International Comparisons, Enlightened Education

A topic that’s making many waves in Britain this week is “UK education sixth in global ranking”.

So we’re not as bad as those people at OECD have been saying we are? Excellent.

Apparently some new research and “a global league table published by education firm Pearson” show that when a raft of weighting factors are taken into account then the UK’s schools are not doing badly at all.

This composite picture puts the UK in a stronger position than that suggested by the influential Pisa tests from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – which is one of the tests included within this ranking.

The weightings for the rankings have been produced for Pearson by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The two education superpowers – Finland and South Korea – are followed by three other high-performing Asian education systems – Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

On researching the findings of the Pearson report this week, we came across an intriguing website that we want to share with 3D Eye readers.

The United States based Center on International Education Benchmarking  (CIEB) provides a detailed analysis of the top ten performing countries according to the 2009 PISA Results.

Those who pay attention to international comparisons will not be surprised by the usual countries heading this list. But it’s the detail that’s interesting – and it’s detail that we have!

We wonder whether Mr Gove and his senior staff have noticed sites such as these? Have they looked at the sorts of educational approaches that are in place in higher-achieving countries? Have they noticed the progress that these countries are making economically as well as educationally, assuming this happens to be one of their main indicators of success?

Why is Mr Gove still dealing in misinformation about countries like Singapore when it takes just a simple search on the internet to find the truth?

Now let’s have a look at some paragraphs from the CIEB website about the country that has recently shot to the top of  the PISA league tables – for literacy, maths and science – above even Finland and Singapore:

Many [of its] schools used to promote this focus [on the ‘core’ subjects], removing all “extraneous” subjects, such as art, music and physical education from the schedule, leaving more hours for students to focus on the exam subjects. However, in recent years this has begun to change, with educators, policymakers and even parents coming to realize that the emphasis placed on high stakes tests may actually hinder performance. [Country X] now considers curriculum reform to be an important priority.

[One area of the country] has been working hard on curriculum reform, often piloting a new curriculum before it is rolled out to the rest of the country. The thrust of curriculum reform since the late 1980s has been the de-emphasis on exams and the promotion of educational equity. There has also been a shift towards a focus on conceptual and experiential learning.

cieb-logoIn 1988, [Country X] established a three-block curriculum, which enabled students to participate in required and elective courses as well as extracurricular activities as part of their schooling, which was a major change from the previous curriculum focused solely on core subjects. Textbooks were redesigned to align with the new curriculum. Ten years later, new reforms produced a curriculum that integrated many subjects and was centered on student engagement. This focus on non-core subjects means that [the] students are required to do one hour of physical activity each day, and often participate in “service” or “social” learning, which involves community-service oriented field trips to learn more about their society.

The curriculum is organized around eight “learning domains,” which are meant to encourage active inquiry and interdisciplinary understanding. These domains are language and literature, mathematics, natural science, social sciences, technology, arts, physical education and a practicum. The curriculum is also organized into three separate components: the basic curriculum (core subjects); the enriched curriculum (elective courses); and the inquiry-based curriculum (extra-curricular activities). With these domains and components in mind, schools are encouraged to adapt the government’s curriculum frameworks to meet their students’ needs. Teachers are encouraged to remember to “return class time to students” and “to every question there should be more than a single answer.”

This all sounds vaguely familiar to us: a de-emphasis on exams, promotion of educational equality, focus on conceptual and experiential learning, student centred learning, integration of subjects, inquiry-based curriculum, learning more about their society, and remembering that classrooms should be about learning – with a teacher enabling and facilitating that learning.

3Di Associates Photographs

Why – this sounds just like our primary school classrooms pre 1989, and prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum. It sounds like the way we used to teach, concentrating on the needs of the individual child, whose importance and value must be our key concern – and not on a school’s position in a league table.*

It sounds like a way forward that encourages personalised learning (“elective courses”) as well as an emphasis on core knowledge and skills that are learned in an innovative,exciting way, which engages learners in their own development.

3Di Associates Photographs

So why is this not England? Why is it that the world’s most educationally successful country has developed the sort of methodology and pedagogy that were advocated by British reformers back in the 1960’s – when the best English primary schools were seen to be exemplars for the rest of the world?

And the name of this country?

Shanghai Province Flag

China, of course. Or to be precise, Shanghai Province, which is currently at the top of all three OECD/PISA tables for Maths, Literacy and Science.

