Letter from LondonWhen theÂ UK government announced a few years ago that it was committing over Â£40 billion (Rs.328,000 crore) to rebuild all its secondary schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme, it had already â€” perhaps inadvertently â€” exposed the short-comings of the programme. Building Schools is not the future, especially not in Britain. Education in traditional classrooms, 30 pupils to a teacher, selected by age, not ability, and passively learning set pools of knowledge has failed generation after generation.
Modern Britain needs schools to produce graduates with transferable skills, with ability to communicate and collaborate, and with confidence to excel in the 21st century.
What would such a school look like? This has been a crucial debate within Building Schools for the Future, and one that is unresolved. It is perhaps clearer what the school should not look like. Education of the future should not be defined by physical boundaries; it should be anywhere, anytime and lifelong. Community learning centres where adults and children learn side by side should be the norm; how long can we justify segregating children by age alone?
Yet sadly, many schools continue along the path of moving students from one subject to another, from one class to another, learning passively. Many have introduced â€˜newâ€™ subjects such as drama, design, or physical educ-ation (they all count towards the five GCSE benchmark!) rather than looking to re-engineer their schools.
Nevertheless a favourable development that the government has long acknowledged is the role that technology can play in education. Children in Britain spend much of their time outside school on the mobile phone, the internet, digital TV and game boxes like Microsoftâ€™s X-box and Sonyâ€™s Playstation. All these digital toys have two facets that are now shaping how children learn: interactively and by multi-tasking. By using similar technology in education, it is possible to re-engage students and bring them back into â€˜schoolsâ€™.
One such solution is LP+ â€” an education and e-learning platform built on current Microsoft corporate technologies of messaging, collaboration and workflow, but delivered through a browser. As a hosted and managed platform, it places no burdens on the school to purchase expensive and complicated servers, and it allows rapid and global deployment.
Such models will bring education in line with todayâ€™s businesses â€” where messaging and communications have become king, where global customers and supply chains are becoming the norm and where the ability to collaborate and communicate is paramount.
The model for 21st century education is still developing, but at least the sign posts are becoming clearer.
(Dr. Mehool Sanghrajka is the London-based CEO of LP+, an education company)
Sarkozy shake-upLaden with hefty backpacks, french children filed back to school in early September amid fresh agonising about the education system. Given its reputation for rigour and secular egalitarianism, and its well-regarded baccalaureate exam, this is surprising. What do the French think is wrong?
Quite a lot, to judge from a 30-page â€˜letter to teachersâ€™ sent out by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Too many school drop-outs; not enough respect or authority in the classroom (pupils, he says, should stand up when the teacher enters); too little value placed on the teaching profession; too little art and sports in the curriculum; too much passive rote-learning; and too much "theory and abstraction". France, the president concludes, needs "to rebuild the foundations" of its education system.
The criticisms touch all levels. A government-commissioned report reveals that two in five pupils leave primary school with "serious learning gaps" in basic reading, writing and arithmetic. One in five finishes secondary school with no qualifications at all. Even the baccalaureate is under attack. This yearâ€™s pass rate of 83 percent is up from just over 60 percent in the early 1960s. "The bac is worth absolutely nothing," asserts Jean Roberts Pitte, president of the Sorbonne University of Paris IV.
The bac is not under review, but other changes have begun. Xavier Darcos, the education minister, has loosened school-catchment rules to allow children from poor areas to get places in good schools elsewhere. He has set up an after-hours service for lower secondary schools, to supervise homework and keep kids off the streets. Sarkozy has also established a commission under Michel Rocard, a former prime minister and yet another of his recruits from the left, to look into the teaching profession â€” and perhaps soften up the unions before less palatable changes.
Sarkozy will find it hard to translate his ambitious ideas into concrete plans. His wish-list for the curriculum is daunting: more art and sport, but also more â€˜civic educationâ€™, comparative religion, â€˜general cultureâ€™, trips to the theatre, walks in the forest, visits to businesses. Yet French 15-year-olds already spend an average of 1,042 hours a year in the classroom â€” 150 more than German pupils, and 282 more than English ones.
