Even China admits that its schools have been damaging students. So why is the UK trying to emulate them?

‘The grass is greener on the other side’, or so Minister of Education, Elizabeth Truss seems to think. Next week she will be travelling East to see what can be learned from Shanghai’s schools.

In the latest PISA report into maths and science education, Shanghai once again topped the global charts, with children performing approximately 3 years above the international average for maths. By all statistical measures, Shanghai students seem to be “streets ahead” of their Western peers (as Truss puts it). But it’s far from being that straightforward.

The success of Chinese schools has come at a heavy cost. Student suicides, linked to long hours and intense pressure, are rife, and measures to try and curb the issues have been being gradually introduced for the past few years – such as with the rolling out of student counselling services and mental health education.

After broad reviews under the new Chinese government, involving examining education systems in 10 countries, last year the Ministry of Education announced plans for root-and-branch education reform. Long hours would be cut back, free time extended, focus would move away from standardized testing and a more holistic, softer flexible evaluation framework would be introduced; one that placed greater emphasis on the emotional and social skills of young people.

Concern over the mental health of young people wasn’t the only reason for the reforms. For a nation that boasts some of the world’s most important inventions, the last century or two has been a barren period for innovation; something that the current regime is keen to address. As the country gradually opens itself up to the rest of the world, China wants to have more to offer than just manufacturing – a function that will become increasingly redundant as incomes rise and sources of cheap labour diminish.

China’s review of education systems worldwide concluded that in order to boost innovation, it needed to pull back on productivity, and reorientate towards an appreciation of free time and spontaneity. That these should underpin creativity might seem obvious. But as China recognizes the role of soft power in the global economy, it seems strange that the UK seems so intent on moving things in the opposite direction, apparently oblivious to the impact that a pressure cooker education system has on the wellbeing and creativity of young people. So why are they doing it?

The paranoid might claim that the British government’s intentions are to decrease youthful dissent and create a more compliant generation, more willing to submit to authority – attributes that many associate with Chinese citizens. But the apparent intent on mimicking Shanghai’s education approach seems more like a lack of imagination on the part of the British Department of Education, and a confusion over what role they expect British graduates to play in global society. The relationship between China and the West, that, for decades, could be described as China copying a ‘visionary’ West, seems to have come full circle.

If we follow Shanghai into pushing rote learning of maths and science before all else then it seems that the only hope for Britain’s artistic, creative and entrepreneurial legacy is with those who manage to escape the education system early. As for the health and wellbeing of young people, well, we’d better start training more therapists now.

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