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High-fliers ill at ease on alien ground

School effectiveness researchers believe Britain should consider copying some of Japan's educational practices. But a study of Japanese children in the UK suggests the cultural gulf is still extremely wide.

"Silence is golden." The Japanese and British both use the proverb, but as far as the upbringing of children is concerned, there is little common ground on the issue of noise or much else.

Japanese children find the average UK classroom a noisy and confusing place. Their parents cannot understand why British teachers should want them to encourage their children to chatter rather than listen respectfully. The two cultures, even in the same school, seem more than half a world apart.

With increasing evidence of higher academic performance in Pacific Rim countries such as Japan, the chance to compare and contrast cultures is a valuable one. And what better way to gain an insight into why Japanese children consistently out-perform their British contemporaries than to study a group of them who happen to be in UK classrooms.

The basis for just such a controlled experiment has been provided by "inward investment" into the UK by Japanese companies. Japanese managers sent to work here have brought with them about 2,000 school-aged children from an educationally high-flying society. The Economic and Social Research Council and the Scottish Council for Educational Research were sufficiently intrigued to commission a research study on their educational experiences in Britain.

The researchers, Joanna McPake and Janet Powney, found a culture clash which illuminated both educational systems. And because these were children from a highly literate, high-achieving society, and from supportive, middle-class homes, the comparisons were not bedevilled by questions of relative deprivation as a study of a less advantaged, or less homogeneous, group of immigrant children might have been.

The children came from two areas with thriving Japanese communities, in Scotland and England. The groups the researchers concentrated their attention on were aged 11 to 13. By 15, the age at which pre-university courses start in Japan, many families had sent their children home. All the children also attended Japanese Saturday schools to keep in touch with their own language and culture.

The researchers observed seven children in both their British and Saturday schools. They also interviewed another 30 children attending the supplementary schools. One of the seven was a new arrival, a second was believed to have learning difficulties, but the remaining five were all high-achievers. One boy was exceptionally good at science and another boy who was in his first year at an English secondary was already beyond GCSE-standard maths.

Nevertheless, the Japanese children evidently found UK classrooms alien places. There were four particular areas of difficulty. Teaching styles in the two countries were clearly very different. The place of talk in the classroom was a focus of mutual incomprehension. While British teachers believe that children learn by talking and discussion, Japanese teachers demand silent listening and frown upon conversation between pupils.

Even when the Japanese children became proficient in English they were still extremely reluctant to join in discussion in class and their parents were baffled by teachers' advice to encourage them to socialise and talk. Yet in spite of the unfamiliar environment, Japanese children were almost invariably observed working, even when others were not.

There was also a culture clash over the very purpose of these "middle years" of education. British teachers emphasised "skills for learning" while Japanese parents expected their children to acquire "knowledge", if necessary by simply memorising it.

An even more fundamental difference was revealed when the researchers looked at British and Japanese academic expectations for children. British teachers assume that there is a natural spread of ability among children and have come to accept a high rate of "failure".

Japanese families of all social classes expect their children to succeed by dint of hard work and parental support, to the extent of paying for out-of-school lessons to help a child keep up. To ensure they can play their supporting role, parents demand detailed information from schools about curriculum content and children's progress. As the researchers comment, the national curriculum and more regular testing of this age group might bring British and Japanese expectations closer together on this issue at least.

The research threw up an even more intractable ambivalence about what children from this particular minority should be gaining from a British education. British teachers expected Japanese children not only to learn the language - which they quickly did - but to reach a high academic standard. They also implicitly expected them to become more "British" than Japanese culture, highly conformist and exclusive, would easily allow.

British teachers risked seriously offending Japanese susceptibilities when they advised them to let their children play with English-speaking friends, watch British television programmes and speak English at home, implying that social and cultural integration was important for their education. Teachers seemed to have little idea how the "heritage" culture should be maintained or why that was important to families. They showed little understanding of Japanese culture or family expectations.

Given that Japanese children in this country come from an affluent minority, it is not surprising that their teachers were generally well disposed to them and had high expectations of them. But while the Japanese children did not suffer from overt racism, the researchers concluded that they were the victims of a covert racism which assumes unquestioningly that "British is best" and makes no concessions to other cultural concerns. If Japanese children suffer in this way, how much worse off are children from cultures which traditionally attract much less respect?

A mirror to ourselves? The educational experiences of Japanese children at school in the UK, by J McPake and J Powney, Scottish Council for Research in Education, 15 St John Street, Edinburgh EH8 8JR (0131-557-2944).

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