The China Syndrome

4th March 2011 at 00:00
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may have depicted emigre Chinese parents' ambitions at their most extreme. But do British schools have something to learn from their characteristically high expectations, discipline and a refusal to settle for second best?

Within the first few pages of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it is easy to see why her parenting memoir caused such a media frenzy in the days following its publication.

"The Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math," Ms Chua writes. She continues: "(6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold."

A second-generation Chinese immigrant, Ms Chua was born in Illinois and married an American. When their children were born, the couple agreed they would be brought up according to their father's religion - Judaism - and their mother's parenting model - Chinese.

Her tough-love prescription taps into parental insecurities about the way children are raised and schooled. But the book's popularity is also down to the fact that it offers an insight into why Chinese children seem to excel in school.

This is not just a US phenomenon. In the UK, British-Chinese children significantly outperform their peers. Chinese children make up only 0.4 per cent of the secondary school intake, but more than 25 per cent of them are on the gifted and talented register. This compares with 15 per cent of white children and 15.9 per cent of mixed-race children.

This could be put down to relative levels of affluence, were it not for the fact that the achievement gap between rich and poor among British- Chinese children is smaller than in any other ethnic group.

A study of GCSE results between 2005 and 2007 by academics at London University's Institute of Education and Queen Mary, found that only 5 per cent fewer British-Chinese children on free school meals got five A*-C grades at GCSE than those not entitled to free school meals. Among white British pupils, that gap is 32 per cent.

So why do British-Chinese pupils not only do so well, but also seem so immune to the socio-economic factors that are the bane of teachers' lives up and down the country? For Ms Chua, the answer is that their parents expect nothing less and their children thrive under the pressure.

This may seem an extreme parenting model, but it also rings true in the experience of many teachers. Ian Warwick, a teacher for 20 years and now the director of London Gifted and Talented, says the parents of his Chinese pupils are extremely driven and above all, want their children to succeed.

"British-Chinese success is an awful lot to do with cultural background and parental expectation," he says. "I have worked in schools which had 130 languages spoken. If you had a Chinese kid, you knew they were going to do well." He struggles to think of a single Chinese child who was not a high achiever.

Until last year, Jane McGowan, a secondary languages teacher, worked at one of Northern Ireland's top-performing grammar schools. Her experience of Chinese pupils also largely matched Ms Chua's model. "We had quite a high proportion of Chinese pupils and in general they would be really disciplined," she says.

But although this attribute was widespread, she says it was not universal. Mrs McGowan, who taught in Belfast, says not every Chinese pupil was a high achiever. "The ones who weren't had in some way rebelled," she says.

Mrs McGowan remembers one former pupil whose mother was from a nearby council estate, but whose father was Chinese, and paid for his daughter to board at the school. "She seemed to resent that and did no work at school," she says.

Becky Francis and Louise Archer from the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University have extensively researched ethnic-minority achievement, interviewing pupils, teachers and parents. For a 2005 study, they interviewed Hoi Ling, a secondary pupil in London. "My parents expect me to get the best grades. They expect me to be better than other people", Hoi told them.

"If I don't, they will continuously start nagging at me to do better. My friend's parents will say: `Oh OK, you tried your best, make sure you try to improve it'. My parents will continuously say: `Try and practise your maths and get it better'."

Although Chinese parents are typically very interested in their children's education, Dr Francis says their approach is quite different from that of the "pushy parent" familiar to many UK teachers. British parents who want their children to succeed are more likely to blame the school or teacher rather than their child and will happily come knocking on the teacher's door to discuss the ins and outs of their little darling's education.

In contrast, she says, teachers may not get to know the parents of their Chinese pupils very well and are unlikely to learn much about their home life. Part of this is a language barrier - parents cannot be involved in the school if they cannot communicate well with the teachers. "But they were often engaged in other ways," says Dr Francis.

As well as their high expectations, Chinese parents see their financial contribution as crucial, giving them the right to ask so much from their child.

