Access to the Highest levels in Formal Education

There are institutes of further studies in India where, because of such enormous desire for seats, admit only 0.01% of all applicants. However, interestingly, some years ago I saw an interview with a prominent business head in the country during which he was asked whether he would rather recruit the ‘intake list’ of those institutes or the graduates coming out of those institutes. His answer was – the former, not the latter. In the case of those Institutions the entry requirements are handled by some very clear cut, very rigorous and taxing examinations. The ability to absorb the vast volumes of information required to do well in those exams becomes the key criteria of entry. From that business Head’s perspective, if he recruited those who could get in to these Institutes he’d know he was getting people with high intelligence, a strong work ethic and ability/ willingness to compete at extreme levels, putting themselves through whatever it takes to get through. Amazing stories abound of the arduous experiences people have gone through to jump the hurdles.

The best and most respected centres of learning in other parts of the world have different methods for selecting the students they wish to attract through their doors. This was a particularly interesting article about Oxford University’s interview and questioning process;

The Guardian – Solving the Riddle of Getting in to Oxford

The Oxford University approach is very clear about the kinds of students they seek to attract through their admissions process. The interviews are designed to identify students who think critically (individually and in discussion with others), who challenge and question and don’t just accept the knowledge they’re ‘given’ at face value. If you want even more insight in to the kinds of questions that were being posed to potential students and the sorts of answers that professors were looking for, you can read this page;

University of Oxford – Sample Interview Questions

The mismatch between what some education systems produce and what places like Oxford University are looking for was brought home to me very starkly when I worked for two years in Bangladesh. There, every year, there would be celebrations of a handful of students who had achieved 5 A* A levels in a single sitting. Like anyone in the world really needs five A Levels? And yet, up to that time, no individual student from Bangladesh had ever been admitted to either Oxford or Cambridge Universities for undergraduate studies. Some had obviously made it there at the post-grad level. These students were seen to be too one dimensional – able to mug up vast amounts of learning to score highly in exams, but lacking the critical depth of view.

Returning to the Indian scenario of the IITs and IIM’s, there is no question that they do fulfil a role of a very strenuous filter – in an environment where the age profile and population size means a massive educable youth at any one time. However, it’s a system that cannot contribute to having every person achieve their potential. It just pulls a few with innate intelligence and ability to pass exams and places them at the top of the pile with masses of self-belief thrown in. Even in this respect, they experience certain challenges. Across India, over the last 20 years a number of academies have arisen that take youngsters from very modest surroundings and ‘hothouse’ them through the IIT entrance exams. However, I was told a few years ago by a number of IIT faculty that these youngsters struggle once they’re in. The goal of getting in figures so massively in their lives that once achieved some struggle to re-calibrate to new longer term goals.

There are also doubts and issues raised about whether these institutes are adequately and effectively preparing young people for the world environment in the Twenty First Century. A lack of emphasis on the development of social-emotional skills is something I know has been a point of focus in the last few years, especially for the IIMs.

By their very nature, seats to study in the very highest of educational institutes will always only be for a very small minority. Only a few have the motivation to test themselves in such an inferno atmosphere and even fewer have the character, competences and skills to achieve entry or to pursue a course of study in these places.

For those who do, enormous and varied opportunities are opened up in the world for how the person will contribute. For those students who have such aspirations and the potential, preparation needs to start early. That preparation needs to be focused very much on what the person’s goals are, their vision and values and how those align with the Institute they’re looking at. Then, the focus needs to be very much on what that institute requires, how their system works and how to be as prepared as well as possible.

International League Tables For School Learning

(Right click on the link above to either download the pdf document or to open it in another browser tab or window. You will need pdf reader software such as adobe in order to open the document)

With some justification, people will be tempted to say that parents and pupils can only aspire to the very best of International 21st Century learning, when they have access to an education that delivers on the most basic of fundamentals first to at least a decent standard. The fundamentals of reading, writing, mathematical skills and ability to think scientifically are the core foundational skills that need to be acquired by any student from their years of schooling.

