Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Tale of Two Cities: 6 Lessons Learned about Digital Transformation

Presentation given at the EdTech Conversations event (BETT Fringe) on Thursday 23rd January 2020. This presentation looks at 6 Lessons Learned about Digital Transformation from my time at JESS, Dubai and at Kellett School, Hong Kong.


Tuesday, 21 January 2020

AI in Education: Four Risks that we need to consider

The Holy Grail of EdTech is an AI-driven autonomous system that provides a personalised learning experience with minimal teacher input. This is not surprising given the potential financial rewards that such a system would bring. Education is very big business. According to IBIS Capital [Global EdTech Industry Report 2016], education was $5 trillion industry globally in 2014 and is growing at $600 billion a year. However, only 2% of it is digitised – education as an industry is a ‘late adopter’ at best. EdTech is increasingly being seen as a ripe market for investors. Three factors make it very attractive: the importance and cost of education to Governments and parents; the global teacher shortage and the unsustainability of the present model of one teacher to 20-30 students; and the abundant scope for new markets (there are currently 263m children in the world not in education). There is scope here to be the ‘Amazon of Education’ - no wonder the Venture Capitalists are turning their attention to EdTech.
However, we are not talking about the automation of the sale of books here - we are talking about the education of young people and there a range of ethical concerns which need to be addressed at an early stage.
  1. Skewed Dataset. We are still in the ‘Early Adopter’ phase of the use of Educational AI. It is at present an ‘enhancement’ of existing educational processes and therefore pioneering schools need to be at a relatively high level of digital and pedagogical sophistication to be able to deploy these systems. We need to recognise that these systems are being developed using an unrepresentative dataset which has implications for fairness and wider applicability down the line. 
  2. AI Summative Judgements. At present educational platforms are using AI to make formative judgements on individual students (based on what is likely to be a globally unrepresentative dataset) in order to tailor learning to the needs of the individual student. There is a risk down the line that we may see AI educational systems replace the present public examination system, making summative judgments that have a significant impact on life choices such as access to higher education or certain levels of employment. Furthermore, judgments might be made on wider criteria than presently deployed. For example, rather than just assessing whether or not a student has mastered a particular skill or unit of knowledge, it would be possible to assess how fast a student takes to so.
  3. Digital Divide: As AI becomes more commonplace, there is a danger of an educational ‘digital divide’ between those generally wealthy countries who can afford to deploy AI educational systems and those who do not. (c.f. There were significantly lower participation from Africa in the recent MIT project Awad et al ‘The Moral Machine Experiment’ Nature Vol 563 November 2018).
  4. Monopoly on Education. It is conceivable that, in time, there will be a few large companies, the 'Amazons of Education' if you like, who would dominate the automated-education industry. These providers would be able to control the content of what is taught (in the way that some Governments around the world do today). It would be possible, for example, for these companies to decide that the Holocaust should not be on the C20 history syllabus (as is the case in many Arab states today); or they might promote certain ideologies or lifestyle choices (vegetarianism, hetrosexuality, etc.). We should avoid a world where a minority have a monopoly on education. 
It is time to have the moral debate about AI in education

Friday, 17 January 2020

4 red flags to check for in an international school

Most international schools are highly professional, above board and are great employers – but, as with most industries, there are some cowboys out there who cut corners to make a fast buck. However, unscrupulous schools are easy to spot if teachers do their own "due diligence" and check out their potential employer. Here are my four key red flags to watch out before you sign on the dotted line…

1. 'Visa runs' 

Reputable schools will ensure that a work visa is in place before you start work – it will either be sent to you in advance or left so that it can be collected from the visa desk at airport arrivals. Sadly, this will not always be the case. Some international schools expect new staff to enter the country on a tourist visa, which they will then change to a resident work visa in due course.
A tourist visa is usually only valid for 30 or 60 days and there are per diem fines for staying beyond the allotted time. So, if the 30 or 60 days elapses before the work visa has been processed, schools expect teachers to go on "visa runs" – i.e. to leave the country and re-enter on another tourist visa. I’ve heard of cases where teachers have had to go on visa runs throughout their first year working. Although the travel costs are usually picked up by the school, there is a personal cost in time (for example, a lost weekend) and in terms of settling in and establishing a normal life (a work visa is often required to get a local bank account).
In most countries, it is illegal to work on a tourist visa and, again, there are hefty penalties for both the employer and the employee if caught. This puts the new teacher in a very vulnerable situation. One of the major reasons why schools are not able to process work visas promptly is that the school itself does not yet have all of its paperwork in place. New schools typically have to go through a long process of documentation involving several government departments before they can get the status to sponsor work visas. In their rush to meet a September opening deadline, many new schools are forced to cut corners – visa runs are a symptom.

