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Britain must regain her educational reputation by utilising her own assets

Britain’s place as a world-leader in education may be consigned to the past, after repeated headlines regarding Britain’s slide down education league tables. Last month, the OECD found that the knowledge and skills of our adults are worse than those of Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, among others. The report also pointed out, however, that this is not because England is getting much worse, but rather because other countries are improving more quickly. So, what should the government do? The government recently pledged years of support and funding toward teaching the International Baccalaureate Organisation’s qualifications. While some may be tempted to look abroad for the answers, the government need not look beyond our shores for competitive and potentially more efficient alternatives. Funding the teaching of the Geneva-based company’s qualifications to the tune of twenty-million pounds should have alarm bells ringing, as Britain hosts six equivalent awarding bodies/examinations boards to the IB. Two of these are substantial international competitors to the IBO. Elizabeth Truss, a government education minister, said that supporting these organisations to develop qualifications is vital to improving our performance in league tables. This point is undeniable, but to include in a press release a kind of advertisement for a foreign product, including a self-congratulatory quote from the product’s overseas regional director, seems counter-intuitive to developing long-term, self-sustaining solutions to our education problems. It is unfortunate that this announcement failed to mention this country’s competitors to the IBO. Rather than singling out exam boards for praise and remuneration, the Department for Education should seek to unleash the forces of competition that have transformed and improved every other industry. Increased competition would also stimulate innovation and diversity, which are vital when employers’ and pupils’ needs are changing faster than bureaucratic bodies can cope with. The market for qualifications is, unsurprisingly, fierce. In a free market scenario one would expect awarding bodies to strive for maximum accessibility with a view to maximising market share, but also to differentiate their offerings more, and also potentially develop niche qualifications. The government must recognise that attempts to engineer a one-size-fits-all curriculum and assessment package are incompatible with twenty-first century economies. Well-meaning attempts to ensure ‘proper subjects’ are taught, including the English Baccalaureate, eventually curtail, rather than equalise, opportunity. Only once parents and young people are given the freedom to explore and choose programmes of study and assessment will our infinitely diverse sets of needs and desires be met. Promoting Swiss-based qualifications is no different than exalting Swiss Leopard tanks over Challengers, claiming that Boeing is better than Airbus or that a country should prefer Carrefour to Tesco. The point is not that international qualifications are worse, but that this should be decided by the education market place, not the British government. Eventually, consumers will choose the most effective, efficient and tailored service. The track record of successive governments in failing pupils should be enough to call time on such projects as these. Let examinations bodies compete, including our own, and perhaps Britain can leapfrog its way back to lofty league table positions.

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About the author
Alexander Blackburn is Communications and Events Manager at the Centre for Market Reform of Education.