Can we be proud of coming sixth in the world rankings? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Can we be proud of coming sixth in the world rankings?

THE MERCURY COLUMN
in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world aroun

A FEW days ago, The Times
published a list of the top 10
countries in which to educate your
child and announced that Britain’s
school system ranks the sixth best in
the world, according to analysis by
the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Should I be pleased that, out of the
more than 40 countries measured, my
own nation ranked just sixth and would
the proud Olympians of last year be
satisfied with sixth place, I wonder?

This all seems particularly poignant
as Britain was a pioneer in providing
the cradle of liberalism for its citizens
with free education for all, way
back in 1880 when The Elementary
Education Act insisted on
compulsory school attendance
from five to 10 years.

Of course, not everyone valued
such a move and ensuring that the
children of poorer families attended
school proved difficult as it was more
tempting for parents to send them out
to work if the opportunity to earn an
extra income was available.

This was followed by The Free
Education Act 1891 which provided for
the state payment of school fees up to
10 shillings per week and, in 1889, the
“Technical Institutes Act” was passed,
giving powers to the County Councils
and the Urban Sanitary Authorities to
levy a penny tax to support technical
and manual instruction.

Extra money available

The curricula in technical institutions
also had to be approved by the Science
and Art Department.

In the following year the Local
Taxation Act introduced the “whiskey
tax”, which made extra money available
for technical instruction. Perhaps the
niceties of definition between Scotch
and Irish whisky were less clear then!

Clearly Britain has a proud history as a pioneer of educating its people and
in finding ways to pay for it. How, then,
should we feel to be pipped to the post
by Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong,
Japan and Singapore?

All these countries came above the
UK in the Economist’s listing and,
somewhat distressingly, our high
position was apparently cemented by
the high numbers of teenagers
progressing to higher education to
avoid the queues at the Job Centre.

When simple academic attainment
was measured, we came 12th out of the
40 countries because of poor standards in international standard tests of
reading, maths and science in 15-year-
olds and in other reading tests for nine-
year-olds. How the mighty have fallen!

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too
surprised as many of us may have read
Dr David Starkey’s polemic back in the
spring of 2012, in which he cited poor
discipline and a failing culture of
learning in all but the best schools as
the predominant reason for a landslide
in general standards.

Disappeared without trace

One month later, the Education
Foundation called for teachers to be
placed at the heart of education
reform, rather than politicians, but that
announcement made just 14 lines on a
middle page of one of the newspapers
of the day and disappeared without
trace in several others.

Maybe the newspaper editors were
happier to gaze fixedly at a place
somewhere around Rebekah Brooks’
hairline at the time or maybe they had, earlier, become
bored in reporting
Gordon Brown’s
attestation that education
was to be one of the
biggest growth
industries for
21st century
Britain.

Speaking
personally, I thought it a poor
omen to describe the
future of our children and their nation
as an industry, but we can safely assume
that education will remain a key pointer
to electoral success in the next general
election.

A keynote in Mr Brown’s speech
was that the Regional Broadband
Consortia (RBC) model would provide
super-fast broadband connectivity for
all schools and, to quote Education
Today
, “It’s through this type of
investment that political leaders can
provide the tools that can help build
and grow the education of the UK’s
students for generations to come,
ensuring that this new
initiative institutes
lasting change.”

Big expansion

I, for one, would like
some reassurance that
our elected leaders have
some other plans up
their sleeve to deliver
lasting change and
improvement in our
schools other than to
ensure that, in Halo 4,
the Master Chief will be
able to return very
much faster to battle an
ancient evil bent on
vengeance and
annihilation.

It would be easy to conclude that
there was more than just an altruistic
agenda in mind when, in November,
University Secretary David Willetts
approved the creation of 10 new
universities, in the biggest expansion in
tertiary education for the UK in more
than 20 years.

Andy Westwood, chief executive of
Guild HE, the organisation which
represents the 10 new universities,
commented that these existing specialist
colleges were long established and often
did better in league tables in terms of
ranking teaching provision and the
employability of students.

At first, my cynical self reared its
ugly head and I caught myself
thinking that he would say that, wouldn’t
he? Then, with the lightning speed typical
of the super-fast broadband provision that will liberate our schools, it
dawned on me that, in today’s world
where students have to pay through
the nose for their education, these
two factors should weigh more
heavily than tradition and the indigo
and ermine robes of the
establishment.

Some form of contract

After all, students spending around
£50,000 in tuition fees alone should
have some form of social contract to fall back on that gives
a level of comfort
that the training they
receive will be of a
type and a standard
which will be fit for
purpose – a key
element in every
directive to emanate
from Brussels – and
will be competitively
attractive to future
employers.

If the imminent
arrival of a new
veterinary school in
Surrey survives the
collective approbation
of its peers and goes on to provide a sound and
constructive veterinary education
allied to a genuine understanding of
the real world in which veterinary
graduates will need to ply their trade,
it has the opportunity to send a shock
wave through the establishment by
producing graduates whom practices
would actively seek out, based on
their greater suitability for purpose.

As David Starkey asked in March
this year, when talking about
education in general terms, “Why is it
that politicians and other leaders
cannot see or do not want to see the
obvious? Why is it that we are all
involved to some extent in a
conspiracy of silence not to state the
obvious because, my goodness, it
needs stating?”

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