We could at least turn up in order to do badly

Scotland's dismal performance in a recent international test of attainment in maths and science has provided powerful ammunition for those dissatisfied with the standard of education supplied to our young people.

While three east Asian countries - Singapore, Japan and South Korea - notched up the highest scores in the most comprehensive international study of academic attainment so far, Scotland could only rank 30th in maths and 26th in science.

Our maths score was lower than the world average, while the science score was only one point above the world average. Half a million 12- and 13-year-olds from 41 countries took part in the tests.

Since then, several politicians and educationists have used the results of the tests to support their particular ideas about what should be happening in Scottish schools. One supporter of setting in Scottish schools pointed out that Singapore achieved the highest scores in both the maths and science tests because schools in Singapore rigorously set pupils according to ability.

A politician with an eye on costs dismissed the idea that smaller classes in Scotland would lead to higher standards of attainment because, after all, pupils in Japan learn in some very large classes.

An opponent of more homework for Scottish pupils pointed to the survey which showed that schools in the United States provided their pupils with considerable amounts of homework, but still did not perform as well as schools in countries where homework requirements are much lower.

But it is wrong to say that high standards in one country are due to a single component of its education system or that teaching and learning strategies which are effective in one society can successfully be transplanted to a totally different one.

The academic performance of a nation undoubtedly reflects its economic, social and political culture and not just what goes on in schools. The societies of Japan, South Korea and Singapore, for example, are highly conformist, and teachers generally command considerable respect. Education is viewed as a powerful means of personal and national improvement.

The traditional teaching methods which are the norm in Japan and Singapore might not be so acceptable in more socially-diverse countries such as Scotland.

It is equally dangerous to cherry-pick the best ideas from countries with high international test scores without also noting the disadvantages. In Japan and other parts of east Asia, I have visited some of the most effective schools in the world with impressive levels of attainment, excellent motivation and good discipline. But I have also witnessed highly ineffective schools with unacceptably low attainment, unmotivated pupils and the sort of indiscipline Scottish teachers would never tolerate.

In Japan, stiff exam competition raises standards but it also places enormous pressures on pupils which, the Japanese themselves admit, is one of the principal causes of a worrying array of problems which includes excessive bullying, school-refusing and pupil-suicides.

In South Korea, female pupils face structural discrimination which results in the majority of places at top universities being taken up by male students who then go on to take up most of the country's top jobs.

In Singapore, pupils in low-status schools are often disillusioned and dispirited by the lofty attainments of their peer groups in the state's top schools.

Schools in countries such as Japan and South Korea also demand a degree of uniformity and conformity in which students learn by instruction rather than by discovery.

Japan, a nation of more than 120 million people, has only won a fraction of the number of science Nobel prizes which have been achieved by British scientists.

But that is not to say that we cannot learn from good practice elsewhere. There are prominent strands in the education systems of all the top achieving nations, including tough national standards and a high degree of parental interest.

Questions have to be asked about Scottish schooling. Are our pupils being stretched far enough? Is there a need for a more precise national curriculum with more demanding standards and more rigorous testing? Is more competition between pupils and schools a good thing or a bad thing? What can be done about unruly pupils and the problem of underachieving pupils in schools in deprived areas?

But the principal lesson from the recent international tests must be the acceptance that Scotland's education standards are not quite as high as many people like to think. Not only were the test performances of Scottish pupils disappointing but, on the day of the test, Scotland had one of the highest absentee figures. On that score alone, Scottish schools can certainly do a lot better.

John Greenlees has been working as a writer in Japan and east Asia.

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