Column: Striking similarities in challenges faced in education across the globe

Paul Stockley, second from the right, at the conference in Japan
Paul Stockley, second from the right, at the conference in Japan

Most people in Sheffield will probably be unaware that we have a ‘sister city’ or ‘friendship city’ in Kawasaki, Japan.

In fact we are one of seven cities all over the world that are part of this group and which all have a link to the manufacturing of steel.

They have not got all the answers and there is no simple solution

The sister cities are as follows:

n Rijeka (Republic of Croatia)

n Baltimore (United States of America)

n Shenyang (People’s Republic of China)

n Wollongong(Common wealth of Australia)

n Sheffield (Britain)

n Bucheon( Republic of Korea)

Kawasaki (Japan)

In November 2017 I was incredibly privileged to be invited to do some work in Kawasaki, Japan.

During the visit, representatives from the sister cities converged on the city of Kawasaki, Japan (which is adjacent to Tokyo) to take part in an education conference but also to visit educational establishments in the city.

I went to see a primary school, a secondary school and a special school.

Despite the obvious differences, what was striking during the visit were the similarities in the challenges that we all face in education, be it internet safety, bullying, attendance at school or providing support for children with special needs.

No education system is immune from these challenges and although we often look to Asian countries for the answer to our own problems, the message was clear: they have not got all the answers and there is no simple solution.

Educational strategy in this country has often seemed to be reactive rather than proactive, and lacking confidence in what we already have, taking ideas from elsewhere and expecting them to work, despite the cultural differences.

The Chinese delegates warned against this approach and highlighted examples of where the UK has copied Chinese Maths strategies for example, without adapting them, when the Chinese themselves have concerns about their effectiveness.

The rise in the number of pupils with complex special needs in schools is a challenge all over the world.

Recent improvements in medical science have meant that more children with complex medical and learning challenges are surviving childbirth and are now entering the school system.

This, combined with a rise in children with autism and attention deficit disorders, is putting a great deal of pressure on the existing provision which is currently struggling to cope.

Although special needs provision in Sheffield is outstanding, continuing investment is needed if the schools are to manage this increase in the number and complexity of referrals.

In Japan the facilities I saw were superb with more special schools being built to meet the increasing demand.

In the primary school I visited I was impressed by the diverse and varied curriculum which catered for the needs of the whole child and which was not unduly focussed on just a few academic subjects, as it is in this country.

Incredibly, the school even had a swimming pool located on the roof but I am not suggesting that this needs to be the norm for British schools, as lovely as it would be.

Testing does not occur at Primary age and there is no Ofsted inspection, yet Japan has one of the highest performing education systems in the world.

Teachers enjoy their jobs, despite very long hours, and the headteachers are trusted to lead with minimal interference from the government or the local education department.

This was reflected in the other sister cities with our children appearing to be more tested, and our schools more scrutinised, than any other country which was represented.

I think that there are important lessons to be learnt for our own education system around the theme of teacher and pupil wellbeing since the unprecedented degree of pressure on schools is already risking an exodus of teachers from the profession and a generation of children with a narrowed curriculum, both at primary and secondary levels.

Unremitting pressure over a long period of time does nothing to motivate and inspire human beings and it can lead to passivity and a risk- averse culture; exactly what we don’t need in our schools.

If we are going to successfully prepare children for the future we need a system which recognises the importance of providing a diverse and stimulating curriculum and which places value on the development of vital qualities such as resilience and resourcefulness in our pupils, rather than just focussing on children’s abilities to pass high stakes tests.

With yet another education secretary, Damian Hinds, now starting his job I hope that, as the fourth holder of this post in as many years, he can find the time, as good leaders should, to do a lot of listening and learning before he takes any action.

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