Education and society 2

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Some very interesting debate was sparked by my previous post on the subject, thus I feel I should bring some of that information to light.

1 - Competitions during education

2 - Gareth Bentley’s analysis of the educational system

One of the topics covered was talent recruitment and training. Many countries have forgone any sort of high-end competitive system, such as olympiad’s for the various pre-university subjects, or local competitions, due to how these “discriminate” against those less talented or less willing to learn, whereas others still value these highly. As a direct comparison, I will take, again, UK and Romania, but I will also point out examples from other countries, kindly supplied by various people.

A bit of background first. What are these olympiads? They are yearly competitions, split in several phases: local, county-wide, nation-wide, then international. The best in every town participate in the county-wide step, then the best in every county go to the national edition, where the country’s team is selected and sent to the various international competitions on the subject. The international editions bring a lot of money to the victor’s schools and personal pockets, as well as prestige and great reasons to be proud, while also being a brilliant launch pad for these talented people to go far in their domain.

Romania supports these competitions greatly, actively promoting them in schools and further rewarding succesful competitors. Other countries that I know of that do so are Ukraine, Hungary and, surprise surprise, USA. As a note, USA has some of the best training material and staff for their talent, at least for programming, used by people all over the world. (They were awesome enough to allow public access to that material)

Countries like the UK or Czech Republic don’t promote these competitions at all. I honestly do not know how they pick their best. It might be purely wealth-based. Gareth Bentley has an interesting analysis of this later down in this article.

But why would you not try to get your best students to become better? There are some very different schools of thought on this. Here are some beliefs: these competitions discriminate against those less willing to learn, less able to learn, less talented or less able altogether. The government wants to keep people dumb, to be easier to manipulate. People simply do not want to see competition between their children, unless it’s physical (sports). The infrastructure for getting competitions going is not there, so it won’t be succesful should it be desired to begin now. I am a firm believer in these competitions, due to having competed in them and them being a pivotal part of my education (7 out of 12 years of pre-uni education were spent in constant competitions), so I will not judge or further analyse these ideas against competitive training of the ‘elite’.

I will, however, mention one last bit on this topic. Some big companies (Google immediately springs to mind), actively supports these competitions, while also hosting their own, and a lot of the material they interview you on can only be learned by being an active competitor in programming competitions and going beyond text-book material. Of course, you can learn those things without competitions, but, pre-university, they are the best motivation to do so.

Going forward, this is a brilliant response from Gareth Bentley to my previous article:

The two systems are different because they have very different aims. Although I can’t find stats easily, I suspect Romania’s system is based on educating only the best 50% to a certain level, then only the best 20%, then only the best 10%. The rest are then presumably educated for menial or vocational labour.

Britain had a system similar to that about 60 years ago, but it has been gradually dismantled over the years. The first reason for that is because strangely enough, the competitive system isn’t perfect at selecting students. Plenty of bright students and late developers were skipped over. Girls and ethnic minorities in particular were discouraged from even taking the exams to get into better schools.

Secondly, during the mid-60’s, it became clear that the economy had a skills shortage. Sure, 20% of people were educated to an excellent level, but the remaining 80% were educated to a terribly low standard and employers were unable to distinguish between candidates in the 80% because the exam system was designed only to find the top 20%, and give little or nothing to those outside of the highest performers. Plus, the vocational and menial labour was not moving quickly enough with the economy, broader education was needed to help employers select the best.

Thirdly, and I’m sure Romania had/has a similar problem, the schools for the top 20% tended to be dominated by kids with the richest families who could afford to give their child extra tuition, and extra support. So you ended up with a state education system fulfilling the role of a private school system - the rich got into the best schools because they could afford extra tuition, and so the poor were automatically at a huge disadvantage before they’d even taken the test.

So, there you have the problems that state education faced in 1950. Successive governments came up with different solutions.

Old Labour governments saw the grammar school (the schools for the top 20%) as completely evil, and closed most of them down, merging schools together to become ‘comprehensives’ - schools for everyone. Lots of people who were closed out of the system,

The conservatives responded to the skills shortage by introducing GCSE’s - exams with hard questions, and very easy questions. That meant that qualifications became a lot easier for employers to distinguish between everyone. They also tried to make schools operate like businesses, giving more money to schools that reached minimum standards. This raised the bar for the those at the bottom, but it probably didn’t do much for those at the top.

Our education system probably does seem quite easy compared to the romanian one, but thats because its meant to give everyone a chance, and to provide a broad spectrum of qualifications, so that when the economy changes, most people are prepared.

Its a common misconception that it was done because we want to give everyone a happy certificate to make everyone feel good despite not having achieved much. It was done to combat that great behemoth of British social problems: the class system.

Arguably, the class system has morphed into a new set of social problems, and the old policy of ever expanding education won’t work anymore. During the struggle to make education fair, we forgot about promoting and encouraging excellence. (and it’s taken governments far too long to effectively combat falling standards largely because, in order to raise standards for the vast majority of people, a lot of new, highly educated, and highly expensive teachers are needed).

People forget that the ‘problems’ of today were actually meticulously planned ‘solutions’ just a few decades ago.

As for standards in higher education, that’s a different story, for another night. closes book [sic]

With my own response for the first half here:

Your first assumption is correct. It aims to educate tiers, but it does so using the same resources. And, as a healthy educational system still requires, you need menial and vocational labour. But in Romania, that route is not considered worth taking. Nobody wants to be seen learning practical, ‘low-end’ jobs. You know, entitlement.

The problem you mention about girls and minorities does not happen in the Romanian system. Also, the competitive system works great. It’s the one cog that I can’t fault in the educational machine. The best of the best are chosen. Obviously, the best of the best need to want to be the best and work for it. If you’re lazy, you won’t get there, regardless of how good you are. There is no bias towards men or majorities.

On the point of the skills shortage, yes, it could be an effect of the system, but not due to your reasons. The immense amount of material is the reason. When you have to learn a lot about a lot, an average student will not learn much about much. Thus, not do great.

And no, don’t compare Britain’s definition of top 20% best with Romania’s definiton of top 20% best. In Britain, the top is mostly defined by wealth, as you mentioned. But that has never been the case in Romania. The rich go to private schools or really really good public schools, but they are never considered to be the best students unless, you know, they are the best students. Tuition does not equal talent, and I have seen time and time again how hard individual work from someone without financial support proved to be better than most alternatives.

And with this, I end my rant on this subject. I feel I’ve thrown all I know on the subject, so I probably couldn’t go any further.

I should also start adding more pictures to my posts. They look horrible as walls of text. I wouldn’t read them.