It was in order to measure, compare and raise standards in these areas that the PISA tests started to be used by OECD countries, the results tabulated, compared and widely circulated. The tests are taken by children aged 15 and the last set of published results were for the 2012 tests (the 2015 results will come out in December 2016).

Inevitably, the reality is that the data can make for very painful reading and some hard questions for government. For example, considering the wealth levels of the country and amount spent on education, the US data has long been a cause for considerable concern in that country. It has the potential to inspire, motivate and encourage innovation, but too often i fear it motivates knee-jerk reactions and a greater tendency to make achievement in a test the goal in children’s education – rather than a means to an end and a tool.

Here’s an article that carries an interesting analysis of the data. It highlights the unacceptable numbers of children who are being failed by the education systems in so-called developed countries that spend considerable sums of money on public education. If these people cannot achieve even the acceptable minimum learning levels they are pretty much denied the ability to play a full and active part in the economy throughout life. The article also, quite rightly stresses that there are so many factors that impinge upon the performance of education systems that the best comparisons are those between countries which are geographically and culturally similar. Such a comparison makes Malaysia’s results even more intolerable (when compared with the likes of Singapore). The final article is one of optimism – where the will exists, positive change can be achieved that brings great benefit to young people’s lives and the society as a whole;

World Economic Forum – The Conversation – Where Are Children Getting The Best Education?

India took part (once), but sadly found the results so embarrassing that they simply withdrew and said they ‘didn’t want to play’. The government (read Sheikh Mohammed) of UAE took their typical approach – they decree from the top that something will be a certain way, and then just demand that others do whatever it takes to make that happen. In this case, they’ve set an ambitious target (considering where the country’s students scored in 2012) to see the country placed in the top 10 worldwide.

For Malaysia, the evidence is clear – there’s much work to do. I’m not aware of whether the original data reflects just students from government schools, or whether private sector students were included. Nevertheless, the data reflects an education system that is failing to give enough students an adequate grounding in education basics and fundamentals, let alone aspiring to deliver a truly holistic Twenty First Century education. As private sector schools, and especially as the expatriates within them I believe we’re duty bound to do all in our power to share knowledge, techniques, principles and ideas, to help people to understand and believe in what’s possible educationally. We need to be ready to share key messages about what’s required for children to be educated in ways that will enable them to excel and succeed in the wider world.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an inevitability that countries that jealously eye those top spots in the league tables look to see what they can emulate (copy), in the shortest possible time in order to drive similar results through their education systems. We see this in the UK and US conservative interests in the systems of Singapore and Shanghai. Where there are cultural similarities (Singapore and Malaysia) the temptation to simply mimic is even stronger.

However, here’s an excellently written article that delves in to the Singapore system that carries all the warnings about simple mimicry. In fact, it shows that Singapore, just like China has recognised that topping these league charts is only one element in a much more complex education equation and that, in fact, there are ways in which their rigid, teacher-centric, delivery based models carry fundamental weaknesses, however well they’re implemented. Thus, as others begin to see how to mimic Singapore, the small nation state is doing careful analysis about how they can reform and modernise the system they have;

The Conversation – Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West?

Among the senior team at Tenby in recent weeks we’ve been having a number of discussions about the critical importance of our educators (especially contractual expatriots) ‘leaving a legacy’. The growth in International education means that in the next few years there is going to be a shortage of talented, trained and motivated local talent. We have to play our part to make ours an attractive professional choice for local teachers and we need to ensure that the training, mentoring and support is there to enable the local teachers to understand and acquire the skills that put them on a par with teachers available from anywhere in the world.

Lots of work ahead.

The Maggi Scandal

As I write, today, I don’t have any idea whether Maggi noodles contain bad and dangerous ingredients. I also have no idea whether or not the product they sell in India is different to what they’re selling elsewhere. However, what I can see clearly is that the whole saga has come about because there’s an underlying mistrust and disquiet when it comes to MNCs and how they behave in India.

