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An education advisory panel to the prime minister on Friday submitted an interim report calling for drastic changes in the current education system that would nurture volunteer spirit among students by requiring them to do community service.

The report also emphasized the importance of fostering a sense of self-reliance and originality in individual children by discarding the conventional idea of a standardized education.

This is apparently an attempt to develop more capable future generations in an increasingly competitive world and at a time when Japan’s economic power is on the decline.

The proposals are among 17 suggestions the National Commission on Educational Reform outlined in its interim report to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

The 26-member panel, which is headed by Nobel Physics laureate Reona (Leo) Esaki, will draft a final report by the end of the year, after conducting public hearings based on the interim report.

“School curricula should be changed to give students diversified educational opportunities to help develop their individual abilities,” Esaki said, adding that panel members hope the proposals will provoke public debate.

The proposal to require students between elementary and high school to participate in extracurricular activities reflected the members’ anxiety about conventional education, which focuses too narrowly on classroom studies.

In the report, the panel underlines the pressing need to reform the nation’s education system, which it says stands at a crossroads and will be useless unless something is done.

The panel cited serious problems such as bullying, truancy and violence among young people and proposed that elementary and junior high school students spend two weeks performing community service, while high school students spend one month.

The panel did not specify what kind of services the students should be required to perform.

If enacted, the report says the proposal would change the conventional idea of education, which mainly focuses on classroom studies, and will give students “opportunities to widen their views on society while working for others.”

The report also says that in the future, the nation should consider mandatory community service of one year for everyone aged 18. It lists caring for the aged as one of the mandatory social activities.

Other proposals include abolishing the age limit that prevents people from entering universities or colleges before they turn 18 and creating professional schools, such as law schools and business schools, to train experts.

The report also suggests merging about half of the national junior high and high schools so single six-year secondary educations can be offered. The reform would help ease the current “examination hell” and would provide students with a more diversified secondary education, it says.

The panel also said academic years at Japanese universities and colleges, which usually begin in April, should instead begin in September.

The report says that while many of the panel’s members felt the need to revise the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education to suit present needs, the panel has not reached any decisions on how to revise it. The report nonetheless says discussions should start toward revising the law.

Mori is keen to revise the law, which has served as the basis of all subsequent education laws and ordinances, to include clauses emphasizing the importance of Japan’s traditional values and culture.

The prime minister has already expressed his government’s intention to draft bills to achieve education reforms based on the panel’s discussions and in his policy speech before the Diet the day before he said education reform will be a key theme during next year’s regular legislative session.

The panel also includes school teachers and representatives from various circles, such as business and the arts.

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