Britain may have to swallow some of its pride and adopt seemingly alien Japanese and Taiwanese educational practices if it is to compete with the Pacific Rim in the next century.
Building schools around a quadrangle, as in Taiwan and Hong Kong, could make it easier to supervise children during breaks and protect them from unwanted outside influences. Teachers may find they deliver lessons more effectively from a 4inch-high stage at the front of the class, and headteachers may want to consider checking children's homework books to see whether teachers are marking them properly.
Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University and other school-effectiveness researchers have concluded that such strategies are worth examining after reviewing the maths attainment of primary children in nine countries.
The study, which covers Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Taiwan, the UK and the US, is attempting to identify the factors at national, school and class levels that are associated with successful academic and social results.
Their research has again confirmed that Taiwanese and Hong Kong children achieve far higher scores in computational and higher-order maths tests than their British and American contemporaries and that the range of achievement is far greater in English-speaking countries.
The researchers are still working out why this should be so, but one of their preliminary conclusions is that "in English-speaking countries the system and technology of education is so weak that it requires unusually effective principals or unusually good inter-staff relations to generate effective schools".
Some US states are trying to close the East-West gap by lengthening their school years - Japanese schools open for 225 days a year. And although Professor Reynolds did not recommend that British schools should follow suit, he told the European Conference on Education Research that they might profit from Far-Eastern quality-monitoring procedures. Taiwanese children, for example, are expected to report to parents nightly on what they have done in each subject, and principals randomly sample their homework books.
British and US schools should also be more concerned with the range of educational achievements as well as the average, Professor Reynolds said. English-speakers too often accepted that it was inevitable - even desirable - that some pupils would fail, but Pacific Rim countries did not share this view. It was therefore common to see a Taiwanese or Japanese class waiting for the slowest child to solve a problem before moving on to other work.
Professor Reynolds also said it might be worth experimenting with more simple "technologies" that all staff can manage, such as direct whole-class instruction. In Britain, over-stretched teachers might find themselves with a class of nine-year-olds who had reading ages ranging from 4.5 to 12. These children might be working collaboratively in groups in a classroom that contained up to three adult helpers. Co-ordinating such classes was far harder than the front-of-class instruction that took up 70-80 per cent of the school day in Pacific Rim countries.
Professor Reynolds acknowledged that it was dangerous to propose direct transplants of educational practices because factors that promote success may only work within certain cultural contexts. But he added: "As international management thinking has been revolutionised by the willingness to try out Japanese practices the education industry might experiment in the same way . . . Potentially effective practices do not cease at the white cliffs of Dover. "
World class schools: a preliminary analysis of data, by David Reynolds, Charles Teddlie, and the ISERP team, Department of Education, Newcastle upon Tyne.