Soft stress targetsOn September 13 a man threw six children from a balcony of their school in a small town in central China. A nine-year-old girl was killed and two others were badly hurt. Local media tersely reported the news, describing the attacker as mentally ill. America is often thought to have exceptional problems of school atrocities, but numerous reports in recent years of random killings by intruders in schools suggest this is a widespread malaise in China too.
As the Communist Party prepares for a five-yearly congress, it is not surprising that such incidents are played down. President Hu Jintao hopes the congress will be a ringing endorsement of his accomplishments since he was appointed party chief just after the previous congress. One of his most publicised goals has been a "harmonious society". This means reducing the social tensions created by rapid economic change.
Hu has not been very successful. In rural areas the number of those living in poverty has continued to fall, but not in cities. The rich-poor gap has widened. Lone intruders in Chinaâ€™s schools, experts say, are often people who feel powerless and alienated in a fast-evolving society where many others are faring much better. Li Meijin of the Chinese Peopleâ€™s Public Security University says that few of the assailants would be classified as mentally ill. She says they are usually poor, ill-educated members of a "disadvantaged community", such as migrants from rural areas, who direct their anger at people even weaker than themselves.
Liu Neng of Peking University says the threat is unlikely to abate soon given the continuing pace of change in urban China. With decades-old communities being uprooted to make way for construction, residents are far less able to keep tabs on their neighbours. Those in distress can easily go unnoticed. Despite widespread cynicism about Huâ€™s "harmonious society" project, Liu says it is at least helping to focus more government attention on the socially marginalised. The recent attacks suggest a lot more effort is needed.
Stress relief strategiesThe stress of the Tokyo â€˜salary manâ€™ and â€˜office ladyâ€™ is well documented, but the extent to which stress pervades the cityâ€™s schools is less well-known. When Tokyo TV recently asked a studio full of petite middle-school girls to discuss anger management, the producers found streaks of violence to match the blonde ones in the teensâ€™ hair. Behind giggles, the first girl confessed she liked nothing better than to kick boys hard in the groin. The malevolent girl then stepped out to demonstrate on a man-sized teddy.
On surveying the older girls, the producers found this was their favourite way to let off steam, closely followed by screaming wildly and ripping pages from books. Japanese pupils spend long hours in class, and exam pressures familiar to Indian children mean they often get little sleep. A ministry of education study shows that 20 percent feel "frustrated or irritated" daily.
But it could be worse: a 16-year-old Kyoto girl was arrested last month for killing her policeman father with an axe. "He irritated me," she said.
Emerging parent powerSomething extraordinary happened in London at the start of the current academic year. In Lambeth, one of the cityâ€™s poorest boroughs, 180 children started their secondary education in a brand new school. The state-funded school was set up, without a fancy business sponsor, by parents who were fed up with the quality of local education. In countries with more enlightened education systems, this would be unremarkable. In Britain, itâ€™s an amazing achievement by a bunch of desperate and determined people after years of struggle.
Britainâ€™s schools are in a mess. Although British school children perform reasonably well compared with those in other countries, average standards are not improving despite billions in extra spending, and a stubbornly long tail of under-achievers straggles behind. A couple of years ago, a consensus emerged among reformers that local councils (i.e local governments), had too much control and parents too little. There was radical talk in both main parties of encouraging parental choice as the best way to drive up standards: if school children were free to vote with their feet, taking public funding with them, new schools would open and existing ones would improve in order to compete.
That talk has died down. Prime minister Gordon Brown is backing away from some of his predecessorâ€™s hard-won measures to loosen local government control over schools and make them more responsive to parental demand. Tony Blairâ€™s academies â€” state-funded schools with some autonomy over vital matters such as syllabus and teachersâ€™ pay â€” have been told to pay more heed to the national curriculum and demands of local councils. In May, the authority in charge of picking the winner in the first competition to open a school under Blairâ€™s rules spurned new entrants and plumped for the councilâ€™s bid.