"Many of the Chinese parents interviewed, even those of quite impoverished families, work all the hours God sends in the takeaway or the family business for extra tuition for their kids," Dr Francis explains. "There is a hell of a lot of work going on towards their kids' achievement, but not necessarily in the expected ways that would be familiar to a white middle- class family."

Many of the prerequisites for the Tiger Mother approach appear to be in place already in the British education system. The last government launched the Every Child Matters initiative in order to promote personalised learning, the ethos of which is still in place in schools today. High-achieving children are registered as gifted and talented and receive additional opportunities and coaching to help them on their way.

But contrary to the intensive regime extolled by Ms Chua, the British approach is more about nurturing and looking after children's emotional needs, says Denise Yates, chief executive of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). The difference between helping children fulfil their potential and a relentless drive for higher grades is a subtle one, but it is there nonetheless.

"The most important thing is for these children to have confidence, and the A* should come if they are thriving," Ms Yates says.

Grades are important to teachers and parents but above all pupils should not feel pressured to get the best grades all the time, she says. "Children should be viewed for their own sake, not for what they are going to be viewed as in the future.

"More and more parents believe that as long as their child is happy and has friends, the achievement will come next."

The theory that children do not benefit from too much pressure and that bright youngsters suffer under the weight of their talents is supported by a NAGC survey of gifted and talented children which found that many of them push themselves to do well.

"What we are finding is that the biggest mental health problem is linked to a fear of failure and perfectionism," says Ms Yates. "There is a high proportion of bright children, mainly girls, who suffer from anorexia and who feel quite isolated. Quite simply, they are not on the same wavelength as children in their class and they may prefer to mix with older children."

Ms Chua's model provides little room for concern about children's emotional health. "Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't," she writes. "They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result behave very differently."

Anxiety over eating habits provides a case in point. Whereas some parents would regard how much their child weighs - whether it is too much or too little - as a sensitive subject, Ms Chua says Chinese parents have no such qualms. "Chinese mothers can say to their daughters: `Hey fatty - lose some weight'," she says. "By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of `health' and never mentioning the f- word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image."

Dr Francis has seen this "bootstraps and chin-up approach" not only through her research but also through personal experience: she is married to a Chinese man and is now part of an extended Chinese community in the UK. "I know of kids being left in villages by their parents, then at the age of eight being yanked across to Britain," she says. "These stories are normalised - if it was us Brits we would be in therapy for years."

Some of this determination to succeed may be down to an immigrant mentality. For economic migrants, starting a new life in a new country carries with it an extra incentive to do well. And just as parents work hard to provide for their families, so they expect that work ethic to pass down to their children.

Many of the young people from ethnic minorities interviewed for the London Metropolitan University report said they were working hard at school to enable them to get a job or boost their future prospects. All 80 children interviewed answered "Yes" to the question, "Is education important?"

On top of this, the British-Chinese community tends to see educational achievement as a distinctive part of their culture. Dr Francis and Dr Archer found that the emphasis on education is bound up with their identity as an ethnic group. "As a minority group here, the idea that they take education more seriously than everyone else is what is distinct about their community," says Dr Francis. "They construct this as part of their Chinese-ness. The notion of educational achievement is one of their pillars of identity in relation to other social groups."

Indeed, Shanghai and Hong Kong were among the most successful in the latest worldwide Pisa survey of 15-year-olds from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Jim Knight, former Labour schools minister, wanted to bring aspects of Chinese education and Confucian philosophy to British schools, and education secretary Michael Gove has named Hong Kong as a template for success.

China's harsh recent history may also inform its people's focus on educational achievement. "During the Cultural Revolution, all the schools were closed down, I couldn't study," says Wing Shan, one of the parents interviewed by Dr Francis and Dr Archer.

"We all went up the mountains to settle, there was no chance to be educated, but now you can study and go to university and study whatever you want."

