A culture of unstoppable aspiration

A Personal View

A Personal View

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I am writing this in an office in a school at the heart of one the world’s most successful cities. It is also one of the richest. I am in Shanghai.

After our first visit to this extraordinary city in 2007, we knew that it should be part of our school’s bloodstream. Shanghai is, after all, a city where some of our students will come to work in the future. Even if they never pass through it, the financial might of Shanghai, its international ambition, will affect them. At the very least our young people will be working alongside or competing for jobs against the young people of Shanghai.

That’s why I’m here with thirty of our advanced student leaders aged 15-17, supporting them as they demonstrate skills in English, geography and history, performing music and dance, leading PE lessons, showing the teachers and students of our various partner schools in this city just how resourceful, creative, resilient and impressive the UK’s young people can be.

Whilst I’m here I am, as always, being treated with extraordinary kindness and generosity. Yesterday I was given a personal guided tour of the Shanghai Rolex Masters tennis stadium in which Andy Murray was playing just a few days ago. I am being introduced to the city’s most influential education and business leaders. This afternoon I am speaking to 200 Shanghai English teachers about how to improve their questioning skills.

All of this shows a city that is keen to share.

We have been using the visit to peel back some of the mythology surrounding Shanghai’s success. If you listened to schools minister Nick Gibb and his acolytes, you would think that if only in England we copied what teachers do in Shanghai, then our education system would rocket into the international premier league. In fact, as we walk around lessons here, we are struck by the fact that the secret of Shanghai’s success isn’t entirely its teaching. It’s also its culture of unstoppable aspiration.

The teaching is often didactic, a teacher at the front, sometimes talking at the students, but more often playing ready-made tape commentaries. The students listen, copy, work in silence. Sometimes there is questioning. Rarely is there group work, but sometimes – in moments that take your breath away – there are examples of problem-solving and independent thinking that show how great teachers work beyond mechanical routines. And since no teacher in Shanghai teaches for more than 50% of their contracted hours, they have more time for shared planning and marking.

Like teachers in the UK, these people complain about the amount of marking they have. It certainly looks formidable. But perhaps they don’t realize how lucky they are to work in a culture in which teaching is a high status profession and in which huge amounts of effort and money go into helping the best teachers to mentor and develop the weaker ones. The ambition for self-improvement is remarkable.

So the teaching helps Shanghai to be outstanding. But it’s not just what happens in the classroom. On Saturday we met one of the Chinese students from our partner school. He had just finished a private Maths lesson. He was later that day going to have an English lesson, then heading to a music lesson. Private tuition and one-to-one coaching are rife here. And since it’s one of the world’s richest cities, it’s no surprise that wealthy parents use their money and their contacts to make sure that their children get bucketloads of help outside the classroom.

That ambition – from students and their parents – help us to see a city that prizes its teachers highly. Shanghai does much of what a succession of gimmick-grabbing politicians in Westminster have failed to grasp – that if you want children to do well, then it’s all about high aspirations and as many great teachers as you can appoint, develop and retain.

I’m a long way from home, but the solution to UK 
education has never seemed simpler.

-- Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds