Where Labour's education team should look for inspiration

A travel itinerary for Stephen Twigg from Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss.

It is reported that there will be cross-party talks between the education secretary, Michael Gove, and his shadow, Stephen Twigg, later this summer on the curriculum. This is good news. The curriculum should reflect best international practice, not be a political football. I know that Stephen has already been fact-finding in Japan and Sweden and to help out I have developed an itinerary for him to find the brightest and best.

Stephen should start his tour in the wheat fields of Calgary. One of the top western entries in the OECD PISA tables (based on a common test for 15 year olds), Canada is maths heaven. And Alberta has scaled the greatest heights of all. Spurred on by a strong oil sector with growing demand for tech savvy people this province has created a leading maths curriculum. Courses on algebra and geometry are both rigorous and modern. Just what we need to drive forward a tech sector revolution in the UK.  He can then go east to Ontario. I can attest from Ontarian teachers currently working in Norfolk that there is a huge enthusiasm for maths here. He’ll also see what a broad curriculum centred on English, maths, science, history, geography and foreign languages looks like.

If he has time he should go down to Massachusetts. The US state outperforms the UK despite similar culture and demographics. There is a strong presumption of studying maths to 18 where it leads the pack amongst US states. The curriculum builds in layers like an onion, not the modular “learn and forget” that has dominated British education. Almost all students have to study binomial theorem, complex numbers and use logarithmic functions extensively as part of their compulsory high school maths courses.

Stephen should then spend some time in South East Asia. This part of the world dominates the international rankings. Although some concern about rote learning is leading to revisions in Hong Kong and Singapore, the clear work ethic is an inspiration. There’s no complacency here with Singapore focusing on courses for teachers that boost students’ performance. Students are expected to master concepts earlier than in the UK, both Hong Kong and Singapore expect students to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions by the end of primary school and Singapore introduces quadratic equations in the equivalent of year 9. These are now included in the UK's draft curriculum released by Michael Gove earlier this week.

India is teeming with interest in new tech. Stephen could join the country’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the packed out Indian Science Congress, thousands of papers presented and local school kids queuing in the heat for entry to a science exhibit. The UK Government has abandoned ICT and is now developing the replacement. Perhaps a visit to one of the highly successful Indian Institutes of Technology will provide some clues. There is no doubt the country has a passion for science that the UK should emulate. As Angela Saini notes in her book Geek Nation, the International Science Olympiads receive as much, if not more, coverage in the Indian press as the Olympics.

Next stop should be Germany and examining the reasons behind their renewed economic success. Stephen should chat with his fellow social democrat Gerhard Schroeder about the education reforms in the early 2000s that allowed the Germans to leapfrog Britain in the PISA league tables. And about why the German public wanted action following their “PISA shock”, when the entire country was outraged by their low rankings. They might have had different problems to the ones the UK faces but Schroeder realised radical reform was the only option. Measures included the introduction of national standards for the first time in all core subjects – German, maths, science and foreign languages – prescribing more rigorous content and reinforced by international benchmarking.

As he heads back to Britain, Stephen should check out potential reforms in the other part of his portfolio, childcare. In the Netherlands, innovative childcare reforms have put flexibility and choice in the hands of parents. The country now has twice the number of childminders per capita as the UK. He should also check out France’s Écoles Maternelle with a higher child to adult ratio than Britain and more qualified staff. In both countries, despite less Government spending, parents are paying out a considerably smaller portion of their income in childcare costs.

There is much to learn from outside the UK - and if Stephen is prepared to take on the vested interests in his own party – potentially room for fruitful discussion. Happy travels!

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to children during a visit at Erika-Mann-Grundschule elementary school in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.

Elizabeth Truss is the Conservative MP for South West Norfolk

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.