I have recently been working with teachers in the international, British and local schools in Singapore and Brunei. One well travelled New Zealand teacher I met noted that only the British talk about going out to work somewhere, as though implied in the phrase is that the coloniser will then return to Blighty. And a teacher from Buenos Aires observed that the Brits have a peculiar habit of referring to the Far East, even when they are working in it!
The Little England island mentality is hard to shuffle off. It is not surprising for example that British newspapers are currently jumping up and down at the idea of hundreds of teachers from different parts of the globe arriving to teach UK children: ‘Schools must look overseas to find one in six new teachers’, The Times, November 14th.
We need to mature a little.
The 19th century may have ‘belonged’ to Britain and the 20th century to the USA. But the 21st will surely belong to south east Asia. Throughout Malaysia, Singapore, China and Indonesia young people demonstrate a hunger for education that is both inspiring and humbling. If an average kid in the world could choose where to be educated today, she would surely be wise to select one of these countries.
Niall Ferguson in his impressive book ‘Civilization’ argues that the power shift from West to East (a western construct, let it be noted) is inexorable. China and the other countries are now adopting the things that after 1500 made Europe so successful.
First, was the idea of competition in economic as well as in political life. Second, the notion of science that underpinned the 17th and 18th centuries. Third, was the notion of the rule of law based on private property rights. Fourth, modern medicine, the branch of the scientific revolution that doubled and then more than doubled life expectancy. Fifth, was the consumer society, and sixth, the work ethic.
What we are witnessing in our global community in 2015 is the belated adoption by the rest of the world of ideas and institutions that worked really well for Europe and the west. So far so good. Look closer and the bad news is that even as the rest of the world is getting better institutionally, we in Europe and the west appear to be getting worse.
We are suffering from a strange institutional decline. One need look no further than the stalemate politics of Washington or indeed closer to home in the British parliament. Messy democracy is not fit for purpose to solve the great challenges of the next fifty years. The short-term electoral cycle defeats any long term planning in relation to an expanding andageing population, when these two aspects of contemporary Europe threaten to overwhelm us if we are not smart. Managing how we share our space on the planet is the challenge of our times.
It is as true in Sweden and Germany as it is in Spain and the UK that political leaders and the native populations are going to have to learn to share their landscapes with those from other lands. The 21st century is a restless era where peoples migrate to find peace and work, share in other cultural experiences, and of course search out a better life for their families. Young people in particular have the globe on their mobiles and cannot resist physically crossing borders to find out whether what they see on their iPhone is really happening.
The wise citizen of Europe will learn to accept that his or her fellow workers may well carry different passports. This is certainly true in schools and colleges in the UK. At present, the fact that headteachers are regularly recruiting by Skype teachers from around the world causes some consternation and silly press attention. It will become the norm, and our schools will be the richer for the cultural diversity of the workforce.
The celebrated reggae artist Bob Marley sang in the 1970s of ‘Exodus, movement of Jah people’. Let’s get used to it, shape it carefully yes, capitalise upon its positive aspects, and certainly model to young people that global movement and global employment are here to stay.
Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust.