In 2010 Michael Gove was left stunned in China. The new Education Secretary visited a classroom and was shown a “thick book with screeds of Chinese characters”.
He was told this was a compendium of research papers published by people from the school in academic journals. Gove congratulated the school on the high quality of its teachers who had produced such impressive work. But no! He was informed the dense academic papers had been written by pupils at the school. I suspect Gove should not have taken the word of his handlers on that.
But there’s a lesson there for the rest of us. We should be wary of looking at these latest Pisa rankings and assuming the Chinese education system is the most impressive in the world. For a start, these results cover only Shanghai, China’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city. Those results are unlikely to be representative of the rest of the country. Spending on schools in the provinces tends to be significantly lower. The Shanghai results also do not cover the children of migrant workers in the city, which is no great surprise since these kids are treated as second-class citizens and most of them attend substandard schools. We might also wonder why, if Chinese schools are so fabulous, around a third of well-off Chinese people reportedly aspire to send their children to secondary school abroad.
The writer is the author of ‘Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve heard about China is Wrong’