Now, I will say that the title of this book is misleading. Ripley’s front cover picture of a consortium of flags suggests a more omni-country approach than we actually find. I for one would be happier with a title which is explicit in noting that this book explores the education systems of only three countries.
But what countries they are: Finland, South Korea and Poland. With heavy emphasis on the first two. In fact, having finished this book 5 days ago I’m struggling to remember what Ripley says about Poland, though what she says about the other two is emblazoned on my brain. Perhaps this is understanding bias, however; I’ve heard a lot about Finland and South Korea, and naturally my non-rigorous reading will more easily process this.
I believe my response is the one Ripley was hoping to draw out: the sections on Finland make me want to tear up the UK’s education system and just do what they do, and the sections on South Korea make me want to tear my own eyes out.
Most teacher readers will be au fait with Finland, and if you’re interested Lucy Crehan’s blog (here) explores more key ideas than I had found compiled in one area before. The most salient points about their system include: starting school age 7, mixed ability classes, incredibly highly trained teachers brought in by a very selective system, almost no homework, almost no state exams; some of the highest achieving students in the world, according to PISA, which lots of people nit-pick, but which Ripley assures us is okay.
South Korea is a system highly praised by many, and rightly so – for its results. In this book, however, a different story is told. School begins early (8am) and continues late – study at school can go on until 7 or 8 in the evening. Students have special pillows they attach to their arms so they can nap during classes. A 12 hour day may seem familiar to most teachers, but I’d hazard none of us would want to deal with students subjected to this. But wait – there’s more! The hagwons, which are intense tutorials, take students all the way up until 10pm (legally) and beyond that time (illegally) – every day, after school.
Now, I am a fan of KIPP’s “Work hard, be nice” motto, with firm emphasis on hard work. I truly believe that anyone can accomplish anything with hard work. But this narrative of South Korea pushed me to the limit of my belief. I categorically do not want kids that have to work that hard to achieve exam results and success in life.
The main learning point I gleaned from this engagingly written book was about rigour. The essential ingredient in all these successful systems was rigour. Students couldn’t pass easily, they couldn’t achieve high grades easily. The same went for the would-be teachers.
This made me reflect on the rigour in my own classroom. I’m lucky that my predecessor instituted an incredibly rigorous KS3 curriculum, about which I have written (here), using only weighty tomes to shape our little minds. Yet there are times when I feel like the weight of this KS3 curriculum is let down by the exam-board–instituted, undeniably less rigorous, KS4 curriculum. This KS4 curriculum churns out children who, when faced with KS5 English, often take more than a year to get to grips with this new rigour.
The bottom line is: we should not apologise for asking more of our students, and pushing them harder. After all, we only have them for a (relatively) short period of time during the day. The stakes at KS3 aren’t so high that we should pressure students, but we definitely shouldn’t apologise for teaching them hard stuff and making them learn it.
As for the KS4 curriculum… I have no answers, and as yet no positive contribution to make to the conversation. I can only hope the new curriculum will push students to achieve more, because they can – albeit with hard work.