So: another week, another international survey.The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that in a survey of basic skills in 24 Asian and European countries, England and Northern Ireland came a dismal 21st for numeracy and 22nd for literacy.
I suspect we are all getting used to these demotivating accounts of our apparent educational failings. They make depressing reading.
Put bluntly, the report suggests, our children’s literacy is no better than their grandparents’. That’s despite the billions of pounds spent on education over the past quarter century or so.
Sometimes in England we seem to specialise in beating ourselves up, in finding reasons that we’re failing.
Today, it happens that almost 30 students from our school, along with four staff members, head to Shanghai for our annual advanced leadership exchange. Shanghai is often held up as the number one principality in the world for its teaching of literacy and numeracy.
Yet just two weeks ago 28 students from the Yangjing-Juyan Experimental School in Shanghai visited us for the sixth year of our partnership. It’s called an ‘experimental school’ because the staff and students are doing things that are considered quite unusual in China – yet which we would take for granted.
We forget, for example, how the tradition of extra-curricular clubs is something that teachers in many countries don’t offer. Go into any of the schools in West Suffolk and you are likely to see teachers working with pupils during lunchtimes and after school on sporting activities, or music, or other enrichment opportunities that wouldn’t arise in the normal classroom.
We take this for granted.
Our colleagues in Shanghai were amazed by it. Now they too have introduced a wide range of clubs and societies. They have established a School Council so that students can make decisions about the school. They are changing their teaching style to make learning more active.
These are all ideas they have borrowed from us, just as we have learnt a great deal from them. For example, they give lots of time to staff for training. A teacher in Shanghai will teach a 50% timetable. The rest of their time is for planning, marking and professional development.
So when we lament our country’s woeful basic skills, we need to be careful not to forget all the good stuff our schools do.
And we need to beware of assuming that the blame for poor standards is entirely the responsibility of schools. Because there was another revealing report last week, this time from the internationally renowned London Institute of Education.
Dr Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown surveyed the reading habits of around 6,000 young people. They discovered that those who regularly read books aged 10 and 16 gained higher results in three tests than those who read less regularly. The tests were spelling, vocabulary and - wait for it - Maths.
Apparently, a rich diet of reading assists us not just in our traditional literacy-based activities, but also in Mathematics.
Teachers in schools will play their part in this, but as parents and grandparents there’s a responsibility here for us, too.
Getting the reading habit engrained early – switching off televisions and escaping social media – makes a huge long-term difference. Then we need to keep it going.
With the half term break drawing closer, now might be the perfect time for a bookshop or library visit. It’s an opportunity to give a young person a book for the holiday and then – for sheer enjoyment, rather to pass tests – to make some distraction-free time available for them to simply get lost in a book.
After all, our country needs us to read more.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds