Education Reform: Can We Learn Something From The United Kingdom?

A few days ago, friend and commenter, ralph, stated that his starting point to reform and repair our Republic would be the schools and the educational system. This is a common response among the political right, but something that seems to never get enough traction to become a reality. It is, however; an idea infused with a great deal of validity – and being the husband of a retired teacher who spent 30 years doing it, this has had no small amount of debate around our breakfast table.

Most of the discussions on the topic of education rest on a foundation of “reform” – basically to keep doing what we have been doing, just “better”, “faster” and with greater vigor. We are told that more money is necessary in education and the typical “beg” for additional funds usually includes the emotional hook that it is “for the children”. We are told that all that is necessary in order to “turn the tide” of failing schools and failing students is that society must “invest” more because the conventional wisdom says that society benefits from “education” without regard to the cost.

But that isn’t really true, is it?

Society not only reaps the putative benefits, it also bears the cost. The true benefit of education is the productive capacity it creates for society. The “net worth” of education is the real measure of the benefit to society. What we gain less what it costs is the real measure, not how much we spend. To factor the real worth of the educational establishment in America, we must also consider the cost of failure as well. Society bears a cost in support of uneducated, under-educated and failed students in unemployment, underemployment (a person invests 4 years and $150K in a college education and snags a job a Starbucks) and wasted time and effort of both the student and the teacher.

American taxpayers have been pouring dollar after dollar in increasing amounts into an institutionalized educational establishment since the 1950’s and suffering the results – results which are continually determined to be unacceptable to all. Curiously these poor results have been the basis for increased funding, rather than critical examinations of results. Since we have mountains of historical evidence that increasing the inputs (more money, more teachers, and more administration) consistently yield poor results, how much improvement can really be expected by simply spending more while running faster on the same treadmill?

It would seem that we should understand that doing the same thing, only faster, truly doesn’t help to reach a different endpoint. We get to the same failure point, just faster. When the number of inputs is limited and are manipulating those inputs does not change the outcome, the process must be considered for change.

At the risk of sounding like a Royalist from the 1700’s, there is a lot worth in considering something like the British educational system.

Many readers know that I lived and worked in Scotland for several years and in doing so, I witnessed this system through friends with children and I also hired the product of that system in the technical business that I managed. I found the graduates of the university system to be more mature, better prepared and more confident than those I have hired in the US. We found that our shop floor hires needed very little training in the basic subjects of reading, writing and math – unfortunately quite a departure from what I have personally experienced in America. We also were able to hire skilled tradesmen who had been trained in the art and science of tool and die, machining, electrical installation – and we also were able to support apprenticeships in several disciplines unique to our subsea oil and gas operations.

Very little would have to change in our elementary system – I believe that the British system places far more emphasis on drilling and memory exercises in the basic skills – but essentially the first 5 grades are about the same. Where it starts to change is at what we call the “middle school” level – or what the Brits call “Secondary School”.

At the Secondary School stage, the education becomes somewhat more directed toward three potential outcomes – a “6th Form College (we would call these “advanced placement classes), a “Further Education College” or “FE College” (basically what we would call a “junior college”) or work. Beginning at the age of 13, students are take tests to determine which of these paths they will be able to take – a student must enter a 6th Form or a FE College to go on to “Higher Education ” or “HE ” to receive a Bachelors, Masters and/or Doctorate, this is typically referred to as “university”. Where Americans typically use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably, college in the UK refers to the last two years of what we call “high school” and university is post-high school degree granting entity.

You are also not guaranteed your university of choice, when you apply students list multiple universities in the order of preference and admission is granted based on the available slots and the ranking of the grades of the student. If all the slots for your desired specialty are filled at all uni’s, you may have to wait until the next year for admission. Many students in the UK do take a “gap year” or a year off to travel, do volunteer work or to do actual for-profit work to pay for school.

University is not free. It is state supported but tuition began to be charged in most circumstances in the UK in 1998 with certain exclusions – in Scotland, a native Scot can attend a Scottish university without tuition – again, very similar to our system of public colleges and universities.

If a student cannot pass the exams to go to 6th Form or FE colleges or choose not to pursue further education, they may leave school at the age of 16 and enter an apprenticeship or the workforce.

Britain does not attempt to progress every student to a university degree if the students do not show the aptitude or the desire and yet the literacy rate in Scotland, England and Wales is 99%. The reason is that even the school “leavers” who exit school at 16 are educated well enough in the basics to function in society. The breakdown in 2012 was about 33% went on to university, 45% completed either FE or 6th Form and roughly 12% left at 16 to enter an apprenticeship program or the workforce.

The educational system in the US seeks to educate every student regardless of capability or desire to a pre-determined level with academic courses when the student may be better served in a diversion into a technical training program or even being restricted by proficiency testing from progressing beyond 6th Form or FE college (the equivalent of an Associate’s Degree in the US). We waste the student’s time, the teacher’s efforts and taxpayer’s money by churning out graduates who are doomed to underemployment or spend years in school only to drop out with insufficient skills to support themselves in our society.

It is worth a look.

