue or contest what they are told.  They are compliant to a degree unimaginable in a British context. By contrast, children in England expect to enjoy school, certainly at primary level. Parents complain to teachers and head teachers if their child is unhappy or bored, and there is a clear expectation that something will be done about it. Corporal punishment is illegal in Britain, and has been for decades. Compliance with a more centralised, less locally-determined, more rote-learning curriculum will therefore be difficult to enforce, especially in schools where behaviour is an ever-present issue. 

We need a curriculum in England which plays to our strengths as a nation rather than to our weaknesses, just as the Singaporean and Chinese curricula play to their strengths. Memorisation is a huge cultural issue in the UK today, in stark contrast to the strong habit of memorising written characters, prayers and much else in far Eastern countries. Children in England do not routinely memorise prayers or chants at their mother’s or father’s knee. The 5-year-olds in my reception class often have learned little or nothing by heart – rote learning no longer being a part of the routines of daily life for the majority. Teenagers in my GCSE maths class have not even memorised their own phone numbers let alone those of their friends. Why bother, they say, when all is available at the click of a button. So although, despite what is often said, children are still being taught their tables in school, and required to learn their number facts just as much if not more than they ever were, they simply do not retain these. ‘Use it or lose it’ applies to memory perhaps more than other to aspects of cognition.

I and many others in education enthusiastically advocate both a greater emphasis on memorisation and rote-learning within the mathematics curriculum, and also for more time in the school day to be given to mathematics. However, we are aware that this focus on memory runs counter to prevailing cultural mores, where the need to ‘learn things by heart’ is increasingly diminished by the ubiquitous presence of hand-held and ever-accessible technology. Control of these cultural behaviours is not, alas, within the remit of schools. 

On a more cheery and optimistic note, there are some aspects of education where Britain historically does well, and is still regarded as something of a world leader. One is the attitude of children in British schools; their expectation that it is not only possible, but often expected that information given will be challenged and that procedures should be understood as well as followed. Creativity is highly-valued and actively encouraged in our schools, as is originality both of approach and delivery.  If it is broadly accepted that, in England, our strengths lie in originality, innovation and creative thinking, in mathematics as elsewhere, and that our weaknesses reside in a lack of compliance and an under-exercised memory especially on entry to school, then to adopt a curriculum based largely on rote-learning and procedural teaching in preference to one emphasising conceptual understanding and critical thinking may be to invite unintended consequences on a very large scale.

Further and far more serious unintended consequences could follow were the Singapore curriculum, and its related pedagogy, to be imported into English schools. A positive attitude to diversity, and a commitment to equal opportunities are admirable features of education in an open democracy. This applies firstly to the actual structure of the education system. The Singaporean model of early and irrevocable selection of those children who will access a more prestigious and, for want of a better word, a superior education, will not fit comfortably within current cultural expectations in England.

Neither will the centralisation and control of the curriculum and of the materials which schools and teachers use to deliver it be conducive to the preservation of an open democracy. Teachers have always had a choice of resources in the UK – they have not been told how to teach. We have never had a national textbook, and nor has any government up to now proposed dictating a centralised curriculum as they do in Singapore. The first signs that government policy is now to exercise a much tighter censorship of resources in schools are already evident in the kite-marking of particular phonics schemes, so that only those favoured by the government have got through onto the ‘list’. Unsurprisingly, well-used and respected materials published by small firms like ‘sum-phonics’ or ‘Thrass’ and charities like Hamilton Trust figure nowhere.  Schools are then unable to make informed choices based on teachers’ judgements and local factors, small publishers suffer and diversity of approach has, hey presto, vanished.

I am wholly in favour of reforming education and of making changes to how we teach maths at primary and secondary level. I also believe that we have a lot to learn from other countries. We certainly need to focus attention on the need to develop good memorisation skills at a young age and to keep these polished throughout a child’s school career. We also need to increase the quantity of practice that children do of routine algorithms so that these become second nature to them. But we do not want to throw out the proverbial baby with the mathematically-messy bathwater. The emphases on conceptual understanding and on strategic thinking and problem solving that underpin our pedagogy and curricula are wholly useful and highly pertinent to a fast-changing global economy. Nor do we want a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to materials in a society which proudly celebrates diversity.   

Happily this is not an 'either / or' situation. It is perfectly possible to make the improvements and eschew the centralisation. We just need to keep in mind that children in Singapore may currently be better at doing sums, but they do not live in an open democracy. I do not believe that it is worth sacrificing those features of education in Britain which ensure that our children do.

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