Learning from England’s Educational Experiments

25 Jul

Changes cannot be avoided

Thursday, 27 June 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

India has always leapfrogged by learning from the experiences of others. We must apply the same technique in education reforms also

It is an interesting time to be between England and India, especially from the point of view of education. Both nations have similar education systems, coming from similar roots. The UK has reformed and tinkered with its systems many times in the past few decades, while the Indian system remains more or less the same in its essence. Much that is new in the Indian system has been achieved by new institutions. The new growth has refreshed the system, the old has continued to prevail in its steady majesty. And like much that does not trouble to renew itself, there has been decay — as is evident from falling learning standards and employability concerns.

Surprisingly, these are concerns all over the world, and each nation deals with it in different ways. England and India come to mind here because the same issues in assessment are being handled with completely opposing strategies. Both countries have their reasons for making the choices they are making, given their individual circumstances. In both countries the new policies have faced opposition, more vocal in one than in the other. In a way, Indian policies seem to be lagging the English ones by a decade, which themselves have proved to be less than successful there and have been reversed.

The issue that both countries encounter (among many others) in K-12 education (and yes, it is ironical that I use an American term here) is the twin phenomena of falling standards and rising grades or marks. In India, marks in the Class XII examinations are in their late 90s, leading to ridiculous cut-off levels at premier universities. In the UK, the rise of the number of As and A*s in the ‘A’ level exams was not seen as a reflection of rising abilities.

The examination systems of both countries were different. Indian students were achieving higher marks due to a rote learning system that encouraged formulaic answers and defensible marking — which meant less analysis and more fact-dumping in the tests. This trend started in the early years when getting ‘full marks’ was a clear goal set for every student. The examination became the endgame — with both teaching and learning geared towards it. This had to change.

In England, the system had already moved away from focus on the end-of-year examination a decade ago to a similar system. A percentage of the grade was to be based on projects and assignments done in the classroom, marked by teachers. This was to allow the students to have more time to understand, analyse and create work that involved deeper learning, and took more time than could be allowed in an examination. This unfortunately did not necessarily improve the learning levels of the students, except in the best of schools (where they would have done this work anyway), but it did result in disproportionately higher grades. This policy was reversed and the old style ‘A’ level examinations have now been mooted.

The changes were received with howls of protest. The reforms in England came with other changes in curriculum, including in history, that displeased teachers so much that not only did they protest via their unions, but many also offered to resign rather than teach the new curriculum. Such protests are rarely known in India; teachers teach to the syllabus prescribed and most protests are about service terms and election duties. This matters, for the success of the proposed changes in India depend on committed teachers.

As India stands at the threshold of educational reform focussed on the quality of education, there is much to learn from England, Finland and other countries such as the US, that are also experimenting with new models. Finland has benefitted much from a steady rudder at the till while England’s frequent changes have not really benefited it as much as expected.

India has always been good at leapfrogging by learning from others’ experiences. It is time to do so in education reform too. It needs to be careful with well thought-through policies that allow investments in a steady path for better education.

 

 

This was published in the Daily Pioneer on June 27, 2013 and is linked here: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/changes-cannot-be-avoided.html

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