WHEN UK EDUCATION MINISTER Michael Gove appeared on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show a few weeks ago, he remarked that every guest on the programme - including himself and Marr; a Lib Dem peer; a pop band; an actress; and a newspaper editor, had all been products of private schools.
Here, in one of the most unequal countries in the world, we seem to be resigned to the fact that the leading positions of our country, in politics, business, sport, the law, universities, media, music and comedy, are filled from the 7% of the population whose parents have paid for their education. Even Gove purports to be shocked: “We live in a profoundly unequal society. More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.”
Gove might well be shocked, but in a Cabinet dominated by Eton educated toffs, he has little chance of changing much, even if he wanted to.
But here in Gove’s native Scotland - where St Andrews University managed to award just 13 places last year to students from disadvantaged backgrounds - it is Mike Russell not Mike Gove that runs the schools, and we do still have a chance to build a much more effective and egalitarian education system, by making our schools much less like England and much more like Finland.
Of all the countries of the world measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for their school achievement performance, Finland is a stand-out performer, and this has often been achieved by doing the opposite of what other OECD countries normally do. Meanwhile, in the latest set of results, our performance has deteriorated again in reading, maths and science; placing us - and our UK neighbours - firmly into the second division of world countries.
In Finland, they do not test – it’s not just that they don’t test as much as we do, they just don’t test at all. The only mandated tests in the whole system are at age 17, where pupils are divided into academic and vocational streams. They don’t have league tables, children are not endlessly subjected to checks on their achievements, and there are no competitions between schools.
Instead of testing, Finland just trusts its teachers, but then it can probably afford to, because Finland decided some time ago that teaching was to be a high status profession, and that only the best would get in. All teachers in Finland must have a Master Degree in Education and are selected from the top 10% of graduates. In Finland it is actually harder to get into primary school education than it is to undertake a medical degree.
Teachers there spend fewer hours at school each day and actually spend much less time in classrooms that our teachers. They work in teams, supported by colleagues who concentrate in making sure that children who fall behind are identified, receive special attention, and are actively encouraged to catch up. Schools have enormous flexibility to do whatever they need to do to ensure their students achieve, and they usually do. Finland is near the top of the world league tables for reading, maths and science.
Mike Russell made a flying visit to Finland a couple of years ago and claimed to be impressed. However he has yet to be convinced to abandon most or our measurement and testing, or substantially raise the status of Scotland’s teachers – but he should.
Oh, and there are no private schools in Finland, they find they don’t need them.