Full marks to George Monbiot for his critique of the English school exam system (England’s punitive exam system is only good at one thing: preserving privilege, 27 April). He asks what would a fair, rounded 21st-century education look like.

One answer would be to look at Finland, where there are no exams before school leaving and no league tables. All assessment is teacher-based, geared to guiding further learning. Teachers enjoy high professional autonomy, grounded in their own education to master’s level. The Finnish system is avowedly egalitarian, with the aim of minimising social inequalities. All students receive free school meals. And guess what? Finland outperforms the UK not only in terms of wellbeing and life satisfaction of 15-year-olds, but also in their performance in the OECD Pisa tests, based on reading, mathematics and science.

The English education system is based on three Cs: competition, coercion and cramming. The Finnish system rests on three different Cs: collaboration, communication and conceptualisation. Finnish education is not perfect, and it is not the only route to high Pisa performance. But the OECD is in no doubt what a 21st-century education requires: “When teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when learning for the … information age can take place.” There is an alternative, if we so choose.
Chris Sinha
Honorary professor, University of East Anglia

Once again, George Monbiot has highlighted a major flaw in UK society and the role exams play in preserving privilege. It is, of course, possible to bypass the system, as my own experience has shown. Having left state school at age 17 without any A-levels, I then managed to re-enter higher education by gaining workplace qualifications to gain a BSc and PhD, and became a professor at the University of Nottingham.

The challenge of regurgitating information in exams in no way helped me. But having a more rounded education provided me with a much more supportive attitude in teaching students, hopefully helping many to fully reach their potential, beyond the normal criteria of exam grades.
Dr Michael Symonds
Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire

There are reasons other than those George Monbiot mentions that explain the government’s desire for introducing a Gradgrind education system. Reducing the curriculum to easily quantifiable elements makes it easy for the government to control education and to ensure educational deviancy is eliminated. Good schools are those that match up to criteria determined by the government.

Margaret Thatcher’s distress at the wrong sort of people controlling our children’s education is no longer a problem. Curriculum and teaching methods are determined by ministers. Any school that doesn’t meet the imposed criteria will be deemed failing and closed. Educational deviancy, or more correctly, independent thinking, is eliminated from the system.

This system also provides plenty of “red meat” to be thrown to the media. An arbitrary change in the rules makes it easy to find schools that are failing. There is nothing more likely to thrill the rightwing media than a tough minister cracking down on errant schools.
Derrick Joad

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