July 2012


  • You're hired
    The government is putting money into apprenticeships, hoping they will appeal to more school leavers and foster a highly skilled workforce to help boost economic recovery. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at why apprenticeships have had an uneven reputation in the past and what schools and colleges can do to improve take-up now. More
  • A roaring success?
    We hear much about how UK school standards are being eclipsed by the educational achievements of South-East Asia in particular but how accurate are the claims? Isabel Nisbet examines what, if anything, the UK can really learn from Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea. More
  • Bright futures
    St Birinus School aims to develop its own leaders by elevating its most promising staff to roles shadowing the senior team. Jim Fuller explains. More
  • A load of hot air?
    Media headlines seem to back the government’s view that GCSE and A level have become easier and therefore are in desperate need of reform. However, evidence from one school indicates that the most significant factor in increased attainment at A level is not grade inflation but students delaying specialisation to three A levels until after the completion of AS. More
  • Taylored solutions
    Bad behaviour and poor attendance at school are as crucial as poverty in determining whether a child achieves academically, which is why the government’s behaviour expert, Charlie Taylor, is determined that both must be tackled. He talks to Lucie Carrington. More
  • What the papers say
    Education media coverage can make depressing reading, but ASCL members do have the power to generate a positive press profile. Nick Bannister reports. More
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A roaring success?

We hear much about how UK school standards are being eclipsed by the educational achievements of South-East Asia in particular but how accurate are the claims? Isabel Nisbet examines what, if anything, the UK can really learn from Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea.

I have lived and worked in Singapore for just under a year, after a lifetime of work in public services in England and Scotland. It’s early days, but the transition is a fascinating one.

In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) famously ranked Shanghai, China (then a new participant) first in reading, maths and science, with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore also highly placed, but the US and the UK trailing behind.

A similar story, but with fewer high-scoring countries involved, was told by the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Research by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2010 examined 20 educational systems; it ranked England as good but some of the South-East Asian high achievers as great.

This has resulted in a queue of educational tourists dutifully visiting the successful countries to observe practices and report back to weary UK teachers. Surely we can learn from countries like that, the argument goes, if we are not to fall further behind.

The first response to such a case is familiar to many academics: criticise the evidence and the methodology of the international tables. Although there are some important insights lying behind these criticisms, many of them strike me as special pleading. The challenges presented by the tables cannot be dismissed so easily.

Like for like

A more sophisticated response, one with which I have some sympathy, is that comparisons are more complex than they seem. We are not comparing like with like if we compare city-states such as Singapore or Hong Kong with countries in Europe or with the whole of the US.

And we cannot be certain that the high test rankings are the result of the school system alone – they may also reflect family practice, private tutoring or other contextual factors.

Another response is to point out that PISA and other international tests do not assess the so-called 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, empathy and collaboration. But why is it a choice between those skills and reading, maths and science? Surely, universities and employers want both?

There are some red herrings in this debate. For example, teachers are generally not paid significantly more in the high-achieving South-East Asian countries, although some of these countries have longer pay spines than England. Neither do these countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on education than we do.

Another response is to refer to aspects of educational life in South-East Asia that we would not like to see in the UK. They include stress on pupils expected to achieve highly in exams, the widespread use of private tutoring, large class sizes and heavy reliance on textbooks and teacher guides.

Some of the myths around these practices are exaggerated – for example, there are fewer student suicides in South-East Asian countries than in the US or Australia – but they do reflect the high profile of examinations in many Asian countries. I am writing this in a pre-exam season in Singapore when advertisements abound for Essence of Chicken, “which will assist your child to achieve higher grades”.

My conclusion from all this is that there are lessons that we can learn from the East but that these are much deeper than simply copying teaching practices.

Confucian tradition

There is much to be learned from comparing the cultural contexts of our respective education systems. Whole volumes have been written comparing the Confucian tradition, with its emphasis on effort, the teacher as a wise role model and putting family and community before the individual, with the Socratic tradition, promoting learning through enquiry and focusing on the individual.

Again, there can be misunderstandings in these comparisons, but probably the most important contrast is between the Eastern emphasis on effort (according to a saying from the Han Dynasty “by not giving up you can change an iron bar into a needle”) and the Western emphasis on ability, with one of the functions of schooling being to find out what children can and can’t do.

For us the logical consequence of discovering that a pupil 'can’t do maths' is often for him/her to drop it. In the East, it would be for teachers, family and friends to provide more help and for the student not to give up.

I believe there are three key lessons we can take away from the East. The first is to value education, not just as a means to economic prosperity or social cohesion, but because of its intrinsic value and as a means for children from all backgrounds to fulfil themselves.

On Saturday mornings, parents and children from all ethnic and socio-economic groups in Singapore can be seen crowding into the bookshops to look at ‘enrichment’ material linked to languages, maths and science.

The second is to value and respect teachers: not necessarily to pay them more, but to select the best, give them high social status and enable them to continue to develop throughout their career, by providing resources and time for development activities – for experienced teachers as well as newcomers to the profession – and shaping career routes for subject specialists as well as future school leaders.

The third is the value of peer support among learners. The coffee bars of Singapore are often filled with small groups of students discussing their lessons with the more able helping the others.

An anti-intellectual culture

There are also challenges which the South-East Asian countries pose to us. For example, do we give up too easily with children when we or they think they can’t do maths (or foreign languages)? Should we redress the balance between breadth and depth in what we teach, and make sure that all children are able to master a smaller number of important things?

Do we have to be as anti-intellectual as we are at all levels in Britain today? Young people in the UK and the US tend to be dismissive of ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’ and adults will often write off the views of many academics, whether in education or other subjects. In South-East Asia politicians and businesses will listen to what the academics are saying and the kids often respect their clever friends, just as they do those who are good at sport.

And can we mislead children in our feedback to them? I was surprised to read a research finding that a much higher proportion of young people in England and the US than in Singapore or Japan agreed with the statement “I am doing well in mathematics”.

Of course, there are many aspects of education in which the UK excels and countries in South-East Asia study those carefully and respectfully. But no country is too good to learn from others, in an intelligent and thoughtful way.

It is a privilege to be immersed for a while in a different educational culture as a means of holding up a mirror to ourselves.

  • Isabel Nisbet is a Senior Education Adviser to Cambridge International Examinations, covering the Asia Pacific region and based in Singapore. She was formerly CEO of Ofqual. This article is based on her presentation ‘ What can our school systems REALLY learn from the East?’ at an event hosted by FEdS Consultancy Ltd in London in April.

McKinsey’s analysis of 20 high performing education systems can be found at www.mckinsey.com/Client_Service/Social_Sector/Latest_thinking/Worlds_most_improved_schools