19/12/2013 10:37 GMT | Updated 18/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Amid the Rush for Rigour, We Must Nurture the Experience of Education

Reaction to the UK's weak performance in the OECD's triennial Pisa test has been loud and discordant.

Depending on who you choose to believe, the news that Britain's 15 year-olds are outside the international top 20 for maths, reading and science is either a reason to lament our children's prospects in the oft-quoted 'global race'; to condemn teachers as underqualified, or overpaid; or to take aim at either this government or its predecessor on the verities of its education reform agenda.

Amid the great debate that this news has generated, perhaps Michael Gove provided one unlikely grain of consensus when he called for "a unified national commitment to excellence" across the education system.

The question, of course, is how you define that excellence. Get it wrong, and well-intentioned attempts to lift Britain's global ranking for teaching and learning will only result in our falling further behind.

One imminent danger is that the response to this challenge will be defined by benchmarks of the past - in the political rush to save face, our schools and colleges risk facing the consequences of seeing progress sacrificed on the altar of rote learning.

Politicians with their voters in mind may be forgiven for trumpeting solutions that will find favour with the electorate, inevitably those which can be given the label of academic rigour.

As a foretaste of this, the Secretary of State's speech to the House of Commons on the Pisa results included the boast that, "our new national curriculum is explicitly more demanding, especially in maths, and it is modelled on the approach of high-performing Asian nations".

There is no problem per se in setting high standards, or following the example of those countries that are outdoing the UK, but dialling up the degree of difficulty only has one guaranteed output - and that is to make exams harder, not better.

In the eastern Asian countries to which Michael Gove made reference, one developing trend is that their education provision is moving away from promoting the mere acquisition of knowledge to exploring its application, and developing the soft skills of students.

As this suggests, what really matters is the context for the exams, grades and rankings that our system will ultimately be judged by. This is what gets lost amid the political tussle to claim ownership of "standards", "excellence" and "aspiration" - words freely traded over the despatch box in the exchanges on Pisa.

It boils down to the experience of learning - for both teachers and students. Britain will not progress from 21st place in science if a significant proportion of young people continue to find the subject inaccessible and disengaging, and teachers are uninspired by limited curricula.

A little innovation can go a long way, and we have an opportunity to invest in the transformation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education, creating hands-on environments for the learning of these subjects, where students can experiment with the practical application of theory, rather than simply memorise processes and equations to repeat in exams.

Knowledge of the latter is clearly critical, but so too is finding ways to engage young people in a way that will make the more mundane elements of learning seem worthwhile.

And while vocational may often be seen as a dirty word in the context of education reform, schools could learn a lot from new ideas in further education that have advanced relationships between colleges and employers, ultimately the end-market for any educator.

The wider sector will only prosper from the greater involvement of the business community in shaping curricula to the needs of the modern economy. Giving students of all ages the opportunity to experience a more commercial environment while they learn will be essential to ensuring that we are educating the next generation in a way that will help them succeed in what is a fast-changing jobs market.

It is through a broader base of support, engagement and collaboration that we will rebuild Britain's standing as a globally acclaimed educator, and the less prescriptive the proposed political reform, the better the chances are that the sector will help itself.

Fintan Donohue is executive chair of Gazelle, a federation of 20 entrepreneurial further education colleges