2. Cash payments and employer shock 

The norm in international schools is for your school to pay your salary into your local bank account. However, there are times when this is not possible because you have not been able to set up a bank account because your visa paperwork is not in place. In these cases, the school has no alternative but to pay the teachers in cash, which can be hugely inconvenient for the teacher.
 In similar vein, there are many examples of it only becoming apparent at the first pay day that the de facto employer is not the school for whom you’ve been working for the past month, but some other third-party company. This happens because schools (particularly UK franchise schools) enter into partnerships with local companies who own and manage the school.

3. Accommodation anomalies 

Many international schools provide accommodation to teachers as a benefit for the first part of their term of employment. Sadly, there are many cases in which schools do not deliver the type of accommodation that was promised at interview. In some cases, flats are smaller than expected or of a lower quality; in others, they are in a totally different part of the city, necessitating a lengthy daily commute. At its worst, single staff are informed for the first time on arrival that they are required to share an apartment – or even a room.

4. Beware the scams: jobs that don’t exist 

Check that the job actually exists. There have been a number of scams in the past decade in which scammers use the names of prestigious schools to con prospective teachers. The scammers send out job offers on amazing terms but to clinch the deal, the unsuspecting candidates are required to wire a few thousand dollars to a purported travel firm so that visa papers and work permits can be processed, money which they say will be refunded once they have joined the school. Suffice to say that no reputable school requires candidates to pay costs up front in this way.

“Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted” 

Moving abroad is costly and involves making personal sacrifices (resigning a good job in the UK, relocation, etc). Because of this, most teachers are so invested in their move that they have no alternative but to play along when a bad employer moves the goalposts. In practice, when things go wrong it is very difficult for a new teacher to challenge a school over its poor practice during the first months of living abroad. The choice is binary: put up, shut up and stay – or quit. All this can be avoided if teachers do their own research before committing to a particular school.

Due diligence checklist 

Contact teachers (via LinkedIn or other social media) who are working or worked recently at the school and ask them:

  1. How long did it take you to get your work visa? 
  2. Did you or any of your colleagues ever have to go on a "visa run"? 
  3. Did you or any of your colleagues ever get your salary paid in cash? 
  4. Who is your actual employer? 
  5. Who pays you each month? 
  6. Did your school accommodation align with your expectations from interview? 
  7. Are you planning on renewing your contract when it ends? If not, why not? 

Look for the kitemarks 

One way to identify the more established and reputable schools is to research the international organisations to which schools can belong. The international schools in the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) and the Federation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISIA) have extensive inspection regimes, which will ensure that a high standard of best practice is followed in the schools that bear their kitemark.

This article was published in Tes on 16/01/2019

Monday, 13 January 2020

Independent Schools as vehicles of social mobility? Digging deeper into the Statistics.

Approximately 6.5% of UK school children are currently educated in independent schools. However, this general figure masks a much more complex reality. In practice, about 3% of 5-year olds and approximately 15% of school pupils over the age of 16 attend an independent school (ISC Annual Census and Annual Report 2019, p.13). 

The use of historic data 

Critics of independent education often point to the disproportionate role that former pupils play in public life: 65% of senior judges, 57% of Members of the House of Lords, 52% of diplomats and so on (Sutton Trust Elitist Britain 2019). Yet these statistics belie the fact that many schools which are today independent schools were Direct Grant schools at the time when these senior figures were at school. Direct schools such as Manchester Grammar, Bradford Grammar, Leeds Grammar, Haberdashers’ Aske’s and Latymer Upper were all significant feeders to university, Oxbridge and into the professions. 
If we genuinely want an informed (rather than ideologically partisan) debate about the place of independent schools in our society, it would be useful to know what proportion of the leading figures educated at independent schools in the Sutton Trust’s Elitist Britain survey were themselves beneficiaries of the Direct Grant scheme. These data would give an indication of the extent to which independent schools were a vehicle for social mobility in the 1960s and 1970s, and thus inform debates about future policy. 
There is little doubt that the abolition of the Direct Grant scheme in 1976 and of its successor, the Assisted Places Scheme, in 1997 had a significant impact on the independent sector’s ability to transform lives on a large scale. There is little doubt too, that above inflation fee increases over the past thirty years have limited the number who are able to afford access to independent schools.

