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Minister pulls plug on liberal policies

JAPAN. More maths, patriotism and tests are planned in a big classroom shake-up, reports Michael Fitzpatrick

Japan is to abandon its experiment with child-centred education, education minister Nariaki Nakayama has announced. He also plans a return to longer class hours and the promotion of patriotism.

The country's ruling coalition said it will overhaul Japan's education laws this year in an attempt to reverse what it sees as the policy failures of the past 20 years.

But analysts say the about-face is a sign of panic only three years after the government introduced a liberal curriculum. It had cut the school week from six days to five, introduced "softer" subjects such as general studies into the curriculum, and reduced students' workload by 30 per cent.

At the root of the change appears to be the latest batch of international educational comparison scores, which caused uproar in Japan.

Late last year, Japan learned that its 15-year-olds had fallen in international rankings. In the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, Japan slipped from eighth to twelfth place in reading, and from first to fourth in maths, among countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This was proof, said ruling Liberal Democratic party ministers and half of the nation's national newspapers, that Japan's "fundamental education law" needed drastic rewriting.

"The question of whether the government's policy of 'education free from pressure' has caused a decline in academic ability in this country appears to have been answered," said an editorial from the right-leaning Yomiuri newspaper.

However, Japan did come second in science and fourth in problem-solving.

One aim of the liberal curriculum was to teach children to identify and solve problems by themselves rather than simply fill their heads with facts. Another was to reduce the pressure on students.

The Liberal Democrats will seek to revamp the education law by the end of this year. Mr Nakayama is demanding that general studies be cut back in favour of "major" subjects such as science, maths and Japanese language studies.

The minister admitted to reporters that to find the increased class time he may have to reintroduce Japan's six-day school week, which was phased out three years ago.

He has also suggested that it is time to reintroduce common assessment tests, which were used in all schools in the 1950s and 1960s but were stopped because it was thought they encouraged too much competition.

Even more controversially, the ruling party also wishes to insert some kind of patriotism studies into the curriculum or at least demand that teachers instil a sense of "love for country" in their pupils.

The focal point of the draft revision concerning patriotism will be the promotion of respect for traditional culture and love of one's nation.

Teachers' unions strongly oppose any such clause.

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