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What we need to learn from the tiger mothers

I asked the same question in each city and I got the same answer. The minister of education in Taipei, a high-school teacher in Shanghai and a university professor in Seoul said the same thing. "How", I asked, "do you explain your pupils' outstanding performance in international education league tables?"

I was in a privileged situation: over a week, I spent time in Taiwan, Shanghai, Beijing and South Korea, working with teachers and researchers, with education administrators and ministers, in some of the world's highest-performing education systems. In theory, I was giving a series of lectures - but mostly I wanted to ask questions about what worked, how it worked and why.

In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, Shanghai, South Korea and Taiwan, together with Singapore and Hong Kong, topped the charts. Fifteen-year-olds in Shanghai came top in reading, maths and science. South Korea came second in reading and fourth in maths. Taiwan was fifth in maths. The 2009 PISA results read like a roll-call for what some commentators call the "Asian century", and they have led Western politicians from New York to Paris to wonder what the secret is.

In England, the drive for education reform takes many shapes: curriculum reform to benchmark curricula - especially maths curricula - against the curriculum content of the East, reform of school supply to bring in new and diverse providers, reform of teacher education and training, reform of reward structures, reform of assessment. The policy flux is dizzying.

In fact, the lessons are complex. In South Korea, education is centralised; there is concern that for all the success, schools place too much emphasis on rote learning. In Shanghai, from the 1980s, a process of examination reform moved away from multiple choice to a more open curriculum based on school-based curriculum development, with museums and other cultural organisations partnering schools. In Taiwan, budgets and staffing are tightly controlled by regional authorities. In South Korea, schools are infused with ICT; in Shanghai, ICT is less developed. In Taiwan and South Korea, municipal authorities lead the system; in Shanghai, the city authority has pioneered what we might call school-to-school support: weaker schools are partnered with a stronger school. But schooling structures do not seem to be the answer to my question.

So what was the answer in Taipei, Shanghai and Seoul? In all three cities, my question produced an embarrassed laugh, and then the same answer: parental support. Everybody I spoke to - the minister, the teacher and the professor, as well as the students, the taxi drivers and the others - thought that what made the difference was the cultural status of education. It's this that produces high expectations, the determination to succeed and the commitment to late-night and weekend homework.

Education matters - not just to the affluent but to all. Indeed, pupil performance in Taiwan and South Korea is producing an unexpected economic challenge: as family size falls and the population ages, and as education succeeds, there are too few workers to undertake low-skill, low-qualification jobs - workers are being brought in from the Philippines and rural China.

Intrinsic benefits

One response to this answer - that the difference is cultural rather than pedagogic - is to be fatalistic: we do not have the Confucian culture that celebrates the importance of learning - not simply as a means for economic and social advancement but for its own sake. Our cultural heroes are not scholars and we do not, by and large, celebrate academic success without a mild embarrassment. But I'm not so sure that it can be left there.

We do need to expect more from our schools and our system, but the lesson I draw from my work in Taiwan, China and South Korea is a different one: there is a powerful intervention space for schools and for government. Above all, schools need to work with parents - and in specific ways. They need to marshal parental support for the things that make the difference: reading at home, working together on homework, providing accurate information about the next steps in learning, and encouraging parents to support learning for its own sake.

The lessons of international experience and of education research are clear: schools matter, and schools make a difference, so we need to continue our focus on the effectiveness of school leadership. Teachers matter more, and make a bigger difference, which means that the quality of pedagogic practice is a correct focus for school improvement. But parents matter most of all, and make the biggest difference of all. The challenge is to help all parents understand the role they play.

For many parents, this is straightforward, but for some - and not a tiny minority - it is not; it is with these parents that schools need to work hardest. One of my lessons from Taiwan, South Korea and Shanghai was that the focus is not always on the instrumental benefits of education - the access it provides to a better job, better prospects, higher education - but on its intrinsic merits. Everyone who works in a school understands that education matters. The success of the Pacific Rim systems is that this is widely shared. If we are going to close the gap, it's where schools, and policy more generally, need to focus.

Chris Husbands is director of the Institute of Education, University of London.

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