Independent schools as vehicles of social mobility 

And yet we know that Independent schools still have the ability to be vehicles of social mobility and to transform lives. That a third of students at Oxford University who come from low-income backgrounds and qualified for free school meals went to independent schools, is testimony to this. In the words of Professor Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University: 
“The reality is that independent schools are identifying these smart, poor kids. They are bringing them in, giving them scholarships and educating them, and then they apply to us, and we take them.” (‘Oxford’s admission problem is because state schools fail to push their brightest pupils’ vice chancellor suggests’  Daily Telegraph 18/07/2019

The question of scale 

There are many in the sector who are committed to broadening access to independent schools. There is a clear direction of travel, and we all recognise that there is a long way to go. 
According to figures from the Independent Schools Council, 176,633 students (34%) received some help with their fees. Of these 5998 students (1.1%) last year were in receipt of 100% or more bursary assistance, and a further 11,566 (2.2%) over 75% funding. Critics are wont to focus on the 1.1% statistic, but this is rather simplistic, for bursaries of this nature tend to be awarded to students of secondary schooling age, especially in the sixth form. And it is really the sixth form bursaries that matter because this where independent schools can have their greatest impact. This because the sector is, as we have seen, a more significantly player at this age group; and also because it is the key springboard that provides access to university. 
Again, we need more aggregated data to have an informed debate. We need to know what the proportion of sixth formers are on full bursaries in independent schools and, importantly, what they go on to do after school and where. 
So, for me, the debate here is not whether or not Independent schools are vehicles of social mobility, but whether or not they are so on a scale that is appropriate and acceptable within society. 
Even without access to data, and despite the valiant efforts of the pioneers like Philip Britton and Sue Hincks at Bolton School, there is little doubt that this figure currently is too low. 

A possible way forward . . . 

The annual cost of state education per student in England is £6,000 (Institute of Fiscal Studies 2019 annual report on education spending in England) and £4,900 in the sixth form. The average annual fee for an independent day school at secondary is £15,522 and £15,027 in the sixth form (ISC Census 2019 p.18). 
One possible way forward would be for all parents (below a certain family income threshold?) to choose to be able opt out of the maintained sector and move their funding to the independent school of their choice. 
Such an approach is not new. In 2010, Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, argued that the ban on "blended funding" that causes the "Educational Apartheid" that is the British system of schooling. (Private v state: here's how to bridge the educational divide Independent 14/01/2010
An educational credit or voucher system would provide greater scope for existing independent schools to open their doors wider at no additional total per capita cost to the state. In this context it is possible to conceive of a situation where independent schools offer both a much greater number of bursaries which top up to 100% of school fees; and a significant number of ‘match funded’ bursaries, making private education much more affordable to a wider population.
I believe that the time has come for society to reinstate a mechanism that broadens access to independent schools. Just as the Direct Grant system provided opportunities for all to go to top schools before 1976, so, too, a combination of a voucher and a bursary system could provide the same opportunities for social mobility from 2020.

This article was published on the PSPR Blog (13/01/2020)

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Couples that Work- How to thrive in Love and at Work by Jennifer Petriglieri – Summary of Key Points

This book is based on the premise that life is composed of a series of transitions which professional couples need to navigate. Jennifer Petriglieri (Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD) identifies three key work/life transitions which are triggered by some event which makes it difficult to continue travelling along the existing path. The three transitions:

Transition 1: Achieving Interdependence. 

  1. Summary:  Typically in 20s and 30s: Triggered by events such as the need to move geographically, a promotion, losing a job, the arrival of a new baby, the need to care for aging parents, or family health issues. The question couples wrestle with during this transition is How can we make this work? This transition is about how couples move from having parallel independent careers and lives to having interdependent ones. 
  2. Traps to avoid: 
    1. Over-relying on economic decision criteria; 
    2. Overlooking the long-term consequences of decisions; 
    3. Over-focusing on practical challenges; 
    4. Trying to do too much.
  3. Three Models for Interdependence: 
    1. Lead-parent model: one partner takes the lead-parent role and bears most of the child-care responsibilities. 
    2. Turn-taking lead-parent model: switching every three to five years. 
    3. Co-parenting model: partners split the lead-parent role. 

