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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage