Imagine if you can, British people taking to the streets across the land to protest about the quality of a school textbook. Unlikely as that may seem, it is what has been happening in South Korea, one of the world’s educational super stars. There have been two nationwide demonstrations in recent weeks. A third round is planned, across 16 cities, for December 19th. True, the protests are also against President Park Geun-hye’s plan for reform of the labour market but her government’s proposal for a state-approved history textbook in high schools is a central target of the protestors.
In the West we may be willing to admit the high attainment of South Korean schools but, too often, we denigrate their didactic teaching methods. Recently, I was one of four speakers addressing students at the University of Cambridge on the issue of the underachievement of white working class boys. I pointed out that, according to the OECD PISA tests, the children of manual workers in parts of Asia-Pacific perform as well as the children of the professional classes in the UK.
Children from the bottom 10 per cent of the social strata in Shanghai, for example, are attaining as highly in mathematics as the top 20 per cent of our social strata. The offspring of these Chinese cleaners and shelf-stackers are doing as well as pupils at our most elite schools. If the best that pupils at Eton, Westminster, Wycombe Abbey or North London Collegiate can achieve is to match the offspring of the floor sweepers in China, it might be time to recognise we have a problem. As a director at the OECD commented, “It debunks the myth that poverty is destiny.”
When I made this point at Cambridge and pointed to Asia-Pacific for some educational encouragement it did not go down well with my fellow panelists. The professor of education sitting next to me asked the audience if they could name any Nobel Prize winners from South Korea. The message being that we Brits are much more brilliant than a bunch of Orientals. He may be right, of course, with regard to Nobel Prize winners and the 0.00001 per cent at the top of the UK intellectual tree. It is not much compensation, however, if you are in that bottom 20 per cent of our population – illiterate, innumerate and unemployable – to know that we have had, and still have, some brilliant minds around the country.
The other two speakers on my panel at Cambridge seemed simply appalled that anyone could be suggesting that we have anything to learn from Asia-Pacific. A major objection was that schools in that part of the world are competitive and that this damages children’s mental health and general well being. I pointed out that the UK has some of the least happy children in the world and that leaving school uneducated and unemployable is not likely to add the sum of juvenile happiness.
A rather shy Chinese student in the audience plucked up the courage to make a comment. He refrained from saying anything critical of the British education system but simply described what he had seen in primary school classrooms in the UK. He had been surprised to observe that, unlike in China, our pupils seem to spend their time playing rather than learning. An obvious riposte would have been that children can learn through play, too, but it was not made and some of the audience appeared to think that he might have had a point.
The educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, takes pride in its anti-racist credentials. In defence of its own failed policies, however, it is quick to condemn pupils from Asia-Pacific as robotic, as lacking in creativity and as mentally damaged.
Such racial stereotyping is confounded by the willingness of some, at least, in South Korea to take to the street in protest at plans to require the teaching of an ‘official’ history textbook in schools. How refreshing it would be to see our own people taking to the street in protest at the inadequacies of the education system in this country.