Review by Mike Taylor

Professional tutor for ITE, Liverpool Hope University

11 Dec 2022, 5:00

Film

The Review: Four Nations Four Schools on BBC Radio 4

Publisher

Laura McInerney

Published

29 Nov 2022

If you’re like me, you may have considered job searches for teaching on a remote Caribbean Island. Imagine teaching underneath palm trees, occasionally swimming in the sea during your PPA, and without worries about a performance review, Ofsted, Progress 8 or attendance. But comparing your current setting to paradise isn’t always realistic, and palm trees and sunshine won’t help improve learning in real classrooms.

When touring schools for this BBC Radio 4 documentary, Laura McInerney didn’t choose Caribbean schools to compare (although I’m available if a sequel is in the offing). Instead, she took a much less glamorous but better-intended tour of the UK to discuss how school leaders tackle challenges in diverse ways. Others such as Lucy Crehan have sought to contrast and learn from education systems that are geographically and culturally distant, but McInerney has instead set out to find out what we can learn from our closest neighbours.

Twenty-five years ago, three nations of the UK were given devolved powers over their education policy. Although there were already differences, especially in Scotland, these powers meant education systems could genuinely diversify. Here, McInerney explores the home nations’ different pathways to school improvement through skilful interviews with school leaders about their nation’s unique approaches to core issues ranging from school governance through to curriculum.

Starting with England, Schools Week readers will have no trouble identifying with conversations about academisation and the freedoms this can provide over curriculum and school admissions. One school describes how vocational courses allow their students to obtain qualifications in exam-based subjects while still gaining recognition for their creative passions.

Later, McInerney explores how schools are embracing the Curriculum for Wales and Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. The focus in Scotland is for schools to develop students’ skills through interdisciplinary work through a curriculum that spans ages 3 to 18. Schools here describe their focus as being as much about personal achievement and skills development as about knowledge.

It offers a glimpse into the similar concerns that drive our four education systems

One sixth form leader describes their development of wellbeing and mental health as part of everyday school life – a focus that could prove helpful in other parts of the UK where mental health concerns are sometimes not addressed until a referral for mental health services is already needed. A headteacher in Scotland describes the importance placed on inclusion, nurture and wellbeing in inspections too – an interesting contrast to inspections in other parts of the UK, where these are a lower priority, if mentioned at all.

One criticism of international comparisons is that cultures are too dissimilar for meaningful conclusions to be drawn or transfer to take place. This is perhaps more obvious when comparing England with a paradise island, but what’s evident here is that nations within the UK have different priorities too. Wellbeing and inclusion, for example, mean very different things in response to poverty in Scotland and segregation in Northern Ireland.

Yet there has never been a better time to explore how common challenges can be tackled with diverse strategies. Current comparison tools such as PISA have their critics, not least because some consider their measures too narrow, and it is certainly worth considering what we value in education before we settle on any benchmark of comparison.

What McInerney’s show offers, if not practicable or transferrable solutions, is exactly that: a glimpse into the similar concerns that still drive our four education systems and the schools within them. Indeed, that four nations that are so close in so many ways can offer such different educational experiences is in itself fascinating.

But sometimes policies can’t be borrowed from one area and introduced elsewhere because teachers face systemic barriers to their enactment in the classroom. In that respect, I felt the voice of teachers would have improved the programme.

That aside, like my research comparing schooling and assessment between the four nations, I came away thinking that our differences, rather than the source of cross-border criticism they often become, are golden opportunities for inspiration for school and system development. As such, you won’t spend a better half-hour listening to the radio than peering over Hadrian’s wall and across the Irish Sea with Laura McInerney.

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