Recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest that the West should be worried about the educational achievements of Asian students. We already knew that the UK ranked twenty-sixth for maths, twenty-third for reading and twenty-first for science in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Last month, however, it emerged that, in Britain and the United States, even the offspring of professionals are letting us down: apparently they’re being outperformed in exams by the children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of the Far East.
For the right, at least since Thatcher and Reagan, halting the progress of national decline of countries in the West has often been a powerful motivating narrative. In Britain, the current coalition government’s Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove, frequently appears to conduct policy as a form of warfare against his ideological opponents; but at least you know where he stands on this declining standards stuff. He believes the soft liberal emphases of prevalent teaching models must be purged, that we must overcome our aversion to ‘passing on knowledge’, aka rote learning, and that children need pushing a bit harder. In short, we need to copy how the Chinese and the Singaporeans do things – or else Britain’s economic competitiveness will be increasingly blunted.
Supposing Gove’s assumptions are all correct and our future prosperity depends on pupils performing better in core tests, then what next? Gove’s underling at the Department for Education, Liz Truss, recently led a delegation of English headteachers to China on a ‘fact-finding’ mission. But Gove and Truss would be wise not to assume that China offers a panacea for the UK’s educational woes.
Pupils in China and other East Asian countries do seem to perform well in exams. It’s no accident, because they tend to start practising at an early age. In Hong Kong, for example, formal exams kick in at the outset of primary school. By secondary school, private tutors are viewed almost as compulsory if you want to keep up with your classmates: a University of Hong Kong survey last year found that 54 per cent of third-form students (age 14) and 72 per cent of sixth-form students go for extra tuition after school.
In China, the average school pupil nowadays spends five hours per day more in school than his or her American counterpart, but such cramming has precedents in China. The imperial civil service exams, or keju, taken by teenagers for some 1,300 years, lasted several days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship and the writing out of lengthy quotations from Confucian classics. Their modern equivalent is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam. In recent years, an estimated 10million or so candidates have competed annually for around six million spots at Chinese universities. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tales of exam-time suicides. In 2012, it was reported that a school in Hubei province had hooked up gaokao hopefuls to intravenous drips while they studied – to save them the distraction of nourishing themselves.