I’d grown up hearing that the British education system was the best in the world. (Looking back, perhaps the fact that after 13 years of schooling I still can’t type properly should’ve raised my suspicions). But after spending some time with people from developing countries I realised that they had benefited from a much superior primary and secondary education than that on offer in the first world. It wasn’t simply that their curriculum was much tougher and ahead of ours, like China’s and Hong Kong’s. It was the subjects they studied, which the UK reserves for university but Africans study in primary school. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on Kenya and Nigeria, though other countries may be mentioned briefly. Then we’re going to look at the reality of the situations in advantaged and disadvantaged education systems- how does education access affect individuals and countries? Finally, how much education do we actually need?
Primary and secondary education in three developing countries
Before we dive in, it’s important to bear in mind that the individuals I met may not represent the average experience of education in these countries (more on that below). Not all of them attended state schools so perhaps it’s unfair to compare their education to state education in the UK; however to my knowledge, most British private schools cannot reach the standard of Kenyan or Nigerian education.
Kenyan secondary education includes subjects such as international politics, economics and law. There are several law subjects: international law, Islamic law, pan-African law and of course Kenyan law. They have to learn not just Kenyan and African history, but also American history, European history, Islamic history and Chinese history. Kenyan pupils learn languages to a higher level than we do; they can speak fluent Mandarin, English and Swahili, and can choose to learn other languages such as Arabic. Their English is as good as ours and they can study at British universities.
In comparison, most high school graduates in Britain struggle to hold basic conversations in French or Spanish despite several years of learning. The average British school leaver would be unable to study at a French university; a French kindergarten would be enough of a challenge. In British schools we study WW1, WW2 and the Victorians over and over. These are very important subjects and should not be missed. But compared to Kenya’s education system, we learn very little about the rest of the world- not even Europe. Kenyan children are aware of the EU, UN and ICC. As Brexit has shown, most Brits are unsure of what the EU is. I was in law school when I first heard of the ICC or international law; as a Kenyan, I’d have learned all this at 12. It was also in law school that we learned how a bill becomes law, something which Americans and Africans seem to be taught before they turn 10.
True, some UK high schools partner with local colleges and universities to offer law, philosophy or psychology courses. But most schools don’t, and those that do usually offer just one course of a year’s duration and available only to fifth and sixth years. Some schools teach economics or politics but again this is usually only available in the last two years. Geography and Modern Studies classes teach about the world- I remember studying Kenya- but compared to the Kenyan system, the amount of learning is limited.
In fact, rich Kenyans pay for their children to attend British curriculum schools in Kenya. This is because the British system is much easier, so their kids are guaranteed to graduate high school. One UK-born Kenyan girl told me how, when the family moved back to Kenya, her brother was held back a year or two at school because the Kenyan system is 2-3 years ahead of ours. Kenya’s education is believed by some Kenyans to be the second-hardest in the world, after China’s.
Children in Kenya learn to code in high school. Some Kenyans assume that all Brits can code since we have computers in schools.
On the subject of coding, several Nigerians have claimed to have learned to code from the age of 12 or 13. They assumed I could hack or build computers because they’d heard that British pupils have access to computers at school from the age of 5. So, they think we learn the basics of coding in Primary One. Nigerians also tend to assume that all British people can code very well, build their own websites from scratch, and perform simple computer hacks.
A Nigerian secondary education includes politics, economics, international relations and business. They learn British history, European history, American history and the rise and fall of Communism. Nigerians are familiar with Descartes, John Maynard Keynes, Rosseau and European Christian history. Most graduates can speak 2-3 languages fluently, and I’ve met Nigerians who speak 6 languages. (Multilingualism is not uncommon in Europe either, and Europeans also learn about the EU in primary school.)
Papua New Guinea
I’ve only met one person from PNG- there’s only about 150 of them in Britain- but I was surprised when he said he’d learned law, economics, politics and business studies in primary school. Their primary goes all the way up to age 14, but if you compare the subjects he was taking with those offered to S2 pupils, there’s a lot that we’re missing. Pupils in Papua New Guinea also study world history. Just like the Kenyans and Nigerians, they learned about Middle Eastern history, Communism, colonialism, international trade, American history, African history and other topics which aren’t directly related to life in their own country or even life in Asia. By contrast, I never knew anything about colonialism until I met people from former colonies in 2016. They were astonished that someone who had benefited from a British education- which they seemed to think was better than theirs- could be so ignorant. The BBC show Black and British: A Forgotten History would not be relevant otherwise. Its presenter is attempting to plug the gaps in our knowledge and on the show he frequently refers to “never learning this in school” and “most British people don’t know this”. In fact, the series’ title alludes to the fact that British people are completely ignorant of our own history in perpetuating colonialism. It seems ridiculous that Papua New Guineans know about the British-American war of independence and British colonialism, yet British people learn about the former from American friends, and learn about the latter from the BBC series or from Twitter (if at all).
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Kenya, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea manage to cram all this information into pupils’ heads without skimping on more familiar topics such as the World Wars, the Victorians and even the Vikings, whom they are taught were the discoverers of America.
The British system focuses only on British history and issues- and even then it misses crucial points of British history.
What’s an advantaged education really like?
First off, let’s go back to my caveat about these people’s experiences not necessarily being representative. All of them had, or were studying for, degrees. These individuals were therefore some of the best educated in their countries and spoke English very well (hence, we could communicate and they could ask me why I didn’t know anything). In Kenya primary school is free. However, Nigeria does not provide grants and loans for university, and I suspect that secondary education may not be free. That means they were from relatively privileged backgrounds or at least from communities where others outside the family were able to provide funding for education, whether that be a scholarship or a village whip-round. So it’s unlikely that they were among the most disadvantaged. Perhaps the reason why their education systems are not considered to be the best is because only the affluent can access high quality education. Children in remote or disadvantaged areas might tell a different story. Whereas in the UK, education is free and accessible to all.
For those who can access a more advantaged education than we’re given in Britain, how does that benefit them? The Nigerians and Kenyans mentioned above went to university- but Brits, churned out of our disadvantaged system, went to the same universities. The curriculums of Hong Kong and China are also tough. But China’s league-topping results have been questioned. Test scores don’t always equal a good education. Creativity, innovation, and personal development can’t be easily assessed. Hong Kong children are put under pressure to do well. Their high scores come at the expense of a relaxed childhood and adolescence, and in the end they also attend the same universities as us ignorant Brits. So more education doesn’t always equate to a better quality of life. Hong Kong school children get the same outcome with more effort. Similarly to Kenya, Hong Kong’s education system provides a wealth of general knowledge. But at the end of the day, you can only do one degree. So what’s the point of learning so many subjects when you won’t even use 90% of what you’ve learned?
Could a “good-enough” education be good enough?
Some might say that learning a lot helps pupils choose which subjects they want to take at university or which career to aim for. Another pro is having an educated populace, which is essential in a democracy and also crucial to the country’s economic well-being. But it’s hard to argue that these two aims can only be accomplished by working our children as hard as those in Kenya or Nigeria. Brexit and Trump could’ve been avoided with more educated voters, but “a better education” could fall in the middle of the current UK system and the more advantaged systems.
Meritocracy is likewise not a strong point in favour of toughening up our curriculum. Working kids harder will not change their IQ, which is mostly a function of genetics. In fact, people perform better when their environment is positive and they’re mentally healthy, so putting too much pressure on schoolkids could backfire. Furthermore, driving ever-more young people toward university in the name of “social mobility” is not viable long-term. If everyone has a degree then no-one does. We’re seeing it happen already. New, small universities are springing up all over the place and courses which were once diplomas, certificates or modern apprenticeships are now called “degrees”. ‘Traditional’ degrees have been chopped up so you can get a degree in what used to be just part of a larger degree, such as PR which could be part of a Communications degree or a Business degree. Where there were Art degrees, now there are Fashion degrees too and one can even specialise further with a Textiles degree. Thirty-odd years ago, degree certificates didn’t always specify the subject because having any degree was an amazing achievement, and back then all degrees were academic. There wasn’t even a Social Work degree, never mind a Housing degree. The point I’m making is that a degree will become- or already has become- what graduating high school was forty years ago. Soon, most people will have degrees and a Masters or PhD will become the new undergraduate degree. The public sector is already becoming increasingly professionalised, possibly in response to the citizens it deals with becoming more educated. It would be difficult to field teachers and social workers who hadn’t been to university to deal with parents who have.
Advantaged education appears to offer few benefits to individuals. But what about its effect on societies? We demand more and more, but most of that education is wasted on the degrees we don’t do, the college courses we don’t take and the jobs we don’t work.
A proportion of pupils leave education at the age of 16. The menial jobs they go into don’t require all the knowledge they’ve been taught at the expense of the taxpayer. In all of these situations, the British system is already providing a surplus of education. (How much algebra do you use in real life?) If we were to go down the road of Kenya/Nigeria/PNG- providing an even larger surplus- the money would have to come from somewhere. Less money for the NHS. Less money for the police. Less money to give in grants and loans for the education we actually want. Less funding for classes, courses and workshops we can choose to take to plumb the gaps of our school education, instead of paying taxes to have an education forced on you whether you want it or not.
More education isn’t necessarily cost-effective for states or individuals. Therefore the amount of education that a populace needs from its state is limited.
Obviously our government squanders a lot of money on war, the DWP, MP’s ludicrous expenses claims and six-figure salaries for pen-pushers in local councils who sit behind desks while frontline staff do the grafting. So perhaps whether we fund an advantaged education or not wouldn’t change much financially. But if the government could stop wasting money, and fund actual important things we need, then an advantaged education might take funds from those more important things. Therefore, I don’t think it’s the way to go. By all means improve our schooling so we don’t learn history from Twitter. By all means fund PhDs, increase loans and bring back grants for English students. Teach us the basics of politics from primary school age so we can participate intelligently in our democratic process. Fund free or affordable evening classes that we can take if we want to, in our own time. Look to countries like Kenya for inspiration, just not imitation. And yes, definitely play catch-up to Nigeria as we need to (coding is going to be taught in British schools soon and that’s great). But the full-blown version will have to wait.