30 September 1999 - 01 October 1999

School Age Education: Tasks, Systems, Performance

Chair: Mr Bernard Shapiro

We met in the beautiful city of Vancouver at the generous invitation of the Canadian Ditchley Foundation for two days of intensive discussion on school age education.

No golden key to the problems of primary and secondary education was discovered.  Hardly surprising, since society as a whole, Governments, local authorities, school boards, employers, taxpayers, parents, pupils and, not least, teachers all have an interest in the process. A simple reconciliation of their views has never been a realistic expectation.

Several themes, did, however, run through the conference.  The biggest unresolved question was a clear definition of the aim of schools.  The answer offered in the final plenary session included both the utilitarian – imparting employable skills – with the general – civic understanding, social integration and personal development.  This evoked the counter-argument that schools should not be overloaded with unrealistic expectations.  Their primary task should be to achieve acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy.  They should concentrate on the core task of ensuring that every individual had the basic skills to make their way in the contemporary world.

It was argued that the definition of a school’s purpose would materially affect the basis on which its success or failure would be judged.  It would also influence the inputs necessary to achieve its goals.  For example, in Scotland the present draft legislation envisaged a wide definition of the aims to be set for primary and secondary schools.  If these survived in the final bill they would have a profound effect on the expectations of those schools, the resources to be provided by the state and the way in which their results could be measured.

We spent some time on the problem of measuring outputs.  While it was possible to devise tests to measure basic cognitive skills no adequate methodology had been developed to measure the soft-skills which were now so much in demand in our service-based societies.  If, however, Governments could be confident that a narrow range of outputs could be reliably and regularly measured they would not need to involve themselves so intensively in the education process.  Those with experience of the English and Welsh systems of education claimed that this was indeed the process on which they were embarked.

This debate highlighted the differences in national practice.  The American and Canadian participants were surprised at the degree to which consensus had been reached in England and Wales on the content of the curriculum and the way in which it should be taught and tested.  Concern was expressed that although this might achieve an initial sharp rise in the results achieved, in the medium term such a prescriptive approach could lead to professional stultification.  Teachers would be unable to exercise their judgement, innovation and creativity would be stifled.

Proponents argued that they were dealing with a mass system.  Not all teachers were strong.  They needed guidance and support.  Testing and assessment through an independent Inspectorate would help them to judge progress and weakness in themselves and their pupils.  It would also give parents a tool through which parental choice could be exercised.  Perfection was unattainable, mass education was an exercise in the art of the possible.

In a debate about the content of the curriculum a difference emerged between those who thought the objective should be to teach pupils the process of learning and handling knowledge, and those who maintained that without a certain level of factual knowledge it was not possible to proceed to a more conceptual level.  Mental arithmetic and long-division were re-acquiring importance in academic debates on the issue.  It was noted that most Asian countries whose young people tended to do well in mathematics and sciences, banned the use of computers before the Fifth Grade.

Choice and accountability were also debated in detail.  Should the standard public school be the monopoly model or should other experiments be allowed.  It was claimed that the Charter School in the USA not only provided a good education to some of the most underprivileged children in big cities, it also acted as a stimulus and example to other schools in its neighbourhood.  Competition, it was alleged, could bring gains all round.  It was not necessarily a zero-sum game.  The disciplines of the market could exercise a healthy influence on over-rigid educational establishments or unhelpful union practices.  While welcoming experimentation in theory, some cautioned against too much.  Failed initiatives could extract a heavy price from individual pupils who had only one chance during their time at school to equip themselves for later life.

Schools themselves were the subject of a good deal of criticism and speculation.  It was extraordinary that they still worked to a timetable based on an agricultural society’s needs for labour in the fields during the summer harvest.  There was a feeling that schools might be on the verge of a paradigm change based partly on the IT revolution and partly on the evolving needs of a rapidly changing world.  If schools did not change, then others might step in and take their place.  Many of today’s multinationals had budgets larger than some countries’ national incomes.  They might set up their own schools to provide themselves with suitably qualified workers.  It was pointed out that a hotel chain was already sponsoring a school in New York.  Provided it accepted the same regulations and requirements as other schools in the public sector, there should not be objection to the source of funding.

This brought the focus onto the teachers.  In the USA, 70% were drawn from the lowest third in the academic scale of achievement.  All were agreed, however, that the single biggest element in the success of any system was the quality of teaching.  With high quality teachers most problems could be overcome.  But the reality was that many teachers were weak.  They failed to keep abreast of advances in methodology and other professional skills.  Continuous upgrading and training, with rewards for results, was put forward as the remedy.  Teachers should be required to set aside some part of their fourteen weeks leave each year for that purpose.

We spent some time on the tangled question of accountability where we established the overlaps and lack of clear lines in most of our systems.  We spent curiously little time on discipline but more on rights and responsibilities both of the providers as well as the recipients in the system.  Finally the question of Governance occupied some time.  Should control be exercised at Governmental level, or should local education authorities provide an intermediary layer with the advantages of knowing the context in which schools worked and also of providing more democratic accountability to parents and other local institutions.  Most seemed to prefer a secondary, or at least some sort of subordinate tier of management.

But perhaps the lasting impression was, for once, a transatlantic role reversal.  Those involved with education in England and Wales showed more confidence in what they were attempting than those from Canada and the USA.  In England and Wales the debate had, at least temporarily, closed and the time for action had arrived.  Notwithstanding the dangers of over-centralisation this was balanced, so it was argued, by flexibility at school level as to how targets were achieved.  In the US and Canada the debate about both means and ends continued to rage.  And it was possible that in a few years time some of the ideas thrown up there could usefully be transported back across the Atlantic to help the English and Welsh Governments lighten the level of central prescription in favour of more diversification, to be carried out by a profession which would have gained confidence and public esteem by delivering on the targets it had been set.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Mr Bernard Shapiro
Principal and Vice-Chancellor, McGill University


Mr John Banks OBE
Vice President and Secretary, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation
Dr B Lynn Bosetti
Vice Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Calgary
Mr Bryan P Davies
Senior Vice-Presiden – Corporate Affairs, Royal Bank of Canada
Dr James Downey OC
Lately President, University of Waterloo and Chairman, Council of Ontario Universities and Association of Commonwealth Universities
Mr David A Good
Assistant Deputy Minister, Human Resources Development Canada
Dr Nathan M Greenfield
Canadian Correspondent, London Times Educational Supplement
Dr Adrian Guldemond
Executive Director, Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools
Professor Mark Holmes
Lately Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
Ms Veronica Lacey
Deputy Minister, Ministry of Education and Training, Ontario
Dr Sam Lim
Senior SchoolNet Adviser, Industry Canada
The Honorable Roy MacLaren PC
Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Professor Michael E Manley-Casimir
Dean, Faculty of Education, Brock University
Mr John D McNeil
Chairman, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada
Dr Martha C Piper
President and Vice-Chancellor, University of British Columbia
Ms Helen Raham
Executive Director, Society for Advancement of Excellence in Education
Mr Grant L Reuber OC FRSC
President, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation
Mr Ronald S Ritchie
Chairman, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation
Mr William B P Robson
Senior Policy Analyst, Howe Institute
Mrs Margaret Wilson
Registrar, Ontario College of Teachers

Monsieur François Lagrange
Chairman, National Commission for Privatisation, France

Mr Andrew Adonis
Prime Minister’s Policy Unit
Mr Keir Bloomer
Executive Director of Education and Community Services
Professor Eric Bolton CB
Professor of Teacher Education, Institute of Education, University of London
Sir Nigel Broomfield KCNG
Director, The Ditchley Foundation
Mrs Heather De Quesnay
Director of Education, London Borough of Lambeth
Mr Don Foster MP
Liberal Democrat spokesman on education
Professor David H Hargreaves
School of Education, University of Cambridge
Mrs Anita Higham OBE
Lately Principal, Banbury School, Oxfordshire
Mr John F Jones
Headteacher, Maghull High School
Mr Ian Kydd
British Consul General, Vancouver
Mr Gareth Newman CBE
Part-time adviser to Department for Education and Employment
Mr David Normington
Director General for Schools, Department for Education and Employment
Lord Puttnam CBE
Film producer;  Chairman, Administrative Trust, 1999 Teaching Awards;  Member, Educational Standards Task Force;  Chancellor, University of Sunderland
Miss Carol Robson
Deputy Director, The Ditchley Foundation
Dr Caroline St John-Brooks
The Times Educational Supplement

Associate Dean Martha Hyde
Associate Dean, Graduate School, University at Buffalo
Dr Joseph Kahne
Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Mills College
Dr Judith Fay Kornberg
Director of Continuing Education and Summer Programs, Purchase College, State University of New York
Dr Barbara Mallette
Associate Professor, School of Education, College at Fredonia, State University of New York
Dr Joe Nathan
Senior Fellow, Center for School Change, Hubert H Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
Ms Nancy Pelz-Paget
Director of Policy Programs, Council for Aid to Education;  Director of Program on Education in a Changing Society, The Aspen Institute
Mr Nelson Smith
Executive Director, District of Columbia Public Charter School Board
Mr Scott W Steffey
President, Charter Schools Institute, State University of New York
Dr Sandra Stotsky
Research Associate, Harvard Graduate School of Education