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Teddy therapy

Japan is trying to offer bespoke education: tailoring schools to meet individual needs. For the nervous new pupil, this can mean sharing a comfort bear. Welsh governors went to watch

Gathered around a screen at Nagaoka high school in Niigata, 150 miles north of Tokyo, Welsh governors are watching a video presentation of a pupils'

science research project. Four 17-year-olds explain how, after poring over the history of engines, they discovered the Stirling engine. In the 19th century, Robert Stirling devised a method of propulsion by heating a gas-filled cylinder; it is considered less harmful to the environment than other engines.

Using hydrogen, the students develop a prototype and are delighting the audience - including university professors - with a successful demonstration. "We are confident that our research came close to the most advanced level of research in this field," said one of the four. "But our biggest accomplishment was raising the awareness of today's audience about the environmental damage caused by cars."

"We were astounded by the pupils' enthusiasm and how hard they worked," says Hiroshi Tonso, the supervising teacher. "It sharpened their presentation and information-gathering skills and gave many a clearer idea of what they want to study at university."

Nagaoka high, for 16 to18-year-olds, is one of 26 Japanese schools last year given special science status and extra annual funding of 15 million yen (pound;75,000). The school is also linked with universities to create opportunities for pupils to participate in research experiments.

It is one of several schools where the Welsh governors are finding out how Japanese educators tailor schooling to meet pupils' diverse abilities and needs.

At Nagaoka Higashi junior high, which has 487 pupils aged 13 to 15, they find teachers focusing on smoothing the children's transition from feeder elementary schools. First-years receive simple interpersonal skills training to minimise school refusal, which is common in junior high schools when children are bullied or lack the social skills to adapt to a new environment.

"It's important that schools teach social skills because there are many single children with little interpersonal skills, having spent more time on computer games than mixing with people," says Hiroshi Kano, a senior teacher. In one exercise, children are asked to pass around a teddy bear (below) while learning the effects of positive and negative comments on each other.

"Some children in the lowest classes need individual attention but we just don't have enough resources to do this," said Susumi Hasegawa, a teacher.

The Welsh party also visits Meitoku high school which caters for pupils with difficult home backgrounds and low academic achievement. It allows them to choose their hours of study between 10am and 9pm, offers a broad range of subjects from dress-making to product design, and helps drop-outs find ways to complete their school-leaving certificate.

The visit was financed by the Welsh Assembly's international development fund. Jane Morris, co-ordinator of support services for Governors Wales , says: "We've seen that the emphasis - as in Britain - is on the ownership of one's learning."

Peter Griffin, former chairman of Governors Wales , says there is a serious attempt to bring changes. "In Japanese schools, I sensed that teachers and academics want to liberate the system from the traditional tram-lines it is stuck in. And they are succeeding, despite constraints."

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