Provision and product: delivery systems of education

In today’s increasingly globalised, fluid and fragmented world, the pressure for education to provide the international currency which will form the basis for trade in the knowledge society becomes daily more explicit. As a result, those aspects of educational activity that do not lend themselves to explicit and quantifiable measurement, are increasingly difficult to sustain. Both individuals and institutions, and even whole systems of educational provision, are necessarily becoming increasingly focused on achieving those measures which are the key to survival in the international educational competition.

These contemporary pressures, to conceive of education essentially in terms of a delivery system of pre-defined products which have been subject to rigorous processes of quality assurance, represent the logical culmination of processes that were associated with modernist-inspired systems of schooling in the 19th century. The Enlightenment which provided the foundation for the sustained search for rationalist, scientific solutions to the challenges of the natural world, also underpinned the progressive rationalisation of educational provision into specific institutions in which a hierarchical bureaucratic organisation of classes and curricula, teachers and tests defined an explicit framework of levels of achievement. During the 19th century, the fragmented and varied provision for inculcating the young into the skills, understandings and values of their particular cultural group, which had prevailed in traditional societies, gradually succumbed to the spread of one particular set of normative assumptions about how such provision should be made. These were the assumptions built into Western models of formal schooling which gradually became characterised by its emphasis on academic, book-based learning; on the grouping of children into age cohorts within particular, specialist institutions; on the identification of agreed curricula, often nationally-determined, with a framework of external assessment activities defining levels of performance. If the organisation of the system of provision had its defining characteristics, so too did its inputs, with a central government body, a ministry, generating policy and regulating resources at the apex of a substantial bureaucracy of officials charged with administering and inspecting the quality of provision and beneath them, a cadre of professionals specially-designated and often trained to deliver the agreed content in relation to defined goals.

Now one of the most deeply-rooted and familiar international images, the school in its contemporary guise is nevertheless a cultural artefact. As Schriewer (2000) has pointed out, this particular ideology of education emerged during early-modern Europe and spread all over the world as a result of the intense competition between states at that time. It was part of a more general diffusion of the cultural model of the nation-state. The impact of colonialism world-wide served further to reinforce the pervasiveness of this particular model of educational provision to a point where today, there is no country, rich or poor, which does not aspire to a broadly similar vision of a successful education system characterised by high levels of student achievement. Moreover, the activities of contemporary international agencies such as the World Bank are serving further to reinforce both this commonality of goals and equally, common assumptions about how these may best be achieved. Thus, the same kind of teacher-development programmes, management-training and school-buildings initiatives currently characterise educational aid projects in many different parts of the world. Most recent of all, arguably, has been the advent of the language of performance indicators—the identification of explicit dimensions to represent the ‘quality’, ‘efficiency’ or ‘success’ of education systems and of individual institutions within them. The growing internationalisation of this activity in recent years, marked initially by the publication of a series of generic indicators (OECD, 1992), represents perhaps the most powerful and insidious development to date in the process of the world-domination of one particular educational model.

National systems of education and the institutions and elements which constitute them have been the traditional context for comparative education studies. As I have documented elsewhere (Broadfoot, 1999), and as Little also makes clear in her contribution to this issue, scholarly work in the field of comparative education has predominantly been framed by the adoption of the nation state as the basis of comparison with national education systems, in whole or in part, figuring prominently as the focus for study. This has been reflected in the contents of this journal. Although there have been strands of work which have attempted to apply the comparative perspective more generically, for example in post-colonialism or world systems theory, such approaches have not constituted the heart of the field which has been characterised by more specific, typically empirical rather than theoretical, comparisons of particular issues between or across national settings. Intra-national studies have been rare.

If the mode of comparative education studies, looked at retrospectively, has been international comparisons or single country case studies, this can in part at least be explained by their implicit purpose. The long history of comparative educational studies has been characterised by a deep methodological divide. It is a divide that echoes the enduring tension in social science epistemology between the search for understanding, on the one hand, and the qualitative methods employed to pursue it, on the other, for generalisations and even laws in the tradition of the natural science paradigm. There is a superficial appeal in the latter approach that offers the promise, through comparative study, of systematic explanations for the relative success of different forms of educational intervention and organisation.

There is no doubt that the significant renaissance of interest in comparative studies in recent years owes much to this kind of approach as evidenced, for example, by the impact of international comparisons of educational achievement.

As Edmund King sets out in his contribution to this special issue, the influence of such studies has grown steadily since the early International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) surveys in the 1960s. Reviewing the historical development of such surveys, Margaret Brown (1999) argues that ‘they have had a greater post-war influence on education world-wide than any other single factor’ (p. 1). In a climate of increasingly intense global economic competition and a growing belief in the key role of education as the source of marginal advantage, governments have become increasingly obsessed with the international rankings of measured educational outcomes. Deaf to both the substantial evidence concerning the technical limitations and shortcomings of such studies (for example, Goldstein, 1996; Brown, 1999; Broadfoot et al., 2000) and the tenuous evidence of any link between educational performance and economic success (Robinson, 1999), educational policy is increasingly driven by national attempts to copy the perceived advantage associated with the educational strategies and techniques of other countries.

Brown (1999), goes on to argue that‘documenting practice in high-scoring countries to give ideas for change is very important’ (p. 19). However, she suggests, it would be at least as important:

to work out why similar practices have not been successful in some weaker countries ... It is clearly essential to carefully trial and evaluate any suggested translation of practice from one country to another.

(p. 19)

... teachers and the general public need to be educated about the problems of translating such data into implications for our own system and need to be highly suspicious of those who use international data selectively to give unequivocal messages about how to improve teaching.

