Lessons from Asia: what is a world-class education?

Sunday 19 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican School Fights

The race is on among nations to create knowledge-fuelled innovation economies. Education is seen as the key. And the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the best way of measuring and ranking which educational systems are winning the global competition for the jobs of tomorrow - or so the growing international consensus goes. Since its outset in 2000, the PISA tests in maths, reading and science have been dominated by fast-growing Asian economies: China, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. In the UK, both government and opposition politicians see our mediocre results as a cause for concern, clamouring for us to ‘catch up’ and improve our international standing. The former education secretary Michael Gove’s proposed ‘Look East’ reforms seek to learn from Asia, whether extending the school day, focusing the curriculum on academic, examined subjects or noting the benefits of rote-learning. Does this mean we are back to learning times tables and historical dates? Middle-class parents, enamoured with the ‘Tiger Mother’ approach, are following suit and aspire for high-scoring children.

But should we be taking PISA so seriously? Critics suggest the study measures no more than students’ ability to recite what their teachers have imparted, and gives no indication of how well students can apply, evaluate or develop what they’ve been taught. And it is precisely these skills of critical thinking, collaboration and innovation – associated with more creative, less prescriptive educational models - that Asian education reformers and employers find lacking in their own graduates. Sceptics have also questioned any link between the test results and economic growth. More fundamentally, some question the assumption underlying PISA that education’s primary goal is to enable economic growth.

Is there knowledge worth teaching beyond that necessary for the ‘knowledge economy’? Does the pursuit of a top PISA ranking risk undermining a more rounded idea of education as enriching our culture and even our politics, as well as our economy? Is ‘Look East’ an example of the best kind of comparative international research, invaluable in forcing homegrown education to stir from complacency? Or is there a danger of trying to ‘cheat’ by finding ready-made, off the peg solutions and a distraction from solving problems closer to home? What exactly is a world-class education anyway?


Lianghuo Fan
professor in education; head, Mathematics & Science Education Research Centre, University of Southampton

Munira Mirza
advisor on arts and philanthropy; former deputy mayor of London for education and culture; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism

Andrew Old
teacher; education blogger, Scenes from the Battleground

Michael Shaw
programme director for online learning, TES

Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives

Cara Bleiman
teacher, Arnhem Wharf Primary School

Produced by
Cara Bleiman teacher, Arnhem Wharf Primary School
Recommended readings
No. 1 Shanghai may drop out of PISA

Last year, China began a major education reform initiative designed to increase student engagement and end student boredom and anxiety — and reduce the importance of standardized test scores.

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, 26 May 2014

Lessons from PISA outcomes

In a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer improvement by national standards alone.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD Observer, 2013

Pisa envy

Research comparing educational achievement between countries is growing. Drawing conclusions from it is harder

Ecomoist, 19 January 2013


Globalization has not only increased competition in world economies but also within and between the education systems.

P. SAHLBERG, Pasi Sahlberg

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