The perils of policy borrowing

Education reforms move from country to country like a travelling circus, with successful acts copied and less popular performers shunned. But context is all-important in deciding whether a reform will truly be successful in education’s Big Top. David Phillips sketches some of the issues.

Travelling policy reformsWhen a politician says that ‘we must learn from high performing nations like Japan to radically transform education in England’1 we can only hope that he has taken the trouble to learn something about the nature of Japanese society, to understand - to take just one example - the extent to which individual student performance in Japan depends on attendance at the juku, the private cram schools. What we might observe in Japanese classrooms is determined by the unique culture of Japan.

There are clearly great dangers in politicians’ use of the foreign example. It can be used, in Gita Steiner-Khamsi’s terms, either to ‘glorify’ or to ‘scandalise’ the home system, and precisely where the emphasis lies will depend on the political imperatives of government or opposition. Proper vigilance is required whenever we are told that we should be emulating aspects of education in other countries. The latest volume of the World Yearbook of Education is devoted to policy borrowing and learning in education in a wide range of contexts, and demonstrates how seriously the problems of international policy transfer are being addressed by comparativists around the world.

The grass is always greener…or not

Policy makers have always looked to other countries for examples of different approaches to education which might serve either to stimulate and support reform or to warn against it. Throughout the nineteenth century, when England was struggling towards legislation that would make school attendance compulsory, reference was frequently made to Prussia and other German states, either as exemplary in terms of enlightened school provision or as indicative of the dangers of too much control over matters that should not – it was argued – be the concern of the state. Today Germany still serves as a model for its egregious system of vocational education.

At various times France, the United States, and Japan have also been favoured by the attention of British commentators on education. Even the former Soviet Union attracted attention at the time of the ‘Sputnik shock’: an American publication of the time was titled What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t. Following the highly developed large-scale international surveys of pupil attainment (TIMSS, PISA), we now have sophisticated data that can help to inform debate.

Comparative cherry-picking

Finland of course has been the focus of much recent attention, as a result of high levels of attainment in the PISA surveys. Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility at the Finnish Ministry of Education, identifies some factors that account for the Finnish phenomenon, among them Finland’s well-established nine-year comprehensive schools, attention to pupils with special needs, local autonomy and – especially – a committed, professional, and highly qualified teaching force. This last determinant of success is the envy of other countries: teaching is such a popular profession that only ten per cent of teacher training applicants are accepted, and they must then continue to Master’s level.

In this case, as in so many others, what creates success has to do with a complex set of inter-related contextual factors and cannot simply be ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere. Comparativists frequently quote Michael Sadler’s warnings at the beginning of the last century:

We cannot wander at pleasure among the educational systems of the world, like a child strolling through a garden, and pick off a flower from one bush and some leaves from another, and then expect that if we stick what we have gathered into the soil at home, we shall have a living plant.

But there are nevertheless many instances of the successful learning of lessons from elsewhere. The London borough of Barking and Dagenham, for example, made excellent use of observed practice in mathematics teaching in Switzerland (especially) and introduced new techniques into local classrooms with very positive effects on pupil attainment.  Much has been learnt too in other contexts from the example of New Zealand’s ‘reading recovery’ programme.

It is examples like these that show how we might best profit from an investigation of foreign practice in education. What is needed is a proper comparative pedagogy that will look not at the grand scale of systemic or institutional patterns but at the detail of successful classroom practice – in teaching, in learning, and in assessment. Teachers and pupils alike would surely benefit from determined efforts to investigate ‘what works’ precisely in terms of classroom techniques in other countries and to investigate whether they are context-bound or might be easily be copied to improve practice at home.

David Phillips is Professor of Comparative Education and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.

  1. Twigg, S., Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, 13 May (2012). We must learn from high performing nations like Japan to radically transform education in England. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
  2. Phillips, D. (2011). The German Example: English Interest in Educational Provision in Germany Since 1800. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.
  3. Sahlberg, P., & Hargreaves, A. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. Steiner-Khamsi, G., & Waldow, F. (2012). World yearbook of education 2012: Policy borrowing and lending in education. London: Routledge.

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