Of course, the cynic in me would also wish to point out that these cases most often bubble up whenever there’s a nationalist government. Within their party they carry a rump of ‘fortress India’ zealots who will sniff around for any opportunity to get anti-foreigner. Just think, if UKIP had been elected in the UK, then my home country would have been doing similar things right now in relation to foreign products.

However, I believe there’s more than enough reason in this case to doubt the moral integrity of MNCs operating in India, and have done so for a long time. I recalled this article that I wrote for this blog back in 2009. I wish i could say things are better than they were then, but my suspicion is nothing’s really changed. That’s not to say Indian companies don’t cut corners, make bad and harmful products, exploit consumers or behave in underhand ways. However, I believe that when MNCs practice different standards in different countries people will always have every right to call them on it:

My 2009 Article – Embarrassment of Being a Foreigner in India

India @ 75

When I was at TSRS one of my most memorable privileges came in late 2007 when we had the privilege to host the visit of the late C.K Prahalad who addressed the senior students and staff. His theme that day was his project on India @ 75. He did me the honour of mailing me a copy of his powerpoint presentation afterwards.

On that day he spoke for close to an hour and took questions from the floor for another half an hour as he laid out a vision of what India has the potential to be and achieve by 2022. This wasn’t some pollyannish pie-in-the-sky, but reasoned economic argument accompanied by the caveats and warnings about what will need to change in the country if the potential is to be realised.

Not surprisingly, education, both academic and vocational and on a massive scale and with new and innovative thinking figured highly in his priorities. Over tea and coffee afterwards he acknowledged to me that one of the risks already evident was what he termed “Affluenza” – an infection of those who have already ‘made it big’ in the country and their family members. Instead of innovating and continuing to strive in the way that lead them to achieve, they rest on their laurels, focused on preservation of their elite status instead of playing their part in raising the benefits for the entire population. He was also cautionary about the social, political and economic risks if the country fails to grasp the opportunity and move ahead. I can’t help thinking that if he had not passed away in 2010 he would have been less than excited about what’s happened in the 6 years since he set out that vision.

I was interested to see that there has been a major drive in the last week to take the India @ 75 concept forward with a big launch held in Mumbai with the backing of some figures from business and film industries:

Indian Express Article on India @ 75 Launch

Ultimately, this is an idea that can catch on, but it will be nothing without the commitment across the population to a more ethical, moral approach towards progress and a common shared understanding that active citizenship is incompatible with using all means, fair and foul, to grab the biggest slice of the cake for oneself. To be a true citizens movement people will need to learn to act as citizens.

here are two videos of CKP setting out the broad outline of his concept;

Is India Serious About Human Rights

Nearly two years ago I had the good fortune and the honour to go to spend a few days at the United nations Council of Human Rights in Geneva, including being Chief Guest in a workshop on ‘Education, values and Human Rights’. The whole trip was a fascinating learning experience – a first hand opportunity to see one of the most critical bodies within the United Nations at work. One of its most useful processes is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Every member country undergoes such a ‘peer review’ process. The idea is that a group of member countries present a detailed analysis of all aspects of the country’s human rights position – current strengths, weaknesses and progress made since the previous UPR.

When I was there, the UPR for the USA was presented. This was lively and controversial as many countries sought to put America on the spot and hold them accountable for such things as the failure to close the ‘prison’ at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners who are suspected to be terrorists are held without trial. There were also many other issues on which America came in for frank and open criticism. It was encouraging to see the degree of frank and open discussion and that this process at least achieves some degree of accountability. This is vitally important if the countries of the world are to get along, build trust and be accountable both for their actions towards other countries and towards their own citizens.

Having seen the process at work, first hand, I was troubled a few days ago to see the following editorial column in The Hindu newspaper: The Hindu – Travesty of Justice

What this seems to amount to is india thumbing its nose at the international community, even on issues where it has signed up to international conventions or made certain commitments to the world to comply with world standards and positions on key issues of human rights. It becomes difficult to see how India can take such a belligerent line and yet consider that it has the right to be at the table to impose its views on other countries. It also brings in to question India’s avowed wish to be respected and treated as a ‘First World country’. It also concerns me that this wasn’t reported on more in the country or considered a significant issue for debate or discourse. I can’t help thinking that, over time, this is going to have a negative impact on the country’s relationship with other countries, even potentially on trade and international relations. There is also a bitter irony, keeping in mind the furore in the country in recent weeks about the Delhi rape case, that gender inequality issues were one of the identified weak areas where other countries were asking India to take a more careful look, but India’s response was to suggest that these issues were all under control!

