The Blog

How to Win the Education Race

It was great to hear Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard championing Australian education last week. She was encouraging us to win the Education Race in order to remain an economic powerhouse.

It was great to hear Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard championing Australian education last week. She was encouraging us to win the Education Race in order to remain an economic powerhouse.

It was rousing stuff, but wait a minute - a race?

Since when?

How fast are the kids supposed to be learning?

As a teacher, how hard should I push these kids? Who are we racing against this week?

Please don't say Asia - they're top of the league.

I'm not surprised by the reduction of education, a complex social debate into a pithy one-liner. After all this is how most of our debate - educational, political or social takes place.

I'm also of the opinion that most Western governments see education as a race or a competition that needs to be won.

But having thought about it, I've realised this could work in my favour, and it could work in yours too!

Let's assume for a moment, that education is a race. Because to be quite frank, in doing so it will make my job a hell of a lot easier.

I won't need to come up with interesting and engaging lessons. No need to find any relevance in the curriculum other than the fact we are trying to win. All kids LOVE competition right?

I could stop gibber-gabbering and get down to the nitty-gritty. With appropriate support, I could get some serious rote-learning happening.

But first I need to know what our Key Performance Indicators are.

In most sports, it's points. Playing attractively is (literally) pointless if you can't score. In cricket, it's runs and many a dour batsman has kept out a more aesthetically appealing player based on the fact they have a higher scoring average.

So what are we competing for in the Education Race?

As far as I can tell, it all boils down to PISA league table positions.

In this regard performance in the PISA tables is not too dissimilar to performance in sport. Perhaps it's from this that politicians draw upon the sporting analogy?

Or maybe in Australia's case, Ms Gillard is reflecting on the Olympics, where much was made of the poor performance of the Australian team, particularly in with regard to their Chinese counterparts.

As is often the case, when national sporting teams fail to live up to their billing, a far-reaching enquiry ensues. Often these enquiries seek to find out what they can learn from their rivals.

So let's apply this enquiry based approach to our education system.

If we want to compete with China and ultimately win the Education Race, we need to learn from their system.

What do they do so well, and how can we apply it our own countries?

Reports vary, but some suggest that students spend up to 12 hours a day at school, attend school on the weekend and many kids say they don't have any spare time to play with friends. Forty percent of kids say they have no friends to play with at all.

This could be because, according to a Chinese Youth and Children Research Center survey conducted in 2007, around 50% of parents refuse to allow their children anytime to go outside to play as it detracts from study time.

It's clear we need to keep kids in school longer and obviously parents need to do their bit, but how on earth are we going to fund this? Particularly in light of the hoo-ha surrounding the funding of education.

Why not have big tobacco firms sponsor our schools?

At Sichuan Tobacco Hope High, students parade around in school uniforms with Marlboro logos emblazoned across their back.

Forget about bickering about academy status, or Local Schools - Local Decisions, if we genuinely care for our children's future and want to match it with the Chinese, then governments need to woo back the tobacco industry. They've been ostracised long enough.

We also need to stream our kids in middle school in the way they do in China.

According to the China Education and Research Network, secondary education is delivered by academic lower and upper middle schools.

At the age of 12, lower middle school graduates wishing to continue their education take a locally administered entrance exam, on the basis of which they will have the option either of continuing in an academic upper middle school or of entering a vocational secondary school.

Vocational schools offer programs ranging from two to four years and train medium-level skilled workers, farmers, and managerial and technical personnel.

Schools for Skilled Workers typically train junior middle school graduates for positions requiring production and operation skills.

Imagine if we followed this model in our own countries?

We could ensure we only have our best academic students taking the the SATs or NAPLAN tests.

Imagine what that would do for our standards?

No need to worry about all those pesky socioeconomic considerations, indigenous issues or immigrants with their cumbersome language issues and emotional baggage.

We could remove them from 'real' school and farm them out to the numerous manufacturing and manual labour industries we have in the West.

And imagine if we could forget teaching about our history in the same way that the Chinese have expunged the less desirable elements of their history from their records. Even well educated university students have little knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Imagine if we didn't have to waste time teaching the history of our country, or the cultural sensitivities and divides that exist because of it?

Imagine if we didn't have to teach critical or creative thinking and writing skills?

Imagine if the internet was so heavily censored by our government that there was nothing of interest to distract our kids from the latest bout of numeracy and literacy exercises.

We teachers need some support in achieving this, and whilst some parents and other do-gooders may baulk at the price - figuratively speaking - of this kind of education. I'm sure we can all agree, that winning the Education Race will be worth it!

Put the champagne on ice, we'll be top of the league in no time!

Dan Haesler is a teacher, writer and speaker who is growing increasingly cynical of the education debate. He is the founder of YouthEngage. He blogs at and tweets at @danhaesler. Dan also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald.