British school children can't compete with China or Russia believes Durham academic

A Durham University professor believes the self-sacrifice of the Chinese and Russian approach to education can never be replicated in Britain

Professor Julian Elliot, Professor of Education at Durham University
Professor Julian Elliot, Professor of Education at Durham University

British pupils will never be able to compete educationally with China or former Soviet countries and a battle to top international league tables is a fruitless task.

This stark message from a professor of education at a North East university comes as Britain is revealed as having slipped to 26th place globally in the educational attainment levels of 15-year-olds.

He said British school children won’t ‘roll up their sleeves’ and work hard enough while he also criticises the Government for attempting to cherry pick policies to raise standards against an entrenched tide of opinion on the value of education.

Professor Julian Elliot, based at Durham University, said: “The issue is that we either say we want to be like the people in these countries or not. We could try but our society would not embrace that way of working, so we shouldn’t try to play that game.

“In some places 85% of pupils have night classes. Some students go to school six days a week. People here don’t want to be in a ‘Tiger Mum’ environment.

“In Confucian societies the belief going back all that time is the belief in the importance of being educated.

“If you want to be the best pianist in the country you have to play the piano for five hours a day and most people would say it’s not a price we would want to pay to be that good.”

His comments come as the UK’s performance in major international education rankings has stagnated, leaving the nation’s teenagers lagging far behind their peers in East Asian countries and cities like Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Despite the UK spending more than average on education, there has been no change in the country’s abilities in reading, maths and science in the past six years, according to the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study 2012.

The UK failed to make the top 20 for any of the subjects, coming 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science.

The AHT (National Association of Head Teachers) said there was much to be learned from studies comparing different countries’ education systems but that too often, cherry-picked data from reports like PISA eclipsed the lessons we could be learning.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT, said: “Collecting data from sources like PISA can be extremely valuable as is learning from other countries. Unfortunately, the raw data has too often been misused by politicians to drive their own agendas. They see what they want to see and ignore information which conflicts. This results in shallow and damaging interpretations which detract from the value of the study.”

Countries where there is a more unequal economic base also tend to fare worse educationally in the league table, said Prof Elliott, due to centuries of entrenched sense of the individual and collective.

He said: “In Britain we encourage children to have their own opinions and to be individual and autonomous and self-determining. You will get youngsters in schools from infant school saying ‘I’m not doing it’ You don’t get that in a Russian school, it’s not heard of.

“There’s also competiveness from those countries. Even disadvantaged people believe education is still a route out. Kids from the North East of England from disadvantaged estates, they do not believe that if they roll their sleeves up and work hard, it will transform their lives and I spend a lot of time working in disadvantaged areas.

“We need to try and get our teachers better and get youngsters to believe about buying into education.”

More than half a million 15-year-olds from 65 countries took part in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) study last year, which assesses how students could use their knowledge and skills in real life, rather than just repeating facts and figures.

In Prof Elliott’s research, which is due to be published in the academic journal Comparative Education next year, he explains how it is not possible to directly import classroom practices from Asia because they are dependent upon attitudes, behaviours and values that are not commonly found in the UK.

He said: “Calls to raise the status of UK teachers continue to be made but, of course, the extent to which a society respects this profession is a reflection of how much it values the process of education itself.”


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