Compare and contrast
The English have been making educational comparisons with other nations for at least 160 years. But it is only in the past few years, when Western countries have grown increasingly anxious about their long-term economic prospects, that the findings of international studies have assumed their present significance.
In England such studies are fuelling the debate over whether we should adopt the whole-class teaching methods of the Far Eastern countries which dominate the maths and science league tables. As Neil McIntosh, chief executive of the education services company, CfBT, points out, however, this is a strange and probably unproductive argument (Letters, page 23).
In any case, whole-class teaching of whatever variety is obviously only one of the reasons for the Pacific Rim nations' educational success. Dr Julia Whitburn (page 14) has observed maths lessons in Japan and Switzerland, one of Europe's top education performers, and has concluded that there are other key factors.
Professor Caroline Gipps provided a broader analysis in her December 20 TES Platform article on schooling in the Far East. She pointed to the paramount importance of the Confucian philosophy which, as is now generally known, encourages reverence for all things educational. But it isn't only Chinese societies which have a far more positive view of education than the British do.
The December 13 Research Focus articles contributed by Dr Julian Elliott and his Sunderland University colleagues showed how much more motivated Russian 14-year-olds are than their peers in the north-east of England. The chronically-underpaid teachers of St Petersburg may be quitting to set up market stalls or work as bodyguards for Russia's nouveaux riches, but their pupils still enjoy school more than their English contemporaries. Now Bristol University researchers (page 14) have compared primary pupils' attitudes in France and England and have produced very similar findings.
It is, of course, possible to do well at school without enjoying it - Japanese children are world-beaters in maths but both they and their teachers often hate the subject. It is also true that despite their negativity our children trounced the French in the science tests conducted for the recent Third International Maths and Science Study. Nevertheless, these Anglo-Russian and French studies deserve close scrutiny.
There is a mounting pile of evidence which suggests that it is our deep-rooted disregard for education which best explains our children's relatively poor performance. Education may be Tony Blair's passion, but it is not Britain's. Until it is, even a revitalised teaching profession is unlikely to push the country up the international league tables.