Transition 2: Transitioning to a New Path. 

  1. Summary:  Typically in 40s: Triggered by inner world existential questions and doubts about whose life we are really living. Questioning whether we chose a particular path earlier in life because of parental or societal expectations. The question couples wrestle with during this transition is What do we really want? This transition is about identifying and pursuing what each partner wants out of their careers, lives and relationships 
  2. Traps to avoid: 
    1. Mistrusting our partner’s explorations and becoming defensive; 
    2. Not mutually supporting each other’s developments; 
  3. How to resolve this transition 
    1. Renegotiate the division of career and family responsibilities that were established in the first transition; 
    2. Look to rebalance the roles that each partner plays in the other’s life; 
    3. A mutual secure base where each partner is the rock for each other is very important – an imbalance where one partner is able to support and the other can’t is a recipe for trouble; 

Transition 3: Exploring New Horizons. 

  1. Summary: Typically in 50s and 60s: Triggered by role shifts that result in identity voids such as those caused children leaving home; or by becoming the most experienced workers in an organisation. These result in feelings of loss (of children, of youth), but also present an opportunity. The question couples wrestle with during this transition is How can we make this work? This transition is about filling the identity void left by the loss of significant roles that were established in the first two transitions. 
  2. Traps to Avoid 
    1. Getting caught up in “unfinished business” from the first two transitions; 
    2. Narrowing horizons and not considering emerging opportunities; 
  3. How to resolve this transition 
    1. Play with the idea of who you might become; 
    2. Reinvent yourself in a way that is grounded in past accomplishments whilst being open to future possibilities. 


  1. Couple Contracting (pp.32-37) 
    1. List your personal values, boundaries and fears; 
    2. Make choices openly and jointly. 
  2. Logistics Survival Strategies – How to tackle the division of responsibilities (pp.58-63) 
    1. List all your logistical tasks 
    2. Decide what you can simply stop doing (set lower standards?) 
    3. Decide which tasks you want to own – that are important to you to do; 
    4. Decide which tasks you can outsource (the ironing?) 
    5. Decide how to split the rest. 
  3. Career Mapping – Forecast the shapes of your careers to help decide a Career Prioritization Model (pp.82-85)
    1. Focus on the next five years; 
    2. Do you have one or more specific career goals? 
    3. How ambitious are you? 
    4. What parental role would you prefer, if any? 
    5. What aspects of your relationship with your partner are important to you? 
    6. What other aspects of life are important to you? 
    7. Map the trajectories of both your careers? 
    8. Compare and discuss.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

10 questions International schools need to answer if they want to attract talent:

Before getting close to filling in an application form, international teachers want to know what their new life at your school will look like. Here are 10 questions you need to be able to answer. 
English-medium and English-bilingual schools are opening across the world in large numbers. And that means leaders are not only having to persuade increasing numbers of teachers to work abroad but to relocate to cities of which they’ve never even heard.
Most people have an idea what the major world cities like Dubai and Hong Kong are like, but most will not have idea of cities beyond the capitals. How does one sell working in Almaty in Kazakhstan? Or in Chongqing in China? Or Yangon in Myanmar?
In such a competitive marketplace, schools need to devote as much time and effort to recruiting staff as it does pupils. Here’s some questions that schools need to answer if they want to attract talent.


