An English primary classroom can be full of surprises for a Japanese mother, as Sonia Leach reports.
Yoko Matsi woke up on the morning of the school trip to the country park assuming that it would be cancelled. It was pouring with rain and, although all Japanese children carry standard issue umbrellas in case of showers, a primary school outing would definitely not take place in a downpour. In Tokyo, by now, a member of the parent-teachers' association would have telephoned all the parents to tell them of the cancellation. Yoko went along to school anyway, just to show willing.
"I was astonished. There was no discussion at all. Miss Harris just gave me a lot of clipboards to carry and we left. And only half the children were wearing raincoats - the rest got soaked." One of the teachers had brought a couple of spare anoraks and another fashioned some impromtu rainwear out of a few bin liners. Yoko was flabbergasted. "These English teachers are tireless. Nothing seems to faze them."
In Japan a mother would not be allowed to help in the classroom. Yoko, visiting Cambridge for the second time with her academic husband and her three young sons, enjoys this privilege. She has been helping in her youngest son Saburo's Year 2 class for one afternoon a week and has had ample opportunity to compare British and Japanese school systems.
"On my first afternoon I wondered what the lesson was. Was it maths, art, playtime? Some of the children were doing this, some were doing that. One child was playing in the sandpit, another was tidying drawers. What was going on here?"
Japanese education sounds a bit like the British school system of the 1950s. Whole-class teaching is the norm, with pupils sitting at separate desks in rows all facing the teacher. There are up to 40 children in each class and lessons are strictly timetabled: geography, history, science, maths, music. As well as getting homework from Year 1, many children also attend juku - private after-school classes, too.
"I asked Miss Harris how I could help, and she suggested I listen to each child's reading. I felt bad interrupting them in the middle of their work, but no one seemed to object."
Last week, Yoko was asked to put the children's artwork inside their exercise books. "But I had such trouble finding out whose pictures were whose! Whether top right-hand corner or top left-hand corner, each school in Japan has an agreement about how work should be labelled. It took me ages to find the names and then another age to find the corresponding work book."
Every week she sets the pile of exercise books in alphabetical order - and every week returns to find them all messed up again. "For me, this is never-ending work."
Although teachers in Japan complain that pupils are getting more unruly each year, Yoko reckons it's nothing compared to the unruliness of British children - which, she says. "has its good side. I think it's more creative, but the system here I think only favours the child who loves to learn. For the others, it's a missed opportunity."
Saburo is very happy in Year 2 because he can do whatever he likes there. His older brother Jiro (10) finds the freedom sometimes daunting. Project work, for example: Jiro is mystified as to how to produce his "project on Britain" from such a wide-ranging brief, and Taro (13), the eldest, who loved the freedom of primary school on his last visit four years ago, has been sorely disappointed by secondary school. "It's been a big shock," explains Yoko, "the segregated subjects, the sudden load of homework, the constant moving between classrooms and, worst of all, the bag full of books he has to lug everywhere because nothing can be entrusted to a locker."
Taro is also put off by the dirtiness of his English school. In Japan, both teachers and pupils are responsible for keeping their classrooms neat and clean. Clean-up time follows lunch - everyone helps to scrub out the corridors and toilets too. When Taro told his English teacher about this, it was assumed that cleaning the school was a form of punishment. "It's not punishment!" laughs Yoko. "The children enjoy it, and I think it helps to foster the right attitude to work as well as to fellow-pupils."
It encapsulates the essential difference between the two education systems: in Japan the individual is subordinate to the group, whereas in Britain the aim is to cater to individual needs.
"Here in Britain," says Yoko, "the chief concern seems to be: Is my child happy? Whereas the question on Japanese parents' lips is always: How does my child's work compare to the average of the class?
"In Japan this emphasis on conformity does tend to lead to a sort of fear of growing up, an over-dependence on authority. But on the other hand, I feel that a lot of ability is being wasted here in Britain. This emphasis on the individual may actually be harming the individual, because sometimes the needs of the group do sustain and protect each child. Surely school is the one place where you can learn how systems work, how to be a good group member. These are important lessons for children all over the world."