For those who might wish to explore the issue in more depth, here are some more useful links;

Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN

India’s UPR

How The World Understands Kunskapsskolan

Kunskapsskolan started opening schools in Sweden in 1990. However, it seems that whatever was happening there took some time to make an appearance on international media radar.

However, in June 2008, the Economist ran an insightful article looking at what the company was doing. The perspective is mostly on the business aspects, though it touches a bit on the unique attributes of the educational ethos and approach:
Economist Article – The Swedish Model

Somewhat later, in March 2010, the British newspaper, The Telegraph ran a story setting out to understand something of the approach to education. This was a response to the fact that the first of the three current Academies in England was shortly to open. The article seeks to understand what makes the model different and why the british government was embracing it as a positive new direction:
The Telegraph – A Swedish Blueprint for our Schools?

The Indian media, as far as I can see, didn’t show any interest until the Delhi press conference in late June 2012. This article by Business Standard again mixes interest in the business aspects of the plans for India with the elements that make the approach to education unique:
Business Standard – Kunskapsskolan launch in Gurgaon set to rewrite educational standards

It does often seem ironic to me that society claims throughout the world that education is such a vitally important aspect of developing an effective society, yet there is really so very little interest in truly innovative developments that might have the potential to bring significant benefits to the next generation. When i think of what did fill the column inches of my morning paper today I figure I’ll remain mystified for longer yet!

Could You Pass PISA?

The PISA tests are conducted on a regular basis across schools throughout OECD countries as a means of benchmarking the education systems of those countries (particularly State systems). It is, for example, the result of these tests that caused so much focus in recent years on the education system of Finland as many looked to see what they might learn for their own countries from the way the Finns approach education. When Chinese students first took the tests they performed extremely well, though there have been acknowledgements that the students all too often lack other skills having been drilled in a very rote-based education system. For an understanding of India’s position – see below!

This article is very interesting. Firstly, it offers access to the full “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 Education at a Glance Report”. This carries a wealth of information about everything from the comparative levels of social mobility the education system creates in different countries (how possible is it to achieve academic levels significantly above one’s parents) as a representation of fairness to the relative levels of teacher salaries, training and other facilities in different countries (regrettably data not available for India).

This page also provides an interesting ‘hands on’ experience of doing PISA test questions so that you can pit yourself against the challenges it presents to class 10 students. I’m feeling kind, so won’t ask anyone to reveal their scores here (unless, of course, you can genuinely claim full marks!)

Huffington Post Article – Test Yourself Against PISA

So, what’s the Indian scenario? I’m afraid a very sad state of affairs that makes very clear the long road ahead. India agreed to take part in the 2009 test (taken a year later in 2010 for some technical reasons alongside some other ‘first timer’ countries. Two States were chosen, being those perceived to be amongst the most advanced in State education and development; Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Some complained that instead some top private schools should have been entered. However, that would have been out of line with the OECD objectives of comparing the education available to all in the country. When the results, came, they had performed second from bottom, better than only Kyrigistan. What happened next is contained in this Times of india report:

Times of India – PISA

What can we say – there’s a long and hard road ahead, but we must start somewhere.

Kunskapsskolan in New York

Here’s a short video on the ‘Innovate Manhattan’ school in New York that gives a little flavour of the philosophy we’re bringing to India through the first flagship Kunskapsskolan, Gurgaon School opening in April 2013.

Government & Education

What should be the role of government in education? Do politicians and civil servants have any special skills or abilities that makes them uniquely well placed to determine what’s right for the education of a nation’s children? When governments do run education, do they do a good job of it? What would be the results if they let educators get on with education without hindrance?

