UK now sixth in Pearson international education system league tables
Sir Michael Barber warns British children are less successful than their South East Asian counterpartsHe suggests that parents are to blame and are the key to redressing the balance

Despite, the publication of a very encouraging report yesterday that places the UK, contrary to the findings of PISA, sixth in world league tables of education (ahead of our near-statistical neighbours Holland!) it appears we should be much downhearted.

Our education system, according to the findings by Pearson, can only be bettered by that of Finland (who are, apparently, in decline!) and we know how widely regarded the “Finnish lessons” have been.

Yet, according to Sir Michael Barber, this is no cause for celebration. Second best is first loser and it is time to set our eyes east and look to claim the prize scalps of the “tiger nations”. Yesterday, Barber sunk his claws into British parents! If we want to be like the tiger nations, we are going to need to grow an army of “tiger-parents”

The Learning Curve Index, created by the Economics Intelligence Unit and published by Peason, ranks 39 countries on their educational performance. It is distinct from the OECD PISA tables but has every sign of the “fever” that emanates from them!

The underlying argument to Barber’s call for “tiger-parents” is a desire to become a “tiger nation” but I wonder if immunity to PISA fever is a far worthier aim.

‘The rise of Pacific Asian countries, which combine effective  education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited “smartness”, is a phenomenon  that other countries can no longer ignore.’

We can no longer ignore (read “resist”) the allure of the Asian education model. I argue why we should.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, recently documented the decline in fertility rates in East Asia. There is a growing body of evidence which points to a “collapse” in fertility across East Asia and many academics are correlating school cramming cultures and “PISA fever” with the death of communities and societies in general.

The Learning Curve Index, like other such tables, places South Korea first. The University of Pennsylvania’s study entitled “Education Fever and the East Asian Fertility Puzzle” comments specifically on the Korean education model, noting that:

Obsession with education in Korea has become an integral part of contemporary Korean culture and affects all aspects of social life. Deeply rooted Confucian values stress education as the best way for achieving high social status and economic prosperity. A collapse of the hierarchical social class system coupled with egalitarian ideas from the West have created the notion that any Korean child can achieve personal advancement, economic prosperity, and social mobility through education. Korean parents widely recognise this and see it as their duty to provide their children with the proper educational resources and support in order to produce successful and competitive children. In the mid-1970s as part of their family planning project, even the Korean government adopted the notion of “quality over quantity” with colourful and creative “population propaganda” exclaiming: “Daughter or son, let’s not think about which. Just have two and raise them well”.

And the facts speak for themselves. With sustainable fertility rates calculated at 2.1 children per family unit, South Korea’s dip to 1.22 is alarming. Moreover they are not alone in this decline as the above graph demonstrates. Hong Kong (1.04), Singapore (1.10), Taiwan (1.15) and Japan (1.22).

Let me answer two criticisms of this argument immediately:

  1. Over-schooling is not the only reason for such a decline. Undoubtedly not, but it is considered a significant factor.
  2. Many would argue that in countries such as Singapore a strong education system has lead to high levels of employment and strong living standards flowing from high levels of material wealth; a good education means a good job which means lots of money which equals “happiness”. Notwithstanding such a viewpoint, if an individualistic desire for wealthy, stability and success leads to the collapse of the very society you have created, why would one pursue such an end?

The purpose of education should enable individuals to find their place in, and contribute to, society using their gifts and resources responsibly. The central tenet here is that personal fulfilment is to be found in serving those around us and is entirely distinctive from Western concepts of individualism.

Evans-Pritchard suggests that,

Korean parents to scrape and save to send their children to private Hagwon schools to push up their grades and give them a chance of a good university. (Sound familiar?) These are notoriously expensive. Social pressure to conform is strong. Parents simply cannot afford large families.

One thing is true: the more involved and interested a parent is in a child’s education, the more likely they are to succeed. Many studies point to this fact; few seek to challenge it.

But…before we clamour to model parental engagement in tiger-terms, let us consider the consequences. Evidence of pressurised, “hot-house”, schooling is low well-being in children and higher rates of teenage suicide and depression. Surely we just want our children to be happy, connected and flourishing?

We need therefore need to engage with parents in a way that supports human flourishing and not success at any cost.

If you are a parent, please complete our parental engagement survey and let us know your thoughts. Our findings are supporting work of @nancygedge and her research into parental involvement.

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