Where East does not meet West

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Peter Newsam looks at how Japan and the UK are preparing their schools for the 21st century. In recent educational debates it has sometimes proved impossible to distinguish fact from opinion. To avoid that, in these notes and comments on Japan's school system, facts are in indented italic type, and opinions in standard roman type.

In 1947, Japan created a 6,3,3, school system. This consists of six years of elementary (primary) school, starting at the age of six (Grade 1). Then follow three years of lower secondary, grades 7-9, at which point compulsory education ends. This is then followed by three years of upper secondary school, grades 10-12.

Other than in a few of the private lower secondary schools, there appears to be no setting or streaming or repeating a grade during the years of compulsory school attendance. In contrast, upper secondary schools are diverse and entry to them intensely competitive. Herein lies the biggest single difference between Japan, and for that matter the other "tiger" economies, and ourselves. Whereas we still attempt to build diverse forms of secondary school directly on to an elementary school base, these countries build diversity on to higher general standards uniformly achieved at a later stage within a toughly managed secondary school system.

Japan retains a centrally planned school system. The curriculum, the standard number of school hours to be spent on each subject at each grade until the end of compulsory schooling, space standards, the school meals service, the educational programme for the 21st century - these are all planned. Plans are put into effect by the minister after receiving advice from the National Council on Educational Reform, created in 1984.

Since 1948, Japan has been successful in the marketplace and can be assumed to understand how markets work. The Japanese find nothing inconsistent between commercial success in world markets and a determination to apply human intelligence systematically (that is, to plan) to ensure that the educational needs of their economy and their citizens are met.

As part of its planning function, Monbusho, Japan's ministry of education, science, sports and culture , collects and publishes detailed information about the school system. The average height of Japanese 14-year-old boys, for example, has increased from 147.3 cm in 1950 to 165.1cm in 1994; that of girls has increased from 146.6 cm to 156.6 cm over the same period. This may have something to do with the fact that 98.3 per cent of elementary school pupils take a full meal at school. As for space standards, in elementary and lower secondary schools, these have increased from 4.8 sq metres per child in 1965 to 10.3 sq metres in 1994. And so on.

School meals, space standards, the health of schoolchildren? In the 1950s and '60s we led the world in systematic attention to issues of this kind. Nor were annual reports from our Ministry of Education then regarded as superfluous.

"Monbusho lays down national curriculum standards for all school levels, from kindergarten to upper secondary, to secure an optimum level of education based on the principle of equal educational opportunity for all." Furthermore, "broad guidelines for the objectives and standard content of each school subject are specified in the course of study for each of the four school levels." Each course of study is prepared by Monbusho and "reviewed by the curriculum council, an advisory body to the minister of education".

If the Japanese national curriculum with its "broad guidelines" is, in some ways, less detailed in its prescriptions than ours, the explanation may lie in their belief that for a national curriculum to be effective it has to be closely related to textbooks that incorporate what has to be learnt.

All elementary and secondary schools "are required to use textbooks in the classroom". Textbooks have to be authorised by the minister: "the authorisation of textbooks means that, after examining draft textbooks written and compiled by private authors, the minister approves those which he deems suitable to be used as textbooks in schools." Advice on what is suitable comes from "the deliberations of the Textbook Authorisation Council". Incidentally, because "compulsory education shall be free" (Japanese Constitution), "the national government has been supplying textbooks free of charge to all children enrolled in compulsory schools" (that is, elementary and lower secondary schools) . . ."and private schools".

Presumably, we would not wish ministers to have anything to do with authorising textbooks, but the idea that all children could rely on having individual access to well-prepared textbooks, rather than the clutter of photocopied scraps of paper so many have increasingly to put up with, is attractive. We produce excellent textbooks in this country, but too few schools seem able to afford to provide them.

In 1989 Monbusho published revised courses of study for each of the four levels of school. The third of four objectives of the revision was: "to attach more importance to the nurturing of children's capacity to cope positively with changes in society, as well as to the provision of a sound base for fostering children's creativity. Children's willingness to learn how to learn is also to be stimulated."

Formulations of this kind, in the UK, tend to evoke braying sounds from the Centre for Policy Studies and similar organisations. Yet what Japan is now proposing to do, in this and other changes it is encouraging, is close to what we developed in the '60s and early '70s. It may be that the Japanese have misjudged the needs of the future; alternatively, it may be that we are at risk of abandoning ways of educating children that are well-suited to the needs of the first half of the next century rather than to the first half of this one.

Monbusho's report has nothing to say about inspection, league tables, vouchers or the way children are or should be grouped in classrooms. On this last point, of the nine pictures of children at school, two ("elementary school pupils read from their textbook" and one of junior high pupils, heads down, engaged in mathematics) show children seated in rows. The seven others show children from elementary schools to senior high schools in various informal settings.

Illustrations of this kind, strikingly similar to those included in the 1967 Plowden Report, do not reliably depict what is actually happening in schools; but they do suggest that Monbusho is relaxed about classroom organisation.