These are all questions that would probably see the majority of people concluding that government should get out of the way. However, instead the world over they continue to behave as though the citizenry are dangerously misguided fools whose children need the protection of their wisdom and involvement. Along with that, they plainly think that educators are a bunch of dangerous reactionaries who need to be kept under very firm control.

A classic example of the problems has appeared in the last few days in England. The Cambridge Primary Review has been carrying out vigorous research over the last 6 years. I’ve met a couple of the educators involved – certainly no reactionary fools, these. Amongst the conclusions of their report are that ‘formal teaching’ of younger children should not commence until they are 6 years of age. This would bring England in to line with much of Europe, where young children only commence formal schooling at age 6 or 7.

However, the immediate response of the British government has been a telling one;

“England’s schools minister Vernon Coaker said the government was already reforming primary education to make the curriculum less prescriptive and free it up for teachers.

He added: “A school starting age of six would be completely counter-productive – we want to make sure children are playing and learning from an early age and to give parents the choice for their child to start in the September following their fourth birthday.”

The review also questioned the educational values of SATs – regular tests taken by children at the ages of 7, 11 and 14 in England, but their reason for doubting was fascinating;
“Our expert group on assessment said it would be a backward step to scrap English and maths tests at 11 and we are piloting a School Report Card, which will give parents a far broader picture of how schools are doing.”

In other words, in the eyes of the Minister testing of children and producing report cards has nothing to do with partners working together to enable each child to fulfil their potential. Oh no, these are to check up on the schools and make sure they’re doing their job properly. Which job are they to be doing and what does ‘properly’ look like? Well, it’s the job the government says they are supposed to be doing and the measures that work will only be the ones that they can test for easily and do comparisons.

So, sorry children, but you have to keep taking these tests because government doesn’t trust educators. They must be checked and regulated as a bunch of reactionary trouble makers and if the children doing tests is the only way, then so be it!

So, is there any evidence that these approaches are producing great education and young people emerging in to the world after education well prepared to contribute to the world, to be and to do all they are capable of? Irrelevant question, apparently.

There are many things which result from such approaches; teachers teach to the assessment process, especially when that’s the basis on which they and their school will be judged. Teachers push through every means possible to make these assessments easy so that they increase their chances of success. Never mind that this fails to stretch the most gifted of students.

Here in India right now these are very valid questions to be talking about. We have an HRD Minister in Mr Kapil Sibal who is prepared to open up the debates nationally about what kind of an education system we need in the twenty first century. I am often saddened that here in India there are painfully few people engaged in the kind of rigorous research represented by the Cambridge Primary Review in an Indian context.

However, if we can build such a high quality research base in India it will be vitally important that we give the findings of such research their due respect. Not, like the government in England, reject it all because it doesn’t fit with their ways of working.

There is an old saying that “If they can’t learn the way we teach, then we must teach the way they learn.” Maybe we can make a new version of this, “If they can’t educate the way we govern, then we must govern to suit the way they educate.”

BBC Article

Walking – Try it !!

It’s a known fact that in the next 10 years millions of rural Indians will head from the countryside to cities in search of a better future. But what kind of cities? For those of us living in cities right now, we can all quickly make lists of how the new cities shouldn’t be. Even those of us who live in the ‘Millenium City’ of Gurgaon know that many things can go wrong in the development of a new city.

So, what kinds of cities for us and our children? Here is an editorial written by one of the parents of the school – Sanjeev Sanyal, president of Sustainable Planet Institute. I believe that the kind of city design Sanjeev is talking about would not just be ‘walkable’ – it would also be more humanising. Going one step on, I would love to also see networks of cycle tracks so that for the journeys that are beyond walking distance we can choose to cycle. Right now cycling is rarely an option though sometimes a necessity for people in urban India. It carries enormous risks. Even if you’re not mowed down by dangerous drivers, you would certainly get a lungful of noxious air along the way.


If any students or parents have thoughts on this interesting piece, please post them here and I’m sure Sanjeev would be happy to respond.