Why innovative teaching is unlikely to come from the UK

The World Innovation Summit for Education awards $500,000 to the most innovative teacher - but British attitudes toward education mean that it's unlikely to ever be awarded to a teacher from the UK.

Here's a sentiment that you hear rather a lot in education futurology circles (yes, such circles exist). If you took a doctor from a hundred years ago and dumped him in a modern hospital, he'd be utterly lost: medical science has simply changed too much. Do the same with a Victorian teacher, though, and they'd probably get along fine. It’d take them a while to get used to the fact blackboards were now white and electronic, and lessons about Nazis might present a few challenges – but the basic model, of one teacher talking at a couple of dozen kids, is pretty much unchanged from the 19th century.

This is odd, because it's not as if it works particularly well: just think of all the amazing stuff from science or history that school managed to make about as exciting as Tipp-ex.

So, there are those who think it’s time to shake things up a bit. In between launching global media brands and hosting inappropriate sporting tournaments, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar likes to play host to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), where teachers, NGOs and former leaders of the Labour party can debate new approaches to schooling. Since 2011 each conference has also honoured one particularly innovative educator by awarding them the WISE Prize, which is worth $500,000 and a big gold medal, and which PR people tend to refer to in suspiciously close proximity to the word “Nobel”.

This year's prize went to sociologist Vicky Colbert, for the Escuela Nueva (New School) model. Invented in 1975 to improve rural schools in Colbert’s native Colombia, Escuele Nueva sees children, effectively, teaching each other. Working together in small groups, the kids work through a series of pre-designed modules at their own pace; their teachers, WISE says, "modify their role from transmitters of facts to facilitators and advisors”. The goal is to teach kids stuff like critical thinking, teamwork and entrepreneurialism. All this is the sort of thing that would bring Michael Gove out in hives, but it’s now been adopted in 16 countries.

There’s another idea that gets a lot of play at events like WISE: the flipped classroom. In a traditional school, a teacher tells kids stuff, then they regurgitate it in homework. The flipped classroom turns this on its head, setting reading or watching a video as homework, then using class time for discussion and practical work. This, its fans say, allows a class to cover more ground. The fact the kids are active in class should mean they learn more, too.

This is all very exciting, and the sort of thing technologists give impassioned speeches about at conferences. (Although there is a limit. This year's WISE included a debate titled 'Can we have education without teachers?'; the panel's swift and unanimous verdict was 'no'.) But I don't think we'll be seeing it on any scale back in Blighty any time soon – and not just because of Michael Gove.

It's possible to shake things up in developing countries because things are not working particularly well at the moment. A lot of kids aren't in school (an estimated 57 million globally), and a lot more than that are in schools that aren't very good. There's no Ofsted looking over their shoulders, scaring them off of taking risks, either: educators have both the motive and the opportunity to try something radical. If it works, it can spread (Escuala Nueva is now Colombian government policy). If it doesn't, hey, it was worth a shot.

Our schools system will be a lot harder to change, paradoxically because it’s actually reasonably good. Enough people got a decent education for the debate to be beset by an epidemic of 'well it worked for me'-ism, a psychological condition in which people assume that any move schools make away from their own experience of education can only be dumbing down. Gove is the most visible proponent of this, but he's far from the only one. Can you imagine how the Daily Mail would feel about a school that described its teachers as ‘facilitators’? Or one who set homework via YouTube? Imagine the reaction if that school failed.

Schools have moved on since Mr Chips hung up his mortar board, of course, not least because of those whiteboards and all the other whizzy technology on offer; there are patches of more radical experimentation out there, too. But I don't think a nationwide rethink of how the classroom works will be on the cards any time soon. Teachers will stay teachers, the classroom will remain un-flipped, and that time travelling will feel right at home. Maybe this is educational 'rigour'. But, just maybe, we're missing out.

Could a Victorian teacher teach in a modern day classroom? Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.