A core belief that all can succeed

6th December 1996 at 00:00

David Reynolds opens two pages of reports focusing on selection and pupil choice worldwide.

Those hardworking, well-educated and clearly happy Taiwanese children who appeared in the Panorama programme based on our Worlds Apart report in June have had an extraordinary effect on British education. In place of a patronising, ethnocentric and sometimes frankly racist view of Pacific Rim societies, there is a willingness to consider what lessons we can learn from them.

Of greatest importance for Britain is the Taiwanese belief that all children can succeed in the acquisition of basic skills. This generates the persistence of their approach: if children fall behind, they catch up in lesson breaks, are helped by their more able peers, or have extra homework. This is, no doubt, because of a belief in the value of effort and the absence of a belief in the inevitability of failure, clearly produced for us in Britain by the annual summer flagellation in which high levels of failure are seen as nationally desirable.

Taiwanese practices involve quality monitoring, such as the random sampling of pupils' homework books by the principal and the frequent testing of pupils to see what level they have reached.

Their system is one of consistency, cohesion and homogeneity in its processes, using teacher training to inculcate a limited range of behaviours that all teachers can use.

The result is an absence of the artistry that the British teaching profession can show, but also an absence of the trailing edge of practice that we see in Britain. There are fewer goals, and there is greater clarity and uniformity between teachers in their beliefs.

In addition, their "interactive whole-class" teaching is an intense, rapid, demanding and involving style that is far removed from the past British whole-class teaching.

These interesting practices may not only be effective in Taiwan. The blending of whole-class interactive methods with the British need for differentiated groups - by "setting" junior classes and then applying interactive whole-class methods within each set - is a promising development that is being trialled in some British junior schools.

The reason, however, for paying attention to the success of Taiwan's schools may lie in appreciation of three of their policy concerns.

First, the schools are obsessed with the importance of primary education, believing that a reliable society needs children who have "basics". The arcane British debates about the nature of secondary education bemuse the Taiwanese. What is the point of such a concern, they would argue, when an average British comprehensive school receives pupils with a range of reading ability of seven or eight years? As research increasingly shows that primary age education has greater effects on children than secondary age schooling, and as societies begin to focus on intervention to help low achievers at the age of seven or eight, Britain seems more and more aberrant in its concern for secondary schooling of a minority rather than issues related to primary provision for all.

Second, Taiwan would regard its policies as more progressive than ours. Its teachers give the same knowledge to all; children learn together and at the same rate; there are no differentiated groups. What is "progressive" about our forcing children to do things for themselves, or about our giving clever children different work from their less able classmates? Is it progressive for us to force notions of what a "whole child" should be on to children? The Taiwanese might argue we are the authoritarian society.

Third, Taiwan, would regard itself as more open-minded than us. Its educational history has been one of taking ideas from other societies and contexts, improving them and blending them together. The Taiwanese are aware that they have things to learn about more "open" education, about the use of groups and about generating more creativity. They are, therefore, looking to other societies to give them examples of good practice. And they will, of course, ensure that new forms of practice are well understood and well practised before they are let loose on children.

Interestingly, the Taiwanese are also experimenting with comprehensive schools, because their selective high schools are losing able children to vocational schools and because they are interested in whether comprehensives are more effective. Their empirical and pragmatic interest in "what works" stands as a marked contrast to our celebration of educational practices for ideological reasons.

Looking to Taiwan and to the East is, therefore, not simply a matter of picking up some of their useful practices. It is also important to appreciate their alternative sets of national concerns.

Elitist? Authoritarian? Narrow-minded? Reactionary? It is Britain, not Taiwan, that might be accused of all these things.

David Reynolds is Professor of Education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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