One might have expected more from the opposition Conservative party which pledged in 2005 to bring in school vouchers. Yet the Tory policy group charged with thinking deep thoughts about public services paid only lip service to parent power in its report on September 4.
Worry about underperforming schools is hardly confined to Britain: in America, in Italy, in Germany, even in once-proud France (see p.76), education is a hot-button topic. Yet a number of countries seem to have cracked it and parental choice is at the heart of most successful solutions. What are the lessons?
The first is that if a critical mass of parents wants a new school and there is a willing provider, local government should be required to finance it as generously as it does existing in-state schools. The second is that if a charity â€” or business â€” wants to open a school in the hope that children will come, then taxpayersâ€™ money should follow any that do. Third, rules about what, where and how schools teach should be relaxed â€” though not abandoned â€” to avoid stifling innovation and discouraging newcomers with big ideas. In any event, public examination results would give parents the information they need to enforce high standards.
These proposals may seem radical, yet parents in the Netherlands have had the right to demand new schools since 1917, and parents in Sweden have been free since 1992 to take their government money to any school that satisfies basic government rules.
Tuition costs concernHats, t-shirts coffee mugs and other paraphernalia bearing the legend "1.20.09" are appearing all over the US. It stands for January 20, 2009 â€” the last day of the George W. Bush presidency â€” and the people who sport it on their chests, heads and car bumpers are expressing impatience for the date to arrive.
It is still more than a year until voters get to choose a Bush successor. But this is not a particularly long time in US politics. If there has been a sign of how near the election is, it was the Congress vote in early September in Washington for the largest increase in government aid to university students since returning GIs (soldiers) were given free higher education after the Second World War.
Under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, the maximum annual amount of direct grants to needy students will rise by more than 30 percent over the next five years. Interest rates on student loans will be cut in half, and graduates who go into public service professions, such as teaching, fire fighting and policing, are promised that their debts will be forgiven. President Bush, who had earlier threatened to veto the measure, did a u-turn and says that itâ€™s what he had wanted all along.
This is at least in part, an attempt by both the Democratic and Republican parties to position themselves for the election. It is also explicit acknowledgement that as the presidential campaign becomes seemingly ubiquitous, an unlikely issue has finally risen to unprecedented political prominence: the spiralling cost of attending university in the US. "This bipartisan consensus for an increase of this magnitude is something no one would have predicted," says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
The outbreak of unanimity is perhaps less surprising in the face of growing public frustration over the affordability of higher education. While family income has increased 170 percent since the early 1980s, the price of a US university education has risen 375 percent.
The middle class is hardest hit by the soaring costs of tuition, since it is neither poor enough to qualify for direct financial aid nor rich enough to afford to pay outright for a private university education that now costs as much as $45,000 (Rs.17.68 lakh) a year at many schools. The middle class is also Americaâ€™s largest single voting bloc. Little surprise then that as the presidential elections nears, the two major political parties are suddenly falling over each other to make more money available for students.
Democrat George Miller, chairman of the House Education Committee, says that the Republicans in Congress cut $12 billion from student aid programmes last year, which the Democratic-controlled Congress has now almost entirely restored. "We took $11.39 billion and put it back into Pell grants (the principal direct government grants)," Miller told reporters. "Thatâ€™s the difference an election makes."
None of these measures actually does anything to tackle directly the biggest complaint of voters, namely the cost of university tuition. More than half of Americans now agree that universities "are like a business", caring mostly about their own bottom lines rather than educational values, while 81 percent say that waste and mismanagement are "very important" factors in driving up university costs.
Demographic challengesWith the imminent retirements of baby-boomer academics opening up a raft of positions at US universities, institutions are moving to address the problem with a variety of measures, including hiring international scholars.
