The public debate on education often focuses on operational issues like uniforms, transport, homework, tablets and class sizes. We rarely hear about the purpose of education. When we do, the arguments are often lopsided in favour of one school of thought or another.

Yet, our business and political leaders keep insisting on making education the bedrock of planning for our future. The reality is that there are indeed few countries who have found the Holy Grail of education excellence. Excellence in education can be measured in different ways but the hallmarks of a sound education system are not that difficult to define. A meaningful debate on education must start with an agreed vision on the purpose of education. There is no doubt that education is the engine of any economy that relies on the optimisation of people’s skills to compete in world markets. It should be the objective of every government to ensure that more people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a demanding economy.

Education is also the foundation of our culture. It has an intrinsic value as the hallmark of a civilised society. As society and the economy changes, education reform becomes essential to promote social justice and prosperity. We must deliver a fairer society, in which opportunity is shared more widely. To achieve this, we need to secure the highest standards of education for all young people, regardless of their social background.

A sound education system also prepares young people for adult life. Improving young people’s employability and giving them vital cultural preparation is, of course, primary objectives of a sound education system. But our education system also needs to contribute to their pupils’ achievement by finding opportunities to instil key character traits, including persistence, perseverance, grit, optimism and curiosity.

Discipline is vital, and the standards must be high

The search for excellence in education should, therefore start with a soul-searching exercise to determine whether our system is indeed achieving these objectives. Quoting one or more key performance indicators risks missing the big picture.  We need to ask open questions on whether all our young people do have equal opportunities. For instance, does the student stipends system help those most in need of financial support to continue with their education? Are the standards of civic behaviour in our society equal to those of other countries with excellent education systems?

The search for excellence in education has to be built on a few strategies that have been proven successful in the best of breed countries that have a laser focus on their education system. The quality of teachers is the most fundamental requirement for a reliable education system.

Teachers should be as respected as doctors and engineers in our society. It should be challenging to become a teacher, and the job should be socially prestigious. This is not just about paying teachers better salaries. It is about ensuring that those who decide to take a teaching career are the best graduates that take pride in being educators. It is about those who are prepared to be assessed continuously to ensure that they are not suffering from career fatigue.

Schools should also be about traditional values enriched with new tools to promote achievement. Discipline is vital, and the standards must be high. Too often, teachers feel pressurised to dilute standards to improve achievements statistics. The education systems of many countries have suffered from a dumbing down of the system to appeal to populist expectations.

An excellent education system provides help to those who for whatever reason fall behind in the learning process. The best education systems, like that of Finland, do not focus just on the high-flyers. They provide effective remedial and special education to improve language, reading and maths skills or to overcome learning difficulties.

Students need to be encouraged to follow their dreams but also to understand that the more challenging courses are the ones that will more likely help them achieve their ambitions in life. The financial incentives paid by taxpayers to improve education achievement statistics have partly achieved their aim. But the more difficult phase of education reform still needs to gain strength.

Education incentive schemes should be focussed on supporting those pupils in primary and secondary schools most in need of help because of their social circumstances. In the academic and vocational tertiary level financial incentives should be biased in favour of those students who opt for the more challenging courses to acquire the skills that tomorrow’s economy demands.

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