A literal tiger mother. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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How Chinese success in education comes at a high cost

The school day often lasts nine hours – with breaks for eye massages to reduce eye strain and physical activity to keep concentration levels high.

Compare Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, to Liu Weihua and Zhang Xinwu and she comes out looking like a pussy cat. Well before Amy was making her daughters practice their instruments four hours a day, Liu and Zhang were credited with turning their daughter Yiting into an overnight celebrity in their native China, the very crucible of tiger parenting.

Not for singing or dancing on a TV talent show, which is the way most British children find overnight fame. Instead Yiting became famous for being the paragon of everything a Chinese child should be: she brought honour to her family by winning a full scholarship to Harvard. The resulting book, Harvard Girl Liu Yiting: a character training record, became the must-read manual for other Chinese families also seeking the holy grail of a place at an Ivy League college or Oxbridge. It went on to sell two million copies and spawned 70 copycat versions, including Yale Girl and Ivy League’s Not a Dream. All were based on the premise that that with a strict upbringing and intense hard work any Chinese family could win the dream ticket.

Yiting’s parents started early. While still a baby, they placed toys just out of her reach to make her try harder to get them. At primary school, they timed her work to prepare for exams and encouraged her to hold ice in her hands for endurance. At the same time as Harvard Girl became a best-seller, there was one more development which increased the temperature still further in the global hothouse. In 2000, the first results of the Programme for International Student Assessment were published to compare education systems around the world. Across the globe, twenty-six countries put forward a representative sample of their fifteen year olds to be compared in tests on maths, science and reading.

In the early days, China did not take part. But as the number of participants grew, in 2009 it dipped its toe in the water. It entered the children of Shanghai, the country’s most affluent petri dish of achievement, where eighty per cent of children go to university. It was an impressive debut. Immediately Shanghai, with a population the size of Ghana, entered the chart at number one. The result triggered an unprecedented wave of panic among Western countries whose economies had also been slipping down the league. From starting out in the top ten in the first table, the UK had now dropped to twenty-fifth for reading, twenty-eighth for maths and sixteen for science. American and French pupils also scored poorly.

Western politicians rushed to condemn children for not working hard enough. The UK’s then-education secretary, Michael Gove, called it a “Sputnik moment” – after the moment the Americans realised they were falling behind the Russians in the space race.

“We are in a global race,”he warned. “Our children are competing against children in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, and we need to make sure our national curriculum – the standards we set – are as rigorous, as tough, as those on the other side of the world.”

“If that's what they are doing in China… and some of the countries with the best educational standards in the world, we have got to do that here.”

But while Gove may be gone, there is still no sign that his knee-jerk “for God’s sake, knuckle down and get on with some work for once approach” to education is being reversed by his successor. Regiment the national curriculum. Test children at every opportunity was apparently the answer. But also remember that you are dealing with children and you have to be careful what you wish for – let alone how you want to achieve it.

Contrasting western and eastern education has never been a comparison of like with like. A closer look at the classrooms which produce these results shows that China’s success comes at a high cost. And it’s the Chinese themselves who are the first to admit it. In China, children spend more than a month longer in school a year than our children, and the school day lasts nine hours – with breaks for eye massages to reduce eye strain and physical activity to keep concentration levels high. One study found that up to 90 per cent of Asian schoolchildren, including those living in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, are nearsighted. This has been put down to them spending too much time indoors studying and not enough time outside in the sunlight. By comparison, the overall rate of myopia in the UK is between 20 and 30 per cent.

Furthermore the school bell in many countries in the far east is just end of the first shift. Children then move on to cram schools. These are taken so seriously that in neighbouring South Korea, and across the far east, inspectors launch lightning raids to enforce curfews to prevent them teaching pupils past 10pm. Nor are children thriving under the pressure. A  survey of nine- to twelve-year-olds in the eastern province of Zhejiang  by University College London found that more than 80 per cent worried “a lot” about exams, while two thirds feared punishment by their teachers. Look on YouTube and you will find examples of explosive violence by teachers against pupils. When questioned, three-quarters of the Chinese children surveyed say they are also scared of being physically punished by their parents.

Some see no way out. A 2009 study found that twenty-four per cent of 2,500 students in Shanghai there have thought about killing themselves, mostly in response to exam stress. Last March, a boy apparently threw himself out of his classroom window rather than deal with the shame of not excelling in his university entrance exams. But of course supreme irony is that that despite being the envy of every country, the Chinese are calling their education system a failure.

At the same time as western governments strive to make their schools more Asian, Asian governments are trying to make their schools more European and creative. The phrase gaofen dinen has now passed into general useage, meaning students who get high scores but have low ability and never learn to take initiative.

And while we fret here about poor maths scores, the Chinese also point to another test, which did not grab the headlines, which found that in tests of creativity and imagination, their children came fifth from bottom. “The results are shocking,” China Daily warned. “Children had almost no chance to use their imagination. From the first day of school they are pushed into a culture of exams, exams and more exams.”

Changes under discussion at the Chinese Ministry of Education include stopping written homework for primary school pupils and encouraging kids in non-academic extracurricular activities to produce more well-rounded children.

More and more Chinese parents are also seeking to educate their children at home. There has even been a boom in alternative education such as  Waldorf  Steiner schools in China, with the movement now being described as a powerful counter cultural force. One such school, the Chengdu Waldorf school in the South West of the country has a five year waiting list.

At the very heart of this system is Peking University High School deputy principal Jiang Xueqin, who is damning in his assessment of Chinese methods.

“It’s a test-oriented education system, which means that students are taught from a very early age how to beat tests. The failings of a rote-memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning.

“One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores come down.”

This is an extract from “Taming the Tiger Parent” published by Constable/Little, Brown, £8.99

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.


Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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