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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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee




Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.