When I first arrived in England in 2010, I was shocked by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove’s statement: “I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.” As a Chinese person, the shock was of course from his ‘admiration’ for the ‘cultural revolution’, but also from an English politician’s enthusiasm for learning from East Asian education systems.
What I learnt from my history class and what I heard from Chinese media were all about ‘learning from the West’. Now, there seems to have emerged a reverse tide in England, promoted by a series of international surveys, especially PISA, in which East Asian countries and regions consistently ranked top, much ahead of England.
The economic achievement of East Asia has further justified the call to look East. The education crisis declared by the English government has thus been linked with the challenges of global economic competition.
By mainly referring to reports from the OECD and McKinsey, the British government has identified several high performing East Asian education systems, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, and noted common features, such as an emphasis on social justice, core curriculum for all students to the age of 16, high status and quality of teachers, and high levels of school autonomy. These features are seen as the reasons for East Asia’s high performance in education as well as in its economy, and employed as evidence to legitimate new policy initiatives in England. The question here is whether the English images of East Asian education systems accords with the reality.
Let’s take school autonomy. Although limited details about school autonomy in East Asia have been provided through the portrayals by the British government, a set of policy initiatives promoting it have been implemented, referencing practice in East Asia.
However, these representations seems to conflict with the empirical data I have collected from East Asia. I only focus on the major types of secondary schools in England (academies, free schools and community schools), Singapore (government schools), Hong Kong (aided schools) and Shanghai (government schools). For example, in England, academies and free schools are not required to follow the National Curriculum, while in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, it is compulsory. Head teachers of English free schools are able to hire unqualified/untrained teachers; in contrast, teachers working in Singapore government schools are centrally selected, trained and appointed; in Hong Kong, untrained teachers used to serve when there was a lack of qualified teachers, but nowadays, they are only allowed to teach a very small number of specific subjects. Charities, parents and teachers can set up free schools in England, whereas the majority of schools in Shanghai and Singapore are established and run by governments. It seems that most schools in England enjoy a higher level of autonomy than their East Asian counterparts. The UK government has been highly selective and distorting, to say the least, in its use of evidence from East Asia.
Different from Edward Said’s Orientalism in which the East was identified as undeveloped and childlike, East Asia is now described in England and other Western countries, such as Australia and the US, as an educational utopia. During the current ‘learning from the East’ journey, what has happened outside the education system seems to be intentionally ignored, such as the long time children spend having private tutoring and the Confucian culture emphasising hard work and valuing education. These are familiar stories. However, they might still be the key to understanding education in East Asia beyond dystopia and utopia.
I’m not sure whether the new Education Secretary is as interested in the East as her predecessor was, but I do hope if she would like to use evidence from East Asia, she will make a greater effort to consider it more deeply, and to think about the implications of calling for a ‘cultural revolution’ before doing so.
Yun You, a postgraduate student at the IOE, gave a paper on Policy Borrowing and the New Orientalism at the British Educational Research Association annual conference last month