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Great education requires great teachers

Aug 10, 2008 Success, Sunday Nation

We are all deeply concerned about the state of our education system these days, so allow me to stay on the subject for a while.

There can be little doubt: if we want to haul ourselves out of the murky waters of third-world status, education is the only known method. Educating our people properly is the only way to open up their minds and ignite their capacity to eradicate their own poverty. It is the only way of bestowing the discernment that allows people to choose their leaders wisely – instead of choosing them like brainless cattle do.

But what is this ‘education’ that we find so important, and how do we improve it? The answer may surprise you. To understand, let us look at the experience of a ‘first-world’ country: the United Kingdom. In an attempt to raise standards that are thought to lag behind those of other western nations, the UK has tried everything and anything. It has introduced policy after policy; sea-change after sea-change. School funding, governance, the curriculum, the nature of assessments and testing, the relative roles of national and local government, admissions policies: you name it, the UK has changed it.

Yet experts proclaim that there was no measurable change in standards of literacy and numeracy in primary schools for fifty years. This suggests that UK education policy makers have been barking up all the wrong trees. The UK is not alone, and the problem is not about money alone. Australia, New Zealand and the US have recorded dramatic increases in education spending – but no significant results.

There are some countries, however, that are always at the top of the performance league tables in education. They are Canada, Finland, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. So what do these countries tell us about better education? It’s not about money alone, for one thing. And it’s not about hours of education (Finland has fewer school hours than most rich countries). A global consulting firm, McKinsey, conducted a comprehensive study of this mystery. The results were widely quoted in the international press last year, including the UK Economist.

The answer: great education systems have one thing in common, one thing that seems to drive success – great teachers. That answer would come as no surprise to enlightened leaders of great companies and great countries: it’s always the people, stupid.

In the top-performing countries, very capable people are attracted to the education sector. As The Economist reported, in South Korea primary school teachers are recruited from the top 5 per cent of graduates. Say what? In this country, I doubt whether chief executives are recruited from the top 5 per cent of graduates, let alone teachers!

So how do the leading nations attract the cream to come to teach? Again, the answers may surprise you. Not by paying the best salaries: the top performers pay well by our standards, but no better than average for rich nations. And the countries that pay the best teachers’ salaries (Germany, Switzerland and Spain) are not in the top performance tier.

What the leading education nations do well is to make teaching a high-status job in high demand. In South Korea, primary school teachers must have a rigorous 4-year undergraduate degree and must get top grades. In Finland, you must hold a master’s degree to become a teacher. And it doesn’t end there: once in, teachers have to undergo plenty of continuous training and professional development.

So, what does McKinsey teach us? That the cornerstone of education is the teacher, not the school or the curriculum or the national policy. And that the teacher can be made great by simply accepting the crucial importance of the profession – just as we do with doctors and lawyers and engineers. If you select entrants well, keep standards high, and maintain an ongoing professional development programme, you can achieve what the Singapores and South Koreas have. And there is no mystery: at the heart of those countries’ dramatic national development lies a powerful education system.

I fear we are very far from this kind of thinking. I fear we are neglecting the heartbeat of the education system – the primary school teacher. We are losing the next generation at a tender age, and we should not be surprised when it disappoints us later. Our teachers are (on average, I hasten to add) ill-motivated, under-valued and barely competent. They can no more instil high standards of literacy and numeracy, or ignite the spirit of personal inquiry, than a dirty pipe can deliver clean water.

My late mother was a headmistress, and in her day the profession carried a certain esteem. She had to work hard to get into it, and once in, she had to work hard to deliver results. I was lucky – she taught me Shakespeare in the bathtub! Many young Kenyans today are almost doomed to fail before they even begin.

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