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Pacific 'tiger' offers UK useful lessons

A greater awareness and understanding of what is happening in the Asia Pacific region - where there is a national commitment to education - could be vital to Britain's future prosperity, according to a team of educationists.

After a study visit to Taiwan they reported that a strong belief in the importance of education had transformed a country with few natural resources into one of the largest trading nations in the world.

Even compared with the other Asia Pacific economic "Tigers" - Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea - Taiwan's achievement has been outstanding, leading the world in growth in gross national product over the past two decades.

The economic miracle has been achieved against a backdrop of major social and political change and the three-strong team - undertaking the study for the Society of Education Officers - were deeply impressed by the value placed on education. "This is not simply a matter of a government priority determined after weighing what might give best advantage in the national interest. A high value is set on education by the Taiwan people. This commitment to educational prowess goes deep in Chinese culture and history.

"Application and diligence in pursuit of educational studies is a normal expectation and is inculcated in children from an early age. Teachers and others engaged in education have a high status and are given respect and support."

In 42 years the number of schools in Taiwan has increased by more than 350 per cent, student rolls risen by more than 400 per cent and there has been a 670 per cent growth in the number of teachers.

And the Government has recently decided to extend by one year the present nine-year period of compulsory education, raising the statutory leaving age to 16.

Children start school at the age of six and, compared with England, classes are very large with some 28,000 children currently in primary classes of between 41 and 50 youngsters.

The team was concerned about unremitting pressure on children to achieve and said some parents even sent their children to cram schools at the age of five or younger.

However, they said the vocational education offered from the age of 15 - the end of compulsory schooling - prepared pupils well for the jobs market and "contributes powerfully to the quality of the workforce in Taiwan".

There was also no difficulty in distinguishing vocational education from vocational training, often the subject of debate in England and Wales.

From the age of 15, students can take three-year courses in either academic senior high schools or senior vocational courses or five-year vocational courses at junior high schools.

At the age of 18 they can transfer four-year first degree courses at universities and higher education colleges, or go on to two or three-year specialised vocational diploma courses at junior colleges.

However, from 15 the great majority of young people take specialist vocational education and do not regard it as a poor second best.

There are seven categories of senior vocational schools specialising in agriculture, industry, commerce, marine products, nursing and midwifery, home economics and opera and arts.

Junior colleges concentrate on the applied sciences and on training technicians and specialise in one of 14 areas - industry, commerce, agriculture, pharmacology, nursing, medical technology, physical education, home economics, marine products, arts, languages, journalism, music and opera.

The team - Ray Comish, head of community services at Lancashire county council, Chris Savory, an inspectoradviser with Cumbria and Adrienne Simcock, former assistant schools director with Gateshead LEA - said that in addition to their further and higher education courses, students often undertook specific skill training to equip themselves with particular skills needed for work.

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