Many faculty who began their careers during the expansion of US higher education in the 1960s and 1970s are now in their sixties, seventies and eighties. A third of American faculty are 55 or older, compared to less than a quarter in 1989, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The next few years will see an "increase in the likelihood of faculty from other countries having the opportunity to teach here, at least on an interim basis," says Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Personnel Association. "As our population ages, some of the gaps weâ€™ll see over the next five or ten years, particularly in the sciences, mean that strong international faculty will be in much greater demand," he adds.
There are already severe faculty shortages in some disciplines, as student enrollment grows. Class sizes in many engineering schools are high because of chronic faculty vacancies. Business schools report severe shortages of faculty with doctorates to teach the growing number of students in Masters of business administration programmes. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accrediting agency, says there are two or three times more positions available than people to fill them. The number of doctoral degrees awarded in business will be short of demand for business faculty by 1,142 next year and 2,419 by 2013.
Universities have resorted to various measures to address these shortages. A few business schools have raised student fees to pay faculty salaries as high as $180,000 (Rs.70.75 lakh) a year. Many nursing and pharmacy schools offer scholarships and other incentives to students to encourage them to follow careers in university teaching. Other universities are making the tenure process easier for women with children. Women are underrepresented among tenured faculty in the US.
Elite universities tend to have the grayest faculties. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 27 percent of those in mathematics and 6.4 percent overall are aged over 70. At Harvard University, more than 9 percent of faculty are over 70, while at Columbia University the figure is nearly 10 percent. Meanwhile the proportion of those aged under 45 years has fallen from 41 to 34 percent since 1989.
Private varsities stimulusTurkeyâ€™s higher education system is set to go through one of its most significant periods of change. The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party which was re-elected with a landslide victory recently, has made reform of the higher education sector one of its key objectives.
At present universities are administered by the Higher Education Authority (YOK) under a centralised system created by the countryâ€™s generals after they seized power in 1980. Calls for reform have been rising steadily, with increasing demands from a rapidly growing population (half the population is under 25) and the rapid globalisation of higher education.
To meet these demands the private sector has entered higher education. In the past decade, 23 private universities have been established, joining 54 existing state institutions. All private universities are funded through foundations and must be non-profit making. Many are funded by philanthropic business people, and several already rank among the countryâ€™s top higher education institutions.
One of them is Bilgi University, which was founded in 1996 by a businessman, Oguz Ozerden. This summer it moved to a prime historical location, Istanbulâ€™s first power station. The Santral campus was funded jointly through the support of the European Union, private investment and the US. Such cooperation, says Murat Guvenc, the deputy rector, is the way forward for higher education in Turkey.
"The rise of private universities not only offers a chance for the hundreds of thousands of students for whom the state cannot provide, but allows many of these universities to create their own unique academic identities and bring new competition and dynamism into higher education," says Prof. Guvenc.
But state universities are fighting back against the rise of their well-funded private competitors. Istanbul Technical University (ITU) is aggressively engaged in a major expansion, much of which is funded by a wealthy alumnus.
That expansion is partly aimed at competing on an international level. Comments the universityâ€™s chair of humanities, Istar Gozaydin: "Five years ago there was a change in mentality and a decision was made to fully integrate into international higher education. There was the realisation that globalisation also includes education, and that we should be a part of that."
Organising international conferences is also seen as a key part of building up ITUâ€™s reputation overseas. But that can pose problems. Recently, a leading international academic had her invitation to speak at a conference withdrawn because it was discovered that she wears a religious headscarf.
Both private and state universities still enforce a strict ban on the wearing of religious headscarves by female students and staff. Tens of thousands of students continue to be affected by the ban. Some students wear wigs or hats to circumvent the rules, while others seek education overseas.
(Excerpted and adapted from Times Educational Supplement, Times Higher Education Supplement and The Economist)