12 thoughts on “Education Reform: Can We Learn Something From The United Kingdom?

  1. I’m not sure there is much about this system I like either …..

    Not the least of which although they may claim a Literacy rate of 99%, there seem to be a lot of unaware folks there….even about their own Government. And the UK is in the toilette economically and socially.

  2. I have spent the last 15 years working in and around Tallahassee. Much of my work put me in daily contact with FSU and FAMU students. Many of these “kids” are nice enough, but most of them should not be allowed out alone and unattended. A pretty good percentage of them don’t know how to cross the street.
    Now, there are some pretty intelligent youngsters in these groups, but many of them lack a basic understanding of how the world works. I will predict that there are a lot of future roofers, tire changers and burger flippers , and probably more than a few hood ornaments (remember those). When my son was in pre-school, the teachers used to pin notes to the children’s shirts (on the back). Many are the times that I wanted to send these college agers home with a note pinned to their shirt. “dear mom and dad, put him/her back on the tree for a while longer. He / She ain’t ripe yet.”
    We (the USA ) spend more than any other country in the world per student and get less bang for our buck than just about any industrialized nation on earth. I believe a large part of the problem is that our teachers and administrators don’t expect much and so they don’t get much.
    One other thing about most industrialized nations and their education systems. MOST ARE NOT DEALING WITH ” CULTURAL DIVERSITY”. We have to get rid of Multiculturalism, and get to work on cultural blending. Our ancestors came here desiring to be AMERICANS. not to be Irish living in America, or Italian living in America. Yes we have many cultures contributing to a rich cultural heritage that it is good to share. But just about 100% of Japan is Japanese. Multiculturalism just divides us into smaller groups and none of them are Americans.
    This is getting too long, ….. I’l get off my soap box and watch awhile.

  3. A quick thought, I have always felt we need more trade schools, tech schools and we made a big mistake years ago not holding apprenticeships in higher esteem.

  4. The push for university education in this nation is nothing more than the fleecing of the taxpayer by the educational elites. Look how the feds took over student loans. Now you have to go to THEM to get the money to give to the college to buy a piece of paper to get a job that MIGHT pay better than… Well, a good paint and body man, roofer, electrician and auto mechanic will make more than the average engineer, so I don’t know what these college jobs will get you that justifies $50-100K in debt.

    Next, notice how you cannot declare that federal student loan in a bankruptcy, and how, when interest rates are in the toilet, they are still around 6-8% for student loans. Who gets that interest? OBAMA and company.

    Now, look at the endowments these universities have. Most of the Ivy league schools could pay 100% of the tuition for ALL their students of the interest from their endowments — alone!

    if you ask me, I think we’ve found some REAL cronyism and greed — in our universities!

  5. And the world of Academia is a closed community. Those on the inside determine who is in and who is out. And if you’re out , you are out of luck. No grants, no publish and, of course, you are not to be taken seriously.

    Look at the idiotic things we pay “people in lab coats” to study. (I refuse to name them “Scientists”) Like why lesbians are fat, and drink too much. That was an actual study,

    • Maybe a study to figure out how to get them to eat and drink even more would be a better pay-off…. It would at least help the economy a bit.

  6. I like it, Utah. Mostly. I have a few concerns, however.

    My understanding from people who are from England is that if you fail the advancement tests, which happens to late-bloomers a lot, you have no option in the government schools. That’s your only choice. If you have money, you can attend what we Americans would call a private school and if you graduate with decent grades you can go to university. But if you don’t have money, you are forever tracked in the track where the placement test said you should be. I know two people — one who took the “public school” (what Americans call private school) route and one who married an American serviceman and came to the US to go to college, both of whom are very bright people who work in very intellectual fields. Both say they were not afforded the option to do that through the English system and both are critical of that system because of it. Especially, Caroline who was shuffled into apprenticeship when she was 16 and had to marry her way to an education, is bitter over a system that did not allow her to change her mind later. Both are also critical of the American system for being so lax.

    So, maybe this is a good idea that could be adapted so we don’t waste brilliant late-bloomers as truck drivers. For example, we have the magnet school concept here. It could be tried in some schools to see if it works and then expanded after it’s proven its worth. I also would not want to see our system of adult education through community colleges go away, because again some people don’t catch onto what they can be until later and if they are willing to pay for their own education, we shouldn’t bar them from it.

    • aurora: I don’t know that the UK is the right model but I do know that we waste a lot of time and money trying to educate people who don’t want to be educated and people who spend a lot of money on worthless degrees and wind up in a lower paying job than if they went to trade school and became a pipefitter or a welder.

      • I agree for the most part. Some hybrid of the two would probably work best. England’s system seems to lack flexibility which I think is the key to innovation. America’s system appears to have gotten away from practicality, which is also a key to innovation.

        If people were well enough educated to choose to go to college, but trained in technical schools for practical work, a handful might decide to combine the two and then you have a class of inventive technicians who create the next whatever that revolutionizes the world.

  7. Pingback: Americans Entering Workforce Are Less Educated Than Those Leaving It | The Rio Norte Line

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