Anyone moving abroad is going to want reassurance about the quality of life they will experience living and working in new country. Schools need to address the basic questions about lifestyle by unpacking what day-to-day life might look like for the prospective teacher:
1. Where will I live? Accommodation is going to be high on the list of questions. Schools need to be clear about whether or not accommodation is provided, its location in relation to the schools and the city centre. They also need to outline what support they will provide in helping staff find their own housing and to settle into life in the new country.
2. What will I eat?
Families will want to know about the availability of western foods. Schools can allay fears in this area by providing information on what restaurants and supermarkets are like.
3. Will I be able to communicate in English or will I have to learn a local language?
One important factor living abroad is the ability to carry out day to day business in English. This varies hugely around the world. Whilst English is spoken and understood in most major cities, what often matters most on a day-to-day basis is the ability to communicate with shopkeepers and taxi drivers. Schools need to be clear about any challenges that potential recruits are likely to encounter.
4. What is the Healthcare like? 
Given that health care is free in the UK, it is perhaps not surprising that very few prospective teachers think to ask about the quality of the health provision - but they should. Most schools have excellent health insurance schemes and access to excellent (private) healthcare.
5. What’s it like living there?
One of the reasons why people want to move abroad is to have a base for travel, so schools would be well advised not only to sell the country, but also to outline the local entertainment options in the evening and at weekends. One important question is whether or not It is important also to clear up misconceptions and be transparent about local customs. For example, schools in Muslim countries should explain about expectations about dress code, or access to alcohol, which can vary even in the same country – Sharjah is dry, whereas Dubai is not.
6. How safe is it?
Often the only reason why a prospective teacher has heard of a given country is because it’s in the news because of some natural disaster or political crisis. This inevitably focuses on the hazards and dangers of living abroad and schools therefore need to allay fears about the safety of living and working overseas. Teachers (and the families they are leaving behind will need reassurance. There are typhoons at times of the year in in South East Asia, but there are effective systems in place to support and protect people during these times. The same is true of political unrest where it is very rare indeed for expats to be targeted.


7. What are the living costs?
Most people moving abroad see it as an opportunity, not only to have an adventure, but to experience a better standard of living. Schools not only need to be transparent about the salary and package, but also to help prospective teachers understand what that means on the ground. For example, salaries in Hong Kong are high and tax is low, but the cost of living and accommodation are very high. Conversely, salaries in Malaysia are low, but so is the cost of living.
8. How much can I save?
 Many staff, especially teaching couples, see working abroad as the opportunity to save for the future and the chance to save for a deposit on a house or to pay off a considerable portion of the mortgage. Financially savvy teachers will need the information to do the sums before committing to working abroad.


9. What will the school be like?
For many, moving to an international school is a step into the unknown. In practice they are very similar on the ground to schools in the UK and schools need to get this across. There may be questions about the demographic and language background of the pupils and the staff and about the standards of discipline in the school.
10. What are the professional development opportunities?
One of the most popular questions that I am asked at interview is about the professional development opportunities available. This is understandable because talented individuals do not want their time abroad to become a step backwards. Schools who can provide internationally recognised training opportunities will have an advantage in the recruitment marketplace because it is seen both as the passport to the next promotion; or the ticket that will allow them to get a job back in the U.K.

How to do it:

The best way for schools to answer these questions is to produce a video which interviews current staff which can systematically address any concerns of potential recruits. A really good example of this is the Haileybury Almaty’s staff recruitment video which features a teacher talking openly about her initial concerns about moving as a family to Kazakhstan; and a colleague having a coffee in Starbucks and shopping in a local supermarket which is reassuringly like Waitrose.

This article was published in Tes on 09/12/2019

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Using Appraisal to Drive School Performance

Presentation given at the Asia-Pacific International Schools Conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday 11th December


Thursday, 14 November 2019

The personal cost of teaching abroad

There is a personal price that we pay working in schools overseas away from family and friends. This article explores some of those ideas from the perspective of teachers and the school leaders who are forced to make tough decisions when staff request a leave of absence during term time. 
Ask any expat and they’ll tell you that the greatest downside of working abroad is the distance from loved ones. This is thrown into sharp focus at times of celebration (births, marriages and anniversaries) and especially when testing times come. Distance and the cost of travel mean that it simply is not possible to have the same level of contact with family and friends as we had before. The personal price we pay is not FOMO (fear of missing out): we are missing out. 
All teachers are used to the problems of not being able to take planned annual leave during term time but the issue is much more acute when differences in time zone and travel times mean that returning to the UK for a day is likely to mean taking several days off work. 

