University rankings, mental health, a teaching crisis and why we should be more like Finland.
This week’s biggest piece of education news, for the first time since it began in 2004, the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings has been topped by a British university, with Oxford taking top spot. The UK is second only to America, with 88 (up from 78 last year) in the top 800, and 32 in the top 200. However, academics from top UK universities have cited the possible effects of Brexit, potentially damaging funding and alienating them from EU-funded projects, as a threat to the global position of UK universities. Furthermore, the upcoming government-led Teaching Excellent Framework, which threatens to enforce greater conformity across the university sector, is also likely to have a detrimental impact on UK universities.
Despite Oxford’s success, this week has also seen more troubling education news. A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), a think-tank, says support for students with mental health issues at many British universities is desperately underfunded, with some requiring up to three times more investment. Hepi’s report claims one in ten students has a ‘diagnosable mental illness’, with one in three being affected by depression and loneliness. There has also been a rise in the number of student suicides and attempted suicides. Counselling services are overcrowded and underfunded, there is no continuity of care when they return home (due to rules allowing students to only be registered with one doctor at any given time), and many are unaware of the support that universities offer.
Author Michael Morpurgo has criticised the British education system, saying he believes schools are being forced to teach literacy “fearfully”. He believes they over-emphasise spelling, handwriting, testing and grammar, thereby destroying the joy of literature for children. He argues that the rigorous, frequent testing demanded by the UK education system can be demoralising for pupils that fail, indefinitely alienating them from reading, learning and academia, leading to a ‘great divide’, that is ultimately failing children. He has suggested that parents spend more time reading to children (every night ideally), that schools half a half hour ‘story time’ at the end of the day, and that library closures are halted. His comments came in response to Theresa May’s plans to extent grammar schools, which he called “divisive and stupid”.
Morpurgo’s withering assessment of our British education is in stark contrast to the Finnish system, which has yet again been identified as the best in Europe for pupil performance, and one of the best in the world. Pupils do not start formal education until age seven, but have high quality nurseries, do not face standardised tests until 18, and there are no inspections, uniforms or fees at any level of Finnish education. There is no national curriculum, as teachers are trusted to set their own – the literacy rate is 100% for boys and girls.
In Britain, the phrase ‘overworked and underpaid’ is now synonymous with teaching, with many teachers becoming exhausted and quitting the profession within a few years, leading to what the NUT has described as a ‘crisis’ in teaching. In Finland, teachers are well paid, well trained and highly respected: 90% of teachers will stay in the profession for their whole career, and do not work in the fear of narrow curriculums or Ofsted-style government intervention. British teachers tend to be among the youngest in OECD countries, with one of the lower starting salaries (though it can quickly increase) and some of the longest working hours.
In similarly troubling education news, the NSPCC has released a report claiming the internet can be ‘a playground for paedophiles’ after a 24% increase in the number of young people – especially girls – contacting Childline because they’re worried about online grooming and abuse. The majority of calls came from 12-15 year-olds, some of whom had been targeted by groomers online or convinced/coerced into sharing nude pictures, then threatened with having them made public.
Finally, a recent report revealed that the children of immigrant parents in the UK are more likely to go onto higher education and get a degree than their British counterparts. 58% of people aged 25-44 with foreign-born parents went into higher education, compared with 46% for British-born parents. The exact reasons for this are unclear, but it is possible that immigrant families place greater importance on education as a means of social mobility than Brits do.
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By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about creative writing and everything that’s trending in education.
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