The secret of Taiwan's meteoric rise from agricultural backwater to internationally competitive hothouse economy may lie in the fact that 70 per cent of its schoolchildren enter specialist vocational schools at 14, a report from the Office for Standards in Education suggests. But the inspectors' comments also indicate that they had mixed feelings about the comparative merits of the Taiwanese and British systems, and that there is a downside to Taiwan's image as shining example of the efficacy of traditional teaching methods.
The OFSTED inspectors are the latest to join a procession of foreign observers keen to discover how Taiwan, which had no universal education system at all until the 1960s, manages to top the international league tables in maths and science, and how far the school system directly contributes to the country's economic success. Three HMIs visited seven schools and a teacher-training institution over seven days last autumn, focusing particularly on vocational education from 14 to 19.
One of the oddest findings was that the academic-vocational divide is alive and well in Taiwan, despite the huge investment in developing specialist vocational courses. The elite who pass the tough examination at 14 and gain entry to the prestigious grammar-style senior high schools are accorded higher status than the majority (70 per cent) who go on to senior vocational school. This attitude is reinforced by parents - in one junior school 90 per cent of the pupils were getting private coaching to get them aboard the academic conveyor belt. Once divided into sheep and goats, the two groups of pupils remain rigidly separate - the OFSTED inspectors found that otherwise well-informed high school pupils had no idea what went on in vocational schools. Almost all the senior high school graduates go on to university, while their vocational counterparts take up various further and higher education options, or employment.
Inspectors attributed high standards in the vocational schools to excellence in teacher training - teachers are trained specifically for vocational education in well-equipped university departments staffed by highly qualified tutors. In-service training is considered crucial, as is regular updating of skills and the ability to acquire more university degrees in the eight-week summer vacations.
The vocational curriculum is centrally controlled and while it is prescriptive by English standards, this ensures consistency across the country, OFSTED found. Students in vocational schools take a 40-60 per cent mix of academic and vocational subjects, with 43 per cent opting for industrially-based manufacturing and engineering courses - in contrast to the UK where the top three general national vocational qualifications are business, health and social care, and leisure and tourism.
The Taiwanese pupils work a 37-hour week, giving them more classroom time than their English counterparts, but there are fewer opportunities for project work and almost none for work experience. Assessment is by formal examination rather than coursework in both the high schools and vocational schools and "concerns are emerging about the extreme pressure which the examination regime puts on Taiwanese students and the very long hours which they consequently have to work".
On leaving vocational school, students are at a standard between NVQ levels 1 and 2 in several areas, but inspectors found the Taiwanese students less impressive at tasks requiring a creative or investigative approach.
On the education system in general, inspectors noticed the high level of motivation among pupils and the "respect accorded to education in its broadest sense" in society. With class sizes that would precipitate a national strike in England (classes of 55 are not unusual), teaching style and classroom organisation is inevitably formal. Life in the academic schools is dominated by examination work and daily testing. At best, the inspectors observed fast-paced lessons with clear explanation from the teacher and impressive concentration from the pupils; at worst, repetition and regurgitation from textbooks.
Achievement in maths, OFSTED confirmed, is "considerably in advance of that in England", especially in geometry, algebra and calculation (Taiwanese pupils do not use calculators), but there was little opportunity for the teacher to tackle individual misunderstandings. Pupils were less proficient in data-handling and problem-solving than their English counterparts.
In English, the main foreign language taught, a thorough grounding in grammar is given at the expense of speaking.
Although Taiwanese teachers have to cope with large classes, they spend less time teaching than in England; out of a school week of between 35 and 37 hours, junior high staff teach for 20 hours, senior secondary for 16. The remaining time is reserved for preparation and marking.
Buildings and resources were of a higher standard than ours, though subject-specific materials were used less because pupils stay in the same room all day. There was a heavy reliance on textbooks.
Vocational Education in Taiwan: a report from the Office for Standards in Education. HMSO Pounds 6.95