Guilt and fear 

The hardest times to be abroad are when a loved one is taken ill, having an operation, or approaching the end. Long-term illness can be a real challenge because you simply can’t be there for more than a few days at a time. Guilt is the norm and it’s debilitating. But, above all, you fear that you will not be there to say a final goodbye. Guilt and fear are part of the personal price that we pay for working abroad. 
In my experience, international schools are very supportive of staff when times are tough and will do everything they can to help on these occasions without penalising the teacher financially. 
Schools have policies about taking leave in term. Typically, schools will allow a certain number of days of paid compassionate leave in the case of serious illness or death of a close family member. 
The policies also allow unpaid leave to enable staff to attend weddings and significant anniversaries (such as a golden wedding) and graduations, again, for close family members. Inevitably there are events that fall outside those allowed in a school policy (best friend’s wedding/a favourite great-aunt’s funeral) and this is one of the greatest causes of angst in an international school community.

Consistency is key 

The hardest part of the week when I was on the executive at JESS, Dubai was considering requests for leave that fell outside the terms of our policy. On the one hand, it was understandable that those teachers who were in their 20s and 30s wanted to attend their friends’ weddings. On the other, we had only 175 teaching days a year and there was no supply agency to provide cover. Surely missing friends’ weddings was part of the price that staff pay when they opted for the tax-free sunshine of Dubai? 
One of the most challenging aspects for school leaders on these occasions is not only to be consistent, fair and transparent but to be seen to be so. As an executive, we were conscious that any deviation from the norm was setting a precedent that would go around the school community within minutes.
For a short time, we took the view that we would exercise our discretion and allow staff to attend weddings if they were to be best man or maid of honour. But when literally every request received during the next term was to play a significant role in the wedding, we reverted to a hard-line approach. 
And then there was the debate about leave during Inset days, and whether the practicality of allowing a teacher to miss training days was tantamount to admitting that these were optional and even a waste of time. Few realised the pressure that the senior team felt to ensure that an Inset day was worthwhile, knowing that the teacher on the front row could have been at the wedding of a best friend from university. 

 A test of leadership 

Absence requests in an international context are a real test of school leadership. In many ways, these decisions are some of the most difficult and emotive ones that senior leadership teams (SLTs) make. Having to make tough decisions is never a route to popularity. So, if SLTs are to navigate the difficult waters of when to grant leave during term time, they need to have a published policy on staff absence that they follow in a transparent and consistent way. 
This article was published in Tes on 12/11/2019

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Why did so many of the England World Cup Rugby team go to Independent Schools?

Today England play South Africa in the Rugby World Cup Final. Nine of the starting XV were educated at HMC Independent schools (12 out of the 23 man squad). 
HMC schools' disproportionate involvement in the England Rugby Squad is not a story of privilege, but a story of investment. HMC schools believe in school sport. We believe in competition. There are great rivalries between our schools going back over a century in many cases. We devote a significant portion of our school week to sport. We invest in top-quality coaching. Furthermore, we believe in giving talented young people the opportunity to benefit from all of that history and heritage. That is why we award scholarships and bursaries. This is a perfect example of how HMC schools benefit our nation by promoting excellence and widening opportunities.
HMC schools have an amazing track record of fostering sporting talent (See my articles on Independent schools' contributions to the GB Olympic teams in London 2012 and Rio 2016). 
It should be recognised that the school most represented in the team is not an HMC school, rather it is a boarding and day school, St George's, Harpenden with three players (Farrell, Ford and Itoje - who later went on to Harrow). 
Here's where the England Rugby World Cup Squad went to school - congratulations to all those schools and their dedicated coaches who inspired this generation of players:

England team to play South Africa: 

  • Luke Cowan-Dickie, Truro College (Maintained) 
  • Joe Marler, Heathfield Community College (Maintained) 
  • Dan Cole, Robert Smythe Academy (Maintained) 
  • George Kruis, St John’s Leatherhead (HMC) 
  • Mark Wilson, Kirkbie Kendal School (Maintained) 
  • Ben Spencer, Bramhall High School (Maintained) 
  • Henry Slade, Plymouth College (HMC)
  • Jonathan Joseph Millfield (HMC) 

Monday, 21 October 2019

Singapore – a model for C21 schooling? (but not how you think!)

