Let’s talk Russian education reform

School 366, St Petersburg

I had to do a very sound byte led interview for CNBC this week, for a film to be shown at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. It’s hard to be very expressive about your educational philosophy in a few disjointed words, so I thought it was time for a new blog post. Here are some of my thoughts on schooling and standards in response to some of their questions. As ever, comments and discussion always welcome, of course.

  • Where along the learning spectrum do you think that governments should target investment in education? In early years’ development, secondary, vocational, or higher education?

I am assuming we are talking about the greater good here. The evidence says that we need to top load education, by investing in early years very heavily. This is particularly important when you have polarised societies or problems with child poverty, as the work of Kathy Silva and others tells us. There is also a case for providing generous funding for vocational and academic higher education, and seeing these two forms of education as being of equal value. Obviously the stages in between are important as well, but concentrating on the initial and final stages of education is likely to make sure energies and investment are focused in the right place.

We do have to think about the individual as well. Here it’s important to provide properly for the top 10% and bottom 10% in order to ensure that children and young people are developing the talents they need, for personal and national benefit. In terms of the bottom 10%, you need to ensure that as many children as possible are able to earn a living (even though this might mean supported employment) and live a fulfilled and independent life. This is the case even if it looks expensive. In terms of the top 10% in vocational or academic terms, these children and young people need to be identified and provided with the means of developing suitable skills to be the national and global leaders of the future.

However here the really difficult bit is making sure that the top 10% and bottom 10% are sufficiently integrated with the rest, to avoid the social polarisation that is so dangerous to national and global longer term prosperity (and in case you miss the late developers). Geoff Whitty and I argued in a book chapter in 2007 that the way to do this was by providing a careful form of comprehensive (all ability) education that included extended schooling. Extended schooling is an all-embracing term that mean working with outside agencies, social and healthcare services, and other providers, so that the needs of all children are met, not just the easy-to-teach ones in the middle. There is also an argument that extra curricular activities are vitally important in developing children and young people properly, for example through music and drama clubs, science societies, sporting and debating clubs and school trips (centrally funded if possible). It’s not for nothing that top independent schools in the UK provide these opportunities for their pupils.

So my message for business leaders is:

1. Early years education is vitally important, even if you don’t see returns for two decades.

2. Vocational and higher education is very important as well, and you’ll see a more immediate return in terms of the workforce if you invest here.

3. In terms of schooling investment, the safest bet is to develop a programme of human-scale, medium sized all ability schools (200-400 at primary level, 500-1000 pupils at secondary level), combined with extended schooling programmes, so learning is also individualised. You might also want to aim to keep class sizes around the 25 pupil level. (Interestingly I understand Tyumen and Kazan have done exactly this with their school and class sizes).

  • Should governments legislate to encourage more learning in the home, as well as formally through the education system?

Dangerous territory. All a government should be legislating for is that all children receive a reasonable level of education, and that they are not abused. It also makes sense to keep an eye on the promotion of extremist views, as they can be unsettling for wider society in the medium to long term. Other than that, the government should keep its nose out of the home, otherwise the population becomes overly suspicious, and overly dependent on the state.

  • How important is personalisation/individualisation within learning systems?

If you are offering a one-size fits all model of education, you might as well give up. No two children are the same, just like no two families or businesses are the same. Learning always needs to be adapted to the needs of learners. Also see my comments about extended schooling above.

  • As Russia’s education system becomes less centralised and more autonomous there are suggestions it could herald an end to Russia’s free-schooling era. What are the dangers of this?

Autonomy is absolutely fine, laudable in fact, but you do need soft touch educational oversight from the centre to ensure parity of provision. Historically in the UK this has been done through HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) at a regional level, and more lately OFSTED (Office for Standards of Education, a Government department), although there have been some criticisms of OFSTED’s approach over the years. Nevertheless supervision is something that needs factoring into the system. Similarly the best way to wreck your economy is to start charging for compulsory education, either directly or indirectly, so don’t do it.

  • In Russia there is an issue with access to adequate education for rural communities. Are there models they can learn from to improve this? They currently have the UNT – a universal test for access to University, replacing earlier accrued school credits – is this a way of making a ‘level playing field’?

As Geoff Whitty and I said in our 2007 book chapter, most decision-makers send their children to urban and suburban schools, and these schools tend to received the lion’s share of funding and parental support. This is a very short sighted. It is rural schools everywhere which need enhanced funding, as it is more expensive to provide proper facilities in non urbanised areas. Teachers also need to be incentivised to work in such areas as well, through good relocation packages and so on. Governments and bureaucrats need to bite the bullet and authorise sufficient funding for the types of schools their own children will never attend. (This also includes urban and suburban schools in areas of deprivation, by the way).

  • What are the benefits and threats for Russia having adopted the Bologna Process model of higher education?

Russian universities may ultimately become more attractive to international students and academics, although it may be that a lingua franca of English needs to be adopted for some courses, particularly at postgraduate level. It might be wise to develop something along the lines of the Goethe Institute for the promotion of Russian language and culture as well, so Russian isn’t sidelined altogether as a medium of instruction and communication within Higher Education.

