Importance has rightly been attached to the contribution of whole-class teaching, the place of homework, the length of the school day - even earlier bedtime. But are the issues more fundamental?
The school of education at the University of Sunderland has recently surveyed just over 2,600 fourteen-year-olds in north-east England and St Petersburg, Russia (1,284 in England and 1,320 Russians). Areas explored include academic preferences, attitudes to school and schoolwork, the nature and importance of homework, the impact of classmates, the use of leisure time and vocational and life expectations.
The findings from our research, conducted in partnership with Hertzen University, St Petersburg, indicate that many of the attitudes, expectations, beliefs and behaviours reported by the English sample may help explain their relatively poor performance.
Whether visiting south-east Asia or many countries in eastern Europe, there are three striking features which contrast greatly with England or the United States. First, whole-class teaching is widely and skillfully used with limited per-capita resources. Second, educational standards, particularly in mathematics, are often considerably higher. Finally, the children bring with them to school a set of attitudes, aspirations and expectations highly conducive to educational achievement.
While recognising the importance of curricular, pedagogic and resource issues, it appears likely that this highly complex set of attitudinal and motivational factors best explains differential international performance. In our opinion, such factors are often underemphasised because of their very complexity and lack of susceptibilit y to quick solutions.
In Singapore and Russia, an interesting difference in the reasons behind both countries' relatively high levels of educational motivation exists. Singaporeans tend to see education as an essential means to an important economic end; without high qualifications there is usually a limited vocational future. The strong Confucian belief in effort, rather than ability, as the key factor in success, noted by Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University and many other writers, results in widespread striving for achievement, even by the less able.
In contrast, Russian children tend to perceive education as an end in itself. To be articulate, literate and cultured has traditionally been greatly valued by the society.
More than half of our sample of Russian children indicated that the main reason for working hard in school was because they wanted to be an educated person. Very few English children responded in similar terms. Three-quarters of them cited the need for qualifications as their most important motivation.
This emphasis upon academic qualifications was not reflected in subject preferences, however, with physical education (28.5 per cent), art and design (15 per cent) and English and drama (13 per cent) representing English children's first-choice subjects compared with Russian preferences for algebra (13 per cent), English (13 per cent) and history (11 per cent).
The lifestyles of the English sample are not conducive to gaining high educational qualifications. Compared with the Russians, they spend significantly less time on homework (with less belief in its impact upon educational achievement), watch more television, read less and take part in fewer cultural pursuits such as visiting theatres, museums and concert halls.
In explaining the low performance of American children relative to those of south-east Asia, studies have consistently pointed to the lower expectation and greater satisfactions of children and their parents in the United States. A similar discrepancy emerged in our English-Russian study.
Despite all indications that the children in the Russian sample were achieving higher educational standards, the English sample indicated strikingly higher levels of satisfaction with their educational achievements and school work rate, less conviction that their performance could be improved a lot, yet recognised that they often did not work hard at home. This separation between home and school as contexts for learning appears to be very much a feature of both English and American cultures.
An even more fascinating difference concerns perception s of academic ability. The table (left) indicates how children feel about their own ability and how they think their parents and teachers rate them.
These figures suggest that children from urban schools in the north-east have a far higher perception of their own abilities than their Russian peers, a view not borne out by comparative studies or more anecdotal school observation in the two countries. Teachers' views, in the opinion of children, mirror their self-perceptions.
When children are asked to indicate what they believe their parents think,the discrepancy is striking. In the opinions of the respondents, English parents are twice as likely as their children to consider the respondents to be very good, with few seeing their children as poor. In contrast, Russian perceptions appear to be quite the reverse.
In summary, the data produced from our study indicates that, in contrast with a Russian sample, our group of children representative of schools in the urban North-east have more negative perceptions of school and are less eager to attend. They recognise the importance of hard work and of gaining qualifications, yet they prefer non-academic subjects, appear less willing to value and engage in academic study outside of school hours and consider themselves less likely to enter higher education.
They appear relatively satisfied with their performance and work-rate in school and do not consider that their achievement could be significantly increased.
Such a constellation of beliefs and behaviours may be a key reason for the comparatively poor performance of children in the urban North-east and,indeed, nationally. The similarity of these findings with other comparative studies exploring the gulf between children's attitudes and achievements in the United States and Asia is highly resonant.
What lessons do we need to learn from such findings? Government reports continually stress the problems of low expectations, particularly in urban areas, and there is a widespread belief that this is largely the fault of individual schools and teachers. Where national initiatives are advocated by politicians, the focus is often upon pedagogic, curricular or structural change.
Critics of such initiatives often argue that educational achievement cannot be significantly raised given existing levels of social disintegration and economic hardship (although it is hard to see how this position can be reconciled with the problems of countries such as Hungary and Russia).
In our opinion, the lesson to be taken is that both responses present easy solutions that avoid the thorny issue of how best to raise the perceived value of education and reduce the acceptance of low standards of performance.
Fostering children's appreciation of the value and purpose of education, inculcating a belief in the importance of individual initiative, effort and deferment of immediate gratification, and assisting children to recognise and strive towards their true potential, is a major function of schools and teachers. However, this role must also be recognised and tackled at the wider local and national level. Otherwise we may continue to remain "worlds apart".
Yvonne Stewart-Smith is director of the school of education at Sunderland University, Julian Elliott is the school's director of research and Anthony Hildreth is a visiting lecturer.