Blog: Notes from Education World Forum - Michael O'Sullivan

Blog: Notes from Education World Forum - Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan, Chief Executive of Cambridge International Examinations, blogs live from London at this year's Education World Forum event.

Monday 19th 9am
I’m amongst some 400 delegates, including 50 or so ministers of education, assembling in London for the annual Education World Forum. EWF grows year on year, and perhaps never have so many of the world’s ministers of education converged on one meeting.

Talking to some of the gathered national leaders of education, what strikes me is that everyone has a problem (or several problems) in urgent need of fixing. The minister’s job is to fix the problem. A francophone country in Africa wants its young people to speak English: a trilingual curriculum, yet to be designed, will usher in English as the essential global tool of communication, alongside French and the national language. One the EU’s newer members wants a decent vocational education system, something on German lines perhaps. A minister from the Middle East wants to stop vested interests placing unsuitable, unmotivated individuals in teaching jobs, and has ambitions for all teachers to be trained to teach.

Over the next two days ministers will be talking to each other and to organisations like ours, searching for solutions to these impressively colossal problems. Time well spent if some adopt more promising routes to education improvement as a result. Learning from others’ mistakes – don’t try that, we did and it got us nowhere – could be as useful as borrowing others’ successes. Either way, where better to host such an event than here in the UK?

Monday 19th 11am
As discussions get under way, I can see that one of the challenges is going to be agreeing what words mean. A session chair just said it was confusing to be told by a speaker that because we now live in a "knowledge economy", education must focus more on "skills" and less on "knowledge". Nicely put.

I find his understandable bafflement revealing of the increasingly sterile debate about skills versus knowledge. There is a lot to be said and done about getting the breadth and content of school curriculum right, so that there is time to master subjects in depth, time to learn to think. And it is important to set exams which require thinking skills and discourage passive memorisation. But when skills zealots propose a narrative in which education used to be all about a tyranny of knowledge, or when the traditionally minded assert in riposte that core knowledge is what matters, and skills are a left-wing aberration, I am not impressed. We are, as with all forms of extremism, invited to rest our brains, suspend our critical faculties, and subscribe to an attractively simple explanation of what really matters, all the more satisfying for the annoyance it causes to the other side.

Michael O’Sullivan 
Chief Executive, Cambridge International Examinations

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