In Japan, 4.9 per cent of the relevant age-groups go to private lower secondary schools. That rises to 30 per cent of the age group going to private upper secondary schools. The pupil:teacher ratio in lower secondaries (May 1994) was 1:20.8 in private schools and 1:16.9 in local public schools (that is, publicly-maintained schools). At upper secondaries, the ratio of 1:22. 3 at private schools compared with 1:15.7 at local public schools. Private schools are almost twice as expensive to run as public schools.

The cost comparison comes from a recent Monbusho survey of 600 public and 350 private schools and, as staff costs are ordinarily such a high proportion of total costs, is difficult to understand. But what is clear is that in Japan smaller class size is not one of the reasons why parents choose to send children to private schools.

The standard number of yearly school hours (defined as 50 minutes) which Monbusho lays down for elementary and lower secondary schools varies from a total of 850 hours at grade 1 to 1,015 at grade 6, the end of elementary school. Lower secondary school hours are constant at 1,050. At Grade 1, Japanese language is afforded 306 hours and arithmetic 136 hours. By the end of lower secondary school, each of these subjects is given 140 hours.

The example above illustrates the importance language is given in the early years of elementary school. By grade 6, pupils are supposed to be able to write and interpret 800 or more Chinese characters, so the importance of an early start is not surprising. That an acceptable degree of literacy is soon acquired is suggested by the reduction in hours spent on language from 306 in grade 1 to 210 in grade 6. The equivalent in the UK would be to spend about an hour-and-a-half each day on reading and writing during key stage 1 and not less than an average of an hour a day throughout key stage 2.

"In the area of compulsory education, one half of the salary of educational personnel is paid for by the central government." This enables government to influence the distribution of teachers "making possible a new method of classroom instruction, in which classes are taught by more than one teacher". As for salaries, "in order to maintain and improve the standard of education, the law governing special measures on salaries of national and local public school educational personnel was enacted in 1974, under which, compared with other public employees, special improvements have since been incorporated into teachers' salaries three times".

We are familiar with team teaching and had the Houghton Report on teachers' pay in 1974, though there has been something of a lull since then.

Monbusho's budget is 7.9 per cent of the national budget; 13.4 per cent if government debt service and various transfers are excluded.

With a population under half that of Japan and even less to spend than that would imply, the UK cannot compete with the sums of money Japan spends on education and research. Something like Pounds 560 million went on scientific research in 1994 and, in its financial arrangements (for example, on upgrading the quality of school buildings) Japan places a heavy emphasis on investment generally. This sketch of some aspects of the Japanese school system is not intended to suggest that much of what they do could profitably be incorporated into ours; nor that all is well with their schools.

Too many Japanese schoolchildren commit suicide and the Central Council for Education is seeking "to reduce the severe 'examination hell' competition that exists among students at upper secondary levels". A further worry is bullying in many schools; and there is a long list of other aspects of Japan's school system that, it is generally recognised by those managing and using it, need to be improved.

All the same, there does seem to be a gap between the achievement of their school system and ours, and it is in their favour.

This prompts three reflections. The first is that the education systems, the Japanese among them, which are most successful in preparing children for the 21st century increasingly base diverse routes to higher, further or other forms of education or training on some stage or grade level achieved, with the aid of systematically prepared textbooks, during secondary education. "Increasingly" because systems do not stand still and it is not long since the French reorganised their colleges, which all attend and at which streaming or setting only begins after two years of secondary school.

The UK is now almost alone in failing to recognise that diversity based on an elementary school (primary) base leads to hierarchy and a high failure rate at the end of secondary schooling. It follows that ideas such as "a grammar school in every town", by creating further divisions at the age of 11, if implemented would reinforce the long tail of failure that is the distinguishing feature of our secondary education.

The second is that growing centralisation allied to an uneasy belief that the systematic use of intelligence (planning) in the management of our education affairs is somehow undesirable, is leading us into feeble or inappropriate applications of a consumerproducer model. That in turn leads to notions, for example, that diversity is an end in itself rather than a means, which may or may not be successful, for achieving some educational objective, such as a general improvement in educational standards. Hence the promotion of voucher systems, "zero tolerance" for this or that and a series of fits and starts "initiatives" which have little to do with a well-considered approach to the country's educational needs in the next century.

Third, that there is a gap between educational outcomes in the UK and those of an increasing number of other school systems. What is not so clear is whether that gap is widening and the degree to which some of the "reforms" of recent years may actually have accelerated that widening process. Bearing in mind that most other countries have proposals for improving their own systems and will not stand still in order to help us catch up, stabilising what looks like a worsening relative position and then reversing it might well take 15 to 20 years of concerted effort.

We still have many excellent schools in this country and it must be possible for us to develop a school system to match the best elsewhere. Possible, certainly; how likely is another matter altogether.

Sir Peter Newsam is a former director of the Institute of Education, University of London. He has just returned from a working visit to Japan

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today