Date published: 05 January 2023
Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Director General of the International Baccalaureate
As a former education minister in Finland, which is often hailed as having one of the best school systems in the world, I have followed with interest the recent initiatives from those at the top of the English political system.
These days, I watch the call for change in English classrooms from the perspective of the International Baccalaureate, where I am director general. Some 5,000 students in England take our qualifications in both state and independent schools.
As an organisation, we were encouraged to see the new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, call for all school pupils in England to study maths until the age of 18. This is something we already practise: maths has always been compulsory for any student who wants to pass our diploma programme. It is an essential discipline and deserves that level of prominence.
Enhancing maths provision is to be welcomed, but does it go far enough?
As we stare down the barrel of the fourth (or even fifth) industrial revolution and grapple with the reality of a digital revolution that has only just begun, our political leaders need to think very differently. This isn’t just about Britain; to be clear, this is true of many countries and many decision makers around the globe.
Post-16 reform (and, indeed, all school reform) needs to be bolder. We need to rethink what goes on in the classroom. This is the process that Finland has been undertaking for a few years now — and it was also, at least in part, signposted by the excellent Times Education Commission report last year.
The understanding of teaching and learning as a process through which stable facts, siloed into traditional subjects, including maths, are imparted by teachers and learnt by pupils, is simply not fit for purpose in 2023.
Instead, we need students to learn to think for themselves, to become independent learners, to challenge what they are learning and why, to problem-solve with courage and imagination. These are the skills they will need as they become adults and attempt to tackle the immense challenges they will face.
To implement this, we need to overcome the barriers between subjects. It is not either knowledge or life skills, it is both, in a way that is meaningful for the students in the world they have inherited. Driving a culture of teacher and student autonomy will be central to this.
A little more maths at 18 will be useful, of course (and is to be welcomed), but it won’t, of itself, address the complexity of the challenges that we all face day to day. This is the problem that Sunak needs to address. This is the problem that we all need to address.
Olli-Pekka Heinonen is director-general of the International Baccalaureate. He was Finnish education minister, 1994-99.