At an event designed to build bridges between teachers in two countries, a picture emerged of a highly conservative system in Taiwan that is anathema to current thinking in Scotland. Yet the Scottish organisers believe Taiwanese teachers' commitment to education and involvement of parents are among reasons to admire their methods.
There was damning criticism of Taiwanese schools during "Building Bridges: East-West", an event hosted by Glasgow University last week, but it came from within the country. "Student life tends to be dry, stressful and boring, and students have long learning hours, intensive pressure and abnormally frequent tests," said Dan Jau-Wei, of Taipei Municipal University of Education.
The normal school day lasts from 7.30am-4.30pm, but teachers and pupils were under so much pressure to do well that it was common to stay until 9pm - for which teachers received no extra pay.
Taiwan scores highly on several international indicators, but Professor Dan, who did a PhD at Glasgow University about 20 years ago, concentrated on the bigger picture."I am not proud of our good results in science and mathematics because it comes with a high price," he said. "It sacrifices the individual."
He explained that parents took a highly paternalistic approach to education which meant they decided which path of learning their children should follow, and kept a close watch on progress. Learning was a "family business", to the extent that another Taiwanese delegate revealed it was not unusual for parents to phone teachers at home in the evening to discuss how their children were getting on.
Central government used a "heavy hand" in directing education, including curricular structure; subjects such as art, music and PE were marginalised. The emphasis on academic achievement has contributed to a burgeoning higher education sector: Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, had 67 universities in 1996; by 2007, it had 164.
Some Scottish delegates felt there was a balance between the level of commitment in Taiwanese schools and in Scotland. Event organiser Eric Wilkinson, of Glasgow University's faculty of education, said Scottish ministers were "paranoically concerned" about not putting children under too much pressure, but that this should not divert attention from positives in Taiwan, such as flexible school opening hours.
"We need to examine the way institutions work," he said, "to make them more engaging, which probably means having them open for longer than they are at the moment."
He is impressed by the Taiwanese system of dividing secondary education into two three-year blocks. He stressed that he did not mean separate institutions, but two distinct junior and senior sections on the same site.