(A summary and discussion of some key ideas from Learning from Singapore – The Power of Paradoxes by Pak Tee Ng) 

Singapore Education 

Think of the Singapore Education system. Typically, you will have in your mind a picture of extremely high performing students, driven by tiger parents to succeed at the highest level, especially in maths. You’ll believe that it has a system that is totally focused achieving the outcomes that will ensure that it remains at the top of the PISA and TIMSS table. Well you’d be wrong (that was so 2000s!). Singapore is already ahead of the game – the education department moved on from PISA targets and have put in place a curriculum and approach that they believe will produce a workforce with C21 skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. In so doing it provides a model which all in education which is worthy of discussion, debate and, arguably, adoption. 
The key to understanding the Singapore education system is to understand the nature of Singapore itself. It is a young nation – only 54 years old – it is ambitious and aspirational. Its economy was built on a few basic tenets: fiscal discipline, good governance, rule of law, and a widely accepted social contract. It is meritocratic – one’s position with Singaporean society is determined fundamentally by one’s relative success or otherwise in school examinations aged 9, 11, 16 and 18. Education has always been the key to upward social mobility. The inevitable consequence of these factors is that education is one of the central political issues in Singapore. The Government is invested in education because the nation’s prosperity depends on it; and parents are invested in education because their child’s future prospects will be determined by it. It should also be noted that the Education sector is relatively small (370 schools and 500,000 students) so it is possible to have greater centralised control than in a country such as the UK. 
The stereotypical view of Singapore as having a rote-learning exam-focused curriculum was borne out of the alignment of Government and parents both wanting to drive up academic standards. This played itself out in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE at age 11) and in public examination results at GCE O-level (at age 16), GCE A-level (at 18) and in University degrees. Hothousing, tutoring became the norm. The consequence was that Singapore shot to the top of the PISA rankings. 
Singapore’s lack of any natural resources means that developing intellectual capital is the key to the country’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace (p.23) – education is one of the key drivers of the economy. In this context it is understandable that the Singapore Government sees education as an investment rather than as an expenditure (p.50). They realised that the skills that bring success in PISA will not necessarily ensure the success of Singapore as a nation in the changing economy of the C21. 
As a consequence, over the past fifteen or so years there has developed a divergence between what parents want (traditional examination success) and what the Government wants (C21 skills for the workplace). Singapore, which is held up as the envy of the world for its PISA and other rankings, has already moved on from the rote-learning, that established its global reputation. As Pak Tee Ng argues,
“International rankings are not what we are aiming for. We are more interested in the actual education of our children and young people.” (p.5) 
“Singapore has to kick away the ladder that got it to where it is now, while still standing on that ladder. It has to abandon its obsession with learning for examinations. It is now focusing on learning for life, embracing holistic education, and developing young people to think critically and creatively. Singapore is now jumping to another ladder that can take the country further.” (p.41) 
“Simply acing examinations does not equip one for life!” (p.43) 

Holistic Education: Quality not examination success 

Singapore’s education is now focused on a holistic education that prepares students for the future economies and society. 
Singapore’s revised educational framework (p.44) is based on a set of core values: respect, responsibility, integrity, care, resilience, and harmony. It emphasises the following social and emotional competences: self-awareness, self-management; social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making. It seeks to develop C21 skills to live in a globalised world: 

  • Civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills; 
  • Critical and inventive thinking; 
  • Communication, collaboration and information skills. 

Meritocracy & Equity: Stretch & Support 

The challenges that Singapore faces on a national level are the same ones faced by every school: How does one provide a model of schooling that strikes a balance between stretching the brightest and bringing on those who need additional support? 
“As a very small country Singapore, has a limited pool of human resources and cannot afford to leave children behind. On the other hand, if policies are designed to achieve equality among children, the students who an ‘fly’ may be held back, and Singapore could be the poorer because of this. Therefore, in the paradox of compassionate meritocracy, Singapore has to leave no child behind without holding back the children in front.” (p.64) 
The result is an approach which “does not set an artificial glass ceiling for the sake of equity”, it encourages those who can ‘fly’ to do so; it provides pathways for the middle; and it ensures that there are direct interventions so that no child is left behind. 
“Such an approach does not promise an equalisation of outcomes, or even pretend to do so.” (p.64) 

Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) 