  • Is enough being done to engage young people with school and to motivate them to succeed? Should there be less formal testing, a la Finland, or is a hands-on learning approach the way to better engage learners?

If people don’t turn up to school, you need to ask yourself why. Having taught in some schools that resemble noisy, impersonal airports, and which have very dated resources, I can understand why some pupils feel they would rather stay home. Similarly, if a lot of the curriculum and instruction is plodding and turgid, and doesn’t relate to the world pupils see around them, then it’s pretty alienating. The same applies to frequent testing ultimately aimed at measuring schools more than pupils. You need bright, engaged teachers who are well motivated and keen to develop programmes of study that the pupils will respond to properly. And you need buildings that are sufficiently inviting for pupils to want to go in. Back this up with up to date computer and library facilities, and most of the people will be happy most of the time.

  • Do you think more needs to be done to promote vocational models of learning, both in terms of supporting individual student’s needs, and plugging the skills gap?

If baffles me why we are so nervous of vocational education in the UK. It tends to be a path for the less intelligent, and it receives a lower level of investment (unless you are from a wealthy family, in which case you can trot off to the Norland Training College to become a posh nanny or the Parnham Furniture College to study to be a cabinetmaker,or whatever). Really we need to introduce technical universities and fund these at generous levels. Sweden and Germany get this right.

  • What do you think are the opportunities and threats posed to traditional education business models by online learning options? Should the two models sit harmoniously together, as with Coursera?

I don’t like the term ‘educational business model’ as it smacks of milking vocation for personal gain, which has a law of diminishing returns. Obviously schools and universities need to be business-like and provide courses that people need at a price they can afford to pay (or that the state or sponsors can afford to pay). However we need to recognise that education is about more than flogging education as a product, and always should be.

In terms of massive online courses (MOOCS) they will probably remain around in some form for the foreseeable future, but they are really more about information transmission than actual education, which is a much more personal and holistic enterprise. There is certainly room for curated information transmission within global education systems (indeed I wish there was more of it), but we need to provide the human touch at appropriate points as well.

  • Globally Russia ranks very low for teacher’s pay, yet Finland proves that high status is more attractive. How should Russia reform its teaching systems to better serve students, but also to make the profession attractive?

Peg teacher salaries to careers like accountancy, and offer tuition subsidies/refunds, golden handshakes, and inviting relocation packages for the most suitable candidates. Regular sabbaticals and grants for higher degree study retain people in the profession during the medium and long term as well.

In the US there is also Teach for America and in the UK Teach First, which are aimed at getting good graduates involved in the education sector. Many leave after two years, but we hope that they will take their insights with them and be sympathetic to the cause from vantage points in other careers and positions of leadership. It’s not a perfect system, but it is interesting, as Geoff Whitty and I argued in our 2010 article on teacher careers and identities. Watch this space.

  • How can businesses work better with the education system to reduce youth unemployment and plug the skills gap? Are there any success stories?

There are two things businesses need to consider here. The first is funding things such as Foundation (lower level or introductory) degrees. There are some businesses and industries that are better at doing this than others. For example aircraft maintenance  is something employees might study on day release, working part time and attending courses the rest of the time. The second is building really solid relationships with local schools, colleges and universities. All too often the outreach person from a business will have dealings with the outreach person from an educational institution, but it never really develops into a symbiotic relationship. I call this ‘outreach to outreach disease’. There needs to be a lot more follow-through, with schools developing courses local and national employers really want, and employers working with schools so that kids get jobs, for example by offering targeted work experience.

  • Should there be more innovation centres, like the Microsoft ran ‘Start in Garage’ or specialist schools to cater to the needs of business?

I imagine a MOOC with supplementary mentoring would be a cheaper way of providing this, and to better effect, but I am not sure. I wonder what other people think?

  • What are the jobs of the future and how can we fill them through education (McKinsey report)?

If I were to get a crystal ball out, I would probably predict these areas would be the top four jobs of the future for my own kids:

1. Green energy.

2. Food security and quality.

3. Social media related work.

4. Education and training in a global context.

However what these jobs will actually involve in 10-20-30-40-50 years’ time, I have absolutely no idea. All we can do is teach pupils and students to be adaptable and resilient. That having been said, the roots of these jobs are here now, so we shouldn’t assume the future is completely unknowable. In 1977 I was typing little magazines on my Petite Junior Typewriter for my friends, and here I am in 2013 typing a blog on my knee doing an adult version of the same thing. No great mystery there.

  • Does all education have a duty to instil softer skills, and entrepreneurial skills in learners in order to spur on future growth and success for society?

We get the schools, and the entrepreneurship education, that we deserve. If entrepreneurship skills are spread widely throughout society, with wide benefits to all, then schools will reflect that. If a few businesses dominate many areas in a quasi-monopolistic fashion, then don’t be surprised if people reject the model.


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