Shanghai skyline

Let’s go back to that first sentence from the extract and add the one which preceded it:

Because examination results can essentially chart the course of a student’s academic and work life, parents, teachers and students often focus on exams to the exclusion of all else. Many schools used to promote this focus, removing all “extraneous” subjects, such as art, music and physical education from the schedule, leaving more hours for students to focus on the exam subjects . . .

Now doesn’t this sound familiar – Mr Gove? This used to be the situation in Shanghai Province, where the process of change was begun nearly a quarter of a century ago, and where this development of student-centred practice has been going on now for over a decade. Hence their outstanding test scores – on tests of whether pupils are able to solve problems and apply critical thinking.

Children in China learning through play

So how does that make Mr Gove’s perspective on education look when one compares it with what’s happening in Shanghai today? His proposals sound very similar to the educational practices that the world’s current leader in education threw out years ago. Not exactly progressive, then, Mr Gove.

Look at the enjoyment of learning for the teacher and her pupils

We should be clear about one thing. Whatever one thinks about China’s politics and government, it’s a country that does things slowly, carefully, deliberately, and very thoroughly. Shanghai hasn’t adopted ‘progressive’ education on a whim. It’s gone down the same road as Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong [and many British schools in both the state sector and the private sector that have somehow maintained or developed student-centred methodology] because its educationalists have been able to see that “Teach Less, Learn More” and an enlightened pedagogy is beneficial to students, teachers, homes, businesses and the country as a whole.


“The New Learning Revolution” by Gordon Dryden and Jeanette Vos has sold more than 10 million copies is Shanghai province alone. Parents have flocked to buy this book, and the teaching force has been retrained in making learning more relevant, more engaging, more motivating, and more purposeful – and making full use of the incredible technology that is now available. China is manufacturing and making available to schools and homes laptops, tablets and smartphone computers that cost practically peanuts. The revolution may not  be televised, but it is being digitised, with the help of switched-on educationalists, students and parents.



According to the BBC yesterday, in response to the Pearson report, a Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We are driving up standards right across the board by bringing the best graduates into teaching, developing a world-class curriculum, and restoring order to our classrooms.

“We are driving forward the academies and free schools programmes with more than half of secondary schools now enjoying academy status.

“We have introduced the EBacc so more pupils are encouraged to study the core academic subjects that universities and employers demand and we will be introducing a new, far more rigorous examination system.”

In our view this is the most incredible nonsense that spin doctors could possibly come up with.

Who, exactly, is “driving up standards”? Why use such a pathetic cliche, which was already worn out by the time New Labour left office? Who is bringing the best graduates into teaching – the schools or the DfE? How do they decide who is “best”? Those who have the best academic performance, or those who show the best aptitude and skills for teaching?

What on earth is a “world-class curriculum”? Don’t they realise how tired and worn out this guff sounds?

Who is “restoring order to classrooms”? Are all classrooms disorderly – or just those in the  imaginations of the enemies of state education? Where is this restoration going on? How are they restoring it? How much of it is taking place?

What the hell have academies, free schools and the Ebacc got to do with these international comparisons? How come Finland has always topped these comparisons without using any of these unnecessary and divisive gimmicks?

Who says that employers are demanding “core academic subjects” and “a far more rigourous examination system”? What the CBI has said it wants are school leavers who are proficient in literacy and spoken English, and in everyday arithmetic and numeracy. To this end the CBI has said it wants to see 16+ examinations completely abolished, in order that these basic skills plus personal and social skills can be better developed. The CBI knows very well that there is no equivalence between good performance in exams and young people’s ability to apply knowledge in the work place. The CBI’s members are quite content to provide specialist training for essential workplace skills – what they need are young people who possess high levels of every kind of intelligence, plus creative aptitudes and an enthusiasm for lifelong learning. Consider how many of us have passed GCSE French and yet can’t hold a conversation with a French speaker. It’s a similar thing. We remember well learning trigonometry and quadratic equations, and never finding a single use for them in real life.


Enough of this nonsense – please. Stop insulting our intelligence.

If we want this country to do better in the international comparisons then we’d better learn quickly from what the very best systems are now doing – and take note of what they no longer do.


* It was very depressing to learn recently from the leadership team of a successful secondary school in Rochdale that as far as they could tell none of their feeder Primary schools were personalising learning, helping children to become independent learners, or basing learning on collaborative project work.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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