Chinese culture also emphasises a fear of losing face. Pupils who do badly at school will embarrass their parents and risk lowering their status in society. Children are aware of this, and Ms Chua says it is one of the reasons why her children - and Chinese children in general - always give the appearance of being so obedient and well mannered to anyone outside the family, even if they are fighting with their parents behind closed doors.

But despite its track record of success, this approach to education is vulnerable to criticism that it is too academic and leaves no time for socialising. Consequently, children are not prepared for life outside rote learning and exams.

Mrs McGowan says her Chinese pupils tended not to socialise outside school as much as other pupils, and many children attended Chinese school after school and on Saturday mornings.

"I got the impression that they weren't really allowed to participate in the social life of the school, but there seemed to be more of an emphasis on families eating together, and on studying at home," says Mrs McGowan.

But some argue that not giving children time to themselves, to play or be with other children, hinders their development. Following research in Chinese schools, psychologist Oliver James concluded that a "lack of creativity is a major problem as a result of Asian schooling".

It is partly in reaction to these fears that the Hong Kong curriculum has recently been altered, with the introduction of liberal studies, aimed at teaching critical and creative thinking.

While working in Hong Kong over the past decade, Mr Warwick came across a number of parents who worried that their child had not developed creativity. This was perhaps a response to Western concerns, but Mr Warwick is reluctant to make generalisations.

"Flair is very difficult to quantify," he says. "With all of these things, you are dealing with stereotypical views and so much is down to the way the school sees a certain group."

Assumptions about pupils of Chinese ethnicity do not always work in their favour. Their level of achievement often means racist bullying tends to be overlooked as their grades don't suffer, says Dr Francis. She found this was a serious problem for many of the Chinese pupils she interviewed.

Racial stereotyping also rears its head at options time: teachers can assume that Chinese children will excel at maths but not at art, for example. And in Mr Warwick's experience, the pupils tend to achieve accordingly. "I have worked in some boroughs which have real problems with Somali boys, but in other boroughs they are achieving brilliantly," says Mr Warwick. "I would be wary of pinning specific attributes to racial groups."

But the Tiger Mother approach may strike a chord with those who believe the British system does not push children hard enough. "For a lot of bright kids, they don't get stretched or tested until at least A-level," says Mr Warwick. "State education is too safe now - kids need to meet failure to learn resilience, but at the moment the system is too scaffolded."

Ms Yates agrees that many gifted and talented children slip through the net because school is not challenging enough and they misbehave.

Despite the successes of British-Chinese children, few are prepared to argue that this is solely the result of the Tiger Mother approach, or that this strict model will solve all pupils' problems overnight. Even Ms Chua had to admit defeat when it came to her younger daughter's teenage years. But the debate on which parenting style and which country's education system is best will no doubt keep raging long after the hype surrounding Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has abated.


A few years ago, Amy Chua went to a dinner party and told her fellow diners that she had called her youngest daughter "rubbish", trying to shock her into submission when they were having a fight, and instead her daughter Lulu continued to argue.

Ms Chua was telling the story as an example of Lulu's disobedience, but one of the guests was so upset that she left the dinner in tears.

The incident is recounted in Ms Chua's memoir, and it would have given the Chinese-American mother some inkling of the outrage that would be caused by her account of bringing up her daughters in the high-pressure, no- excuses style that she was used to.

Ms Chua's parenting style is motivated by her fear that, despite her parents starting at the bottom of the ladder and she working equally hard to get to the top of her career, her own children will be brought up spoilt, living in the lap of luxury. The reason she wants them to learn the piano and the violin is because she sees classical music as "the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity and spoiledness".

But while she considers her parenting style to be "Chinese", in China her book has been published under the title Being an American Mum. The cover shows a picture of Ms Chua against the backdrop of the US flag.

And the Chinese take on the memoir? "Her experiences, superior or not, might enlighten Chinese parents on how to raise their kids in a proper way," says Wang Feifei, acquisition editor at the CITIC Publishing House. "From the book, we see an inspiring Asian immigrant with admirable entrepreneurial spirit."

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