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A peep over the Pacific Rim

With only three more days to go before the Union flag is finally lowered in Hong Kong it is easy to assume, mistakenly, that our ties with the Orient are being slashed. But the truth is that China and the other Pacific Rim nations can no longer banish the Occidentals, any more than we can exclude the East. The ironically named People's Liberation Army can march into Hong Kong (see page 18) and the royal crown can be stripped from post boxes and school exercise books, but the time for building great walls is long past.

The world has shrunk and Eastern and Western nations are now both partners and - more often - the keenest of trading rivals. That is, of course, why Britain currently exhibits such an obsession with the education systems of the Pacific Rim, which manifests itself this week on our Platform and Research Focus pages (see opposite and pages 16 and 17). We must keep our eyes on their schools as well as their gross national product if we are to stay in the race, because a successful education system is now widely seen as an essential precondition of a healthy economy.

We were dozily condescending about Eastern teaching styles in the not-so-far-off days when Korean teachers used to smoke opium pipes in the classroom. But we have been splashed awake by the Third International Maths and Science Study and other international surveys showing how far behind our children are in maths, if not science.

As a result, we have embarked on what the leading US academic, Professor David Berliner, describes as "the hunt for Holy Grails and magic bullets". We fret about whether we have enough whole-class teaching, compare the number of hours spent on homework and wonder whether calculators should be banned from the primary classroom. Perhaps such anxieties are legitimate but Professors David Reynolds and Andy Green are right to caution against slavish copying of Pacific Rim countries. Many educational ideas, like some wines, do not travel well.

In any case, as Professor Reynolds says, the Eastern countries dominating the international performance tables still think there are positive aspects to our education system that they should "cherrypick". Only last week, when it was being confirmed that Singapore was top of the world education league, a 20-strong deputation from the "Intelligent Island" was on a fact-finding mission at London's Institute of Education. And earlier this year the Korean education minister was given a tour of Summerhill, the ultra-progressive boarding school that the late AS Neill established in Suffolk.

The latter visit may seem bizarre, but the Pacific Rim countries want their children to be more creative and think they may find some answers in the philosophy of Neill, who once famously said: "All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots." We, on the other hand, tend to think that Neill has little to offer - only a third of Summerhill's 67 pupils are English; but at least one of his less well-known aphorisms seems particularly pertinent today: "There is no such thing as a dramatic cure; every cure takes a long time."

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