One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of Singaporean education is the shift from a teacher-centric to a learner-centric pedagogy for the classroom. This is encapsulated in the assertion that “if teachers teach less but teach better, then students will be able to learn better and be more motivated in their learning” or, put more simply, “teach less, learn more” (p.92). The analogy here is that there needs to be time to digest food (learning) before having the next meal. This is what is behind Singapore Maths which builds on the development theory that students need to understand concrete examples first before they can fully grasp abstract concepts (p.107).
The TLLM approach emphasises quality over quantity, and students are “less dependent on rote learning, repetitive tests and standardised instruction” (p.93). This also created space within the curriculum for schools to introduce their own programmes and to promote intellectual curiosity and a collective enterprising spirit among students.
“It envisaged that teachers and students will be involved in a wide range of learning activities such as brainstorming, problem-solving, undertaking real world tasks and peer teaching using various pedagogical modes such as collaborative learning, problem-based learning and project work.” (p.94)
This approach raised the hardy perennial debate about how to strike the right balance in the curriculum between subject knowledge and these new skills, most notably in the context of a high-stakes examination system. Here Pak Tee Ng provides another useful analogy: 
“Two Chess Grandmasters compete in the finals of the chess competition. Both have studied all the opening moves. Both have studied all the end games. Both have many years of experience. In a way both have acquired all the conventional knowledge about chess. So who wins? The one who is least trapped by conventional knowledge and can make the unexpected and devastating move wins! Therefore, there are two parts to the challenge of TLLM. Students have to learn the conventional knowledge solidly. Then they have to learn not to be trapped by conventional knowledge so that they may be adaptable and innovative.” (p.96) 
This resulted in a new paradigm for schooling where teachers are no longer the (spoon-feeding) provider of information and solutions, rather they are the designers of learning opportunities. Here, teachers are guides and mentors and students need to take ownership of their learning journey. 
TLLM is a vehicle for ‘quality education’ which might be defined as “one that emphasises holistic development, equips students with the knowledge and skills for the future, inculcates students with the right values and imbues students with a positive learning attitude.” (p.103) 
Relationships are at the heart of quality education: “Quality education is quality teaching, quality learning and quality relationship between the teacher and student.” (p.104) 

Squaring the Circle: ‘Every School, a Good School’: ‘Every Parent, a Supportive Parent’ 

‘Parents are important because you are your child’s first and most important teacher in life’ (Minister Heng Swee Keat p.159) 
It has not been easy for the Singapore Government to change the wider (parental) culture which sees additional tuition and rote-learning as the path to examination (and therefore career) success. Indeed, the MOE’s decision to abolish ranking schools on their academic results in 2012 was driven in part by a desire to stop motivated parents gravitating towards the top-performing schools. Instead schools are recognised for best practice in Teaching and Learning, Student All-round Development, Staff Development and Well-being, Character and Citizenship Education, and Partnerships (p.121).
Yet Singapore has a long way to go to change the Kiasu (lit. ‘fear of losing’) parenting approach which drives them to pay for additional tutoring and to put extreme pressure on their children.

A few thoughts 

Singapore – a model? 
Educational debates about Singapore over the past ten years have focused on whether or not it is possible “to scale up” Singapore’s educational success to larger, more traditional and more complex educational systems in Europe and North America. Most conclude that it is not possible. However, as a school leader I am taken by the idea that if it can work at a small nation level, it is clearly possible “to scale down” its leading features to a Schools’ Group or a school. Whereas most people look at Singapore and say ‘That won’t work in the UK for the following reasons’, I find myself asking, ‘Shouldn’t we be doing this at Kellett?’ 
Once the problem of scale is removed, we are left with a number of important educational debates which the Singapore journey can illuminate: 
  • Curriculum: What is the right balance between learning knowledge and skills? 
  • Assessment: Is there a place for high-stakes assessment in C21? 
  • Differentiation: Within finite resources, how do we provide for those who need support without holding back the most able? 
  • Quality and Accountability: What makes a good school? What should be the basis for school inspection/ evaluation? Should schools be graded/ appear in League Tables? 
  • School and Home: What is the right relationship between school, home and the child/student? How do educationalists carry parents with them when arguing for a different educational journey to the one which parents took 30 years ago? 
  • Teachers: What makes a great teacher? 
  • Professional Development: How do we foster a professional learning community? 
Formative Education Systems and International Testing 
The UAE is at a formative stage in its educational journey and has had the stated aim of being in the top 20 countries for PISA by 2018 and the top 15 for TIMSS by 2019. This is totally antagonistic to the approach being advocated by Pak Tee Ng. However, it is interesting to reflect whether success in international tests is a distraction, or a necessary staging post that then allows countries to move to the more sophisticated aims to which Singapore now aspires.