(p. 20)

Implied in Brown’s exhortation is the overwhelming need to take culture into account. As such her expressed concern evokes the other powerful tradition within comparative education which can be traced back to some of its earliest exponents. Several of the articles in this special issue make reference to the pioneering work of Sir Michael Sadler in this respect and his enduring contribution in laying the foundations of an approach to conceptualising the field of comparative education in terms of an understanding of the cultural context. More recently, Lawrence Stenhouse (1979) has reiterated the importance of taking culture as a starting point for any comparative study:

If one takes comparative education to denote the activity of studying outside one’s own cultural boundaries, then there is a perspective provided by it which cannot be provided by any other principle of study ... to contribute to patterns of descriptive selection and interpretation which question those within the culture in which the observation is made ... the aspiration towards positivist and predictive social science models has led to an undervaluing of observation and description, an overvaluing of the written source, of the statistical, of the accounts education systems offer of themselves.

(p. 8)

Joseph Lauwerys was conceding too much to positivist social science when he wrote of comparative education that its ‘hope is that it may become possible to provide a body of general principles which would help to guide policy-makers and reformers by predicting, with some assurance, possible outcomes of the measures they propose’ (p. 5). I feel that here he is straining after a predictive power that is not comfortable or productive within the structure of comparative study, and that general principles are, within comparative education as within history, not the characteristic products of the study, but rather a means towards the illumination of the particular. The figure or centre of attention is the individual: the general is the background which serves to throw the individual into clear relief. It deals in insight rather than law as a basis for understanding ...

(Stenhouse, 1979, p. 5)

In calling for a ‘descriptive’ rather than an ‘explanatory’ comparative education, Stenhouse (1962) cites Kneller’s call for ‘the study of the interaction taking place between education and its host society, not simply on a national, but on an international level, for the purpose of understanding strengths and weaknesses and seeking solutions to educational problems locally and universally’.

Writing more than 20 years ago, Stenhouse was articulating his belief about the purpose of comparative education, a belief shared by many comparativists at that time. It is a belief centred on the importance of studying educational practices and perspectives within their cultural context made up of physical, social, economic, political and temporal specificities. Stenhouse’s argument has recently been powerfully restated by Watson:

... instead of anguishing over the value and justification for comparative education we need to re-find its roots in historical and cultural analysis, and we need to stress its ability to critique policy, drawing from the experience of different societies, and its ability to explain and identify themes and trends across the globe. Above all the work undertaken should have purposeful reformist and practical goals and should be used to inform and advise governments.

(Watson, 1998, p. 28)

Thus, alongside the rapid and powerful rise of major international quantitative studies in recent years has been a steady growth in more qualitative approaches. Writing in this journal in 1984, Crossley & Vulliamy (1984) use Stenhouse’s legacy to make a strong call for the use of case-study research methods in comparative education. Their subsequent book (Crossley & Vulliamy, 1997), provides a range of international examples of the way in which detailed qualitative case-studies can provide important comparative insights. Similarly in-depth comparisons of French and English education that my colleagues and I have been conducting over many years (Broadfoot et al., 1993; Broadfoot et al., 2000) have used detailed qualitative data, typically complemented by more quantitative data, to reveal important insights about the source, the scale and the educational significance of national cultural variations. The overall goal of these studies was to document the differences between the education systems of two countries whose common geographical location within Europe and historical interconnectedness would suggest many similarities.

Our studies of teachers, pupils and of the operation of the system as a whole have confounded these expectations. They have revealed deeply- rooted differences in national educational priorities, in epistemologies, in institutional traditions and in professional values. They provide overwhelming evidence of the importance of culture in shaping the organisation and processes of education within any one education system. Our most recent work in both primary and secondary schools has revealed just how deeply embedded these culturally-derived expectations are in the students themselves, and how they influence the students’ responses to particular interventions on the part of the teacher. Perhaps even more significantly, these studies have revealed how such cultural influences are manifest in the nature of learning itself, in the different strengths and weaknesses, attitudes and skills that pupils in the two countries demonstrate. Recent work by Elliott et al. (1999) which compares and seeks to explain the very different educational experiences of pupils in the UK, Russia and the USA in terms of the unique ‘pedagogic nexus’ of each country, also makes this point very powerfully.

These more qualitative comparative studies, which recognise the significance of culture as a crucial influence in the creation of particular settings for learning, have in recent years begun to add significantly to our collective capacity to engage fruitfully with the process both of diagnosing the cause of some identified weaknesses in particular education systems and of searching for remedies. If the growing influence of quantitatively-oriented international studies of achievement has played its part in heightening our collective awareness of what is achievable, qualitative studies are contributing in a unique way to the collective understanding of the interrelatedness of the various factors concerned and hence, of the dangers of the kind of crude ‘policy-borrowing’ that Phillips refers to in his contribution to this issue.

But if pressure has been building up within the field of comparative education to recognise the significance of the cultural flesh on the skeleton of laws and policies, systems and resources, which formally define educational provision, this trend has yet to challenge the established parameters of the field. It has yet to challenge the discourse that defines educational issues in terms of a delivery model of education in which countless thousands of children and young people throughout the world are more or less successfully processed through centrally-determined curriculum packages, and taught to compete with each other in the business of regurgitating their knowledge in specific ways. As such, these two traditions of comparative education and the tensions they evoke, must be regarded as essentially debates within the existing paradigm. What is needed now, arguably, is a ‘third way’ which uses more post-modernist conceptual tools to define the mode, purpose and context of what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘neo-comparative’ education; a new comparative ‘learnology’ which focuses on individuals and their access to learning, rather than systems and problems of provision; an approach to comparative education which is in tune with the more general efforts to reconceptualise social science to reflect the realities of life in the 21st century.

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