School Swap Korea Style

29 Nov

This morning I caught up with the first episode of the School Swap: Korea Style programme on BBC Wales in which three Welsh pupils traveled to South Korea to experience life in their education system.  You can view the show here whilst it remains on iPlayer.

These comparisons are always at the forefront of debate when it comes to the publication of PISA results.  We are forever contrasting performances between nations and asking why one is succeeding above another in the rankings.  Sometimes those comparisons make sense, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes we are comparing the right things, asking the right questions and for the right reasons, sometimes we are not.  Sometimes we are learning valuable things, sometimes we are misrepresenting the lessons.  It is, to an extent, an inevitable reaction during this media intensive period.

I’ve always believed that it is important to look at international systems and try and see what could potentially work for Wales, in the same way that I think some of the brilliant practice we see in Welsh classrooms should be viewed internationally also.  This doesn’t just mean looking at Asia and Finland but other nations across the world and within the UK.  that said, the reality is that education policies do not always travel well, and certain aspects of one countries education system only work there because of the nature of their society, culture and values.  That is not to say we can’t look at results, outcomes and policies and manipulate them to a Welsh context.

Looking at what did come across from South Korea it did, I am sorry to say, confirm some of the real concerns I harbored for their approach.  It is not a system I crave.   Clearly they have incredible results but it is negligent to examine them without asking at what cost are they delivered? We saw pupils spending 10 hours in the same chair being talked at in silence day in day out.  Children were only getting, in an absolute best case scenario, 6 hours sleep, they where undertaking punishingly long days and were falling asleep at the desk.  The system was funded by parents paying huge sums for private tuition and children denied a childhood in the pursuit of rigid structural learning devoid of creativity.

What was most worrying from a viewing perspective is that I simply did not feel the show gave any real credence to these concerns.  These issues were never really treated with any seriousness.  That pupils were lying asleep across their desks was remarked on with a pithy comment as if it was humorous and the 14-16 hour days were noted in envy rather than concern.  Only through the narration of the three Welsh pupils, who I thought were a credit to themselves, did we really get any reflection on the social and emotional impact of this style of education. It very much appeared as if there was a conclusion written to this show with the narrative set to fulfill it.  Something that incidentally also seemed evident to me in the previous show BBC Wales commissioned Sian Griffiths to undertake on Welsh education*.  It is only fair of me to point out however that this is episode one and perhaps the others will delve into this in more detail.  You would very much hope so as it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore them.

Another aspect that concerns me as a viewer, and as someone focused on Welsh education within my profession, is that documentaries such as this lead people to expect schools to achieve Korean results within our society.  If you want Korean outcomes you must have Korean culture, including major parental payments for private tutors and high suicide rates. (Suicide is the biggest cause of death to those in their 10s, 20s and 30s in South Korea).  To say you want Korean style academia means you want to change our whole society and values, not our education system.  While I don’t doubt many will clamor for world leading PISA results I do not believe there is an appetite for a similar style of society.  I may be wrong to make that assumption of course but certainly I am very proud that we are putting well-being at the heart of our educational agenda.

The proficiency of South Korean pupils should not be underestimated.  Examining their system is not something that should be dismissed.  I do believe there are aspects of any nations approach that can provide important insights.  However, 6am-12am days simply should not be an ambition for the well-being of our children.  There are lessons to be learnt, but also warnings to be heeded.

 

 

*As an aside I can’t help wondering, giving the numerous talented people working for BBC Wales news and politics departments, including their own current and former education correspondents, why it is they have not trusted anyone in-house to front these shows rather than using a presenter whose personal positions are perhaps less neutral on such matters.

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