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

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear