Suffolk to Shanghai

by Guest Blogger, 10 January 2016

Guest blogger, Geoff Barton, dispels some of the education myths portrayed on television with his own first-hand experience from both Suffolk and Shanghai schools. 

I don’t watch a lot of television but when I do it’s never – I mean never - programmes about education. An adolescence of the BBC school drama series Grange Hill taught me that lesson. 

So I haven’t seen the BBC’s drama series Waterloo Road. I haven’t seen the UK television documentaries Educating Essex or Yorkshire or Cardiff. I haven’t seen the BBC’s recent documentary Chinese School, in which five teachers from China took over the education of 50 teenagers in a school in England . 

But I have worked in education for 30 years and, in the past 10, been to several actual Chinese schools. Our comprehensive school in Suffolk, England, has a longstanding partnership with the Yangjing-Juyan Experimental School, a highly successful junior high in Shanghai. 

As everyone knows, Shanghai is one of the top performing education principalities in the world – especially in mathematics. Suffolk, on the other hand, isn’t top-performing. Yet teachers and officials from Shanghai join the annual visit of Shanghai students to our school and warmly welcome our 30 or so students and staff when they make the return visit each autumn term. 

Their interest is in something they believe they lack in their schools – creativity, a sense of independence in their students and a spirit of inquiry. They feel their teaching is mechanical and undifferentiated. 

That’s why the Shanghai education authority continues to send so many students to us – as well as to schools in Australia and the USA. 

And what we see during our return visits is that culture trumps teaching quality. The lessons we see are often textbook-led, focused heavily on closed teacher questions, short student answers, all conducted in an atmosphere of congenial, not oppressive, discipline. 

But our strong view – after taking some of our maths teachers to watch the teaching – is that it’s not what happens in the classroom that makes the real impact on Shanghai students’ performance. It’s what happens at home. 

Because we see students who go home and do at least three hours of work each evening, who often attend private lessons on other days, and who know from their parents that they as students should aim to achieve more highly than their parents. They owe it to their family; they owe it to Shanghai. 

In other words, expectations, aspiration and culture play a very significant part in shaping the motivation of the students. They ensure that there is no poor behaviour. They help to create a work ethic which, whilst impressive, also has an underbelly. We see the stress levels of students, the anxiety of parents, the exhaustion of teachers. 

None of this is to belittle or decry the schooling we see in Shanghai. We are learning much from their uncompromising ambition. But it is a reminder for us to beware of the lure of international envy and its associated assumptions; that if only we did over here what they do over there, then we’d be as successful. 

Education is rarely that simple – except, perhaps, when depicted on television. 

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, a 14-19 comprehensive upper school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England.

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