kenny hodgart

The West’s exam stress

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A version of this article can be found at Spiked

One supposes people are right to be concerned about how simply dreadful Western schooling has become, as confirmed by the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We already knew that Britain ranked 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Last month, however, it emerged that, in Britain and the United States, even the offspring of professionals are letting us down: apparently they’re being outperformed in exams by the children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of the Far East.

Perhaps Britons will take heart, in this reverse, from the fact that until fairly recently Team GB was completely useless at sport, too: at the 1996 Olympic Games, the country’s athletes came 36th in the medal table, behind Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan. We could have washed our hands of them and consoled ourselves with our prowess in pub sports, such as darts, but we didn’t – the powers that be jolly well rolled up their sleeves, put Lord Coe in charge of things and threw National Lottery funding at lots of people. In Beijing, in 2008, Team GB came fourth in the table, and in London, in 2012, third, winning just about enough gold medals to offset Gordon Brown’s firesale of the nation’s bullion a decade previously. Seemingly, British children partake in less physical activity now than ever before, but that is beside the point: the turnaround shows there is nothing inevitable about national decline.

For the right, at least since Thatcher and Reagan, halting such decline in the West has often been a powerful motivating narrative. The current British government’s Tory education secretary, Michael Gove, frequently appears to conduct policy as a form of warfare against his ideological opponents; but at least you know where he stands on this declining standards stuff – this rot, if you will. He believes the soft liberal emphases of prevalent teaching models must be diluted, that we must overcome our aversion to “passing on knowledge”, or rote learning, and that children need pushing a bit harder. In short, we need to copy how the Chinese and the Singaporeans do things – else our economic competitiveness will be increasingly blunted.

Who knows – maybe Mr Gove’s opponents on the left would argue Britain needs to be less competitive. The case against reducing all measurement of educational success or otherwise to a series of outputs that can be charted on international league tables has, at least, been forcefully made. But supposing his assumptions are all correct and our future prosperity depends on pupils performing better in core tests, then what next? Mr Gove’s underling, Liz Truss, led a delegation of English head teachers to China on a “fact-finding” mission last week. If hers was was meant to be a truly knowledge-based approach, it is to be hoped she kept her eyes wide open – for whatever the failings of British schools, China’s offer no panacea.

It should not, you will agree, require an actual visit to China to establish that pupils there and in many other parts of Asia perform well in exams. That is no secret. But nor should it be a surprise. They tend to start practising at an early age. In Hong Kong, for example, formal exams kick in at the outset of primary school. By secondary school, private tutors are viewed almost as compulsory if you want to keep up with your classmates: a University of Hong Kong survey last year found that 54 per cent of third form (age 14) and 72 per cent of sixth form students go for extra tuition after school.

In China, the average school pupil nowadays spends five hours more in school than his American counterpart each day, but cramming has lineage in the country. The imperial civil service exams, or keju, taken by teenagers for some 1300 years, lasted several days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship and the writing out of lengthy quotations from Confucian classics. Their modern equivalent is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam; in recent years, an estimated 10 million or so candidates have competed annually for around six million spots at Chinese universities. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tales of exam-time suicides. In 2012, it was reported that a school in Hubei province had hooked up gaokao hopefuls to intravenous drips while they studied – to save them the distraction of nourishing themselves.

But many in China – and in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – believe their sons and daughters will find themselves better jobs at home if they have a degree from overseas. In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the US, accounting for 25 per cent of all foreign students in the country. The bill, for tuition and fees alone, can run to $200,000 per student, over four years. But here’s the thing – it would be wrong to assume that it is only the wealthy in Asia who are prepared to spend big on their children’s education. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Research indicates high levels of consumer expenditure on education, across all income brackets, in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and reports abound of parents selling their homes, grandparents forgoing retirement and household debt soaring to fund junior’s advancement.

It is hard not to be a little awed by that level of sacrifice, even if many in the West find it somehow anathema. It is conceivable, certainly, that Michael Gove, though himself lucky enough – or, rather, bright enough – to have won a scholarship to attend Aberdeen Grammar and then studied at Oxford in the days when that still cost nothing, sees a nobility in it. But the pertinent question must be this: what does it avail the debtors? Well, here’s another statistic: 25 per cent of Chinese Ivy League entrants drop out. And the reasons? According to university officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal last year, many Chinese students, accustomed to an education system that rewards rote memorisation and exam training, find it difficult to adapt to those institutions’ liberal arts bias, which exalts analytical and critical thinking. The Journal’s report added: “Students are sometimes forced to choose between working hard to assimilate culturally and keeping their grades up, a failure to be college-ready that could be linked to the large number of falsified application documents.” The newspaper then cited a study by Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges, claiming an estimated 90 per cent of Chinese applicants’ recommendation letters are fake, 70 per cent of their essays are written by someone else and 50 per cent of their high school transcripts are manipulated.

According to the Telegraph, Ms Truss’s visit to China “could lead to [English] schools adopting Chinese-style tactics such as more evening classes and eliminating time-wasting between lessons to boost performance in key subjects”. It also quoted her as saying Britain should learn from Chinese schools’ “positive philosophy”. It seems unlikely, then, that she will have returned armed with a dossier on falsified transcripts, but it doesn’t take much digging to corroborate some of Zinch China’s claims. School teachers on international programmes at prestigious high schools in Shenzhen spoken to for background on this article confirmed the inflation of subject grades by schools is common practice and unmonitored by overseas admissions authorities – the focus for schools trying to help pupils gain admission to American institutions is on preparing them for the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which consists primarily of sections on critical reading, mathematics and writing; scholastic transcripts are included in college applications, but there’s no way of checking that they give a true reflection of a candidate’s actual attainment.

What is also clear is that the pressure to gain acceptance to lofty seats of learning is not coming from young people themselves, nor even the Chinese state, but rather from those funnelling the cash: Chinese parents. Correspondingly, it seems unlikely they will accede to the government’s proposed fazing out of exams before the age of 9 and written homework before the age 12. Similar softening measures have been ignored in South Korea. In Hong Kong, a 2012 study found a third of students aged between 12 and 17 were depressed. It’s a wild guess, but parental pressure and expectation from early years might be factors.

In the 1850s, China was devastated by the Taiping Rebellion, in which an uprising led by one Hong Xiquan – who, following a nervous breakdown precipitated by his repeated failure to pass his keju exams, came to believe he was the brother of Jesus Christ – resulted in a civil war that killed tens of millions. A few short years later, on the other side of the East China Sea, Emperor Meiji – wishing to make his country wealthier – had set about Westernising Japan. But there was a problem: as the historian Niall Ferguson recounts in Civilisation: The West and the Rest, neither the Emperor nor his courtiers could work out which elements of Western culture were crucial to its economic success. And so they ended up copying everything from Western clothes and hairstyles to the practice of colonising foreigners. Unluckily, their adventures in empire-building came at exactly the moment when the costs of imperialism began to exceed the benefits. That particular experiment did not end well, as history records.

Ferguson refers to the East catching up on the West in the 21st Century as “The Great Reconvergence”. Let us, by all means, marvel at how China in particular has pulled that Reconvergence off. Let us even try to emulate aspects of the East’s success. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not persuade ourselves that Western education is in such a state that copying Chinese models will fix it.

A version of this article can be found at Spiked

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