Recommendations by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisory panel on education reform has drawn praise from some quarters, but other experts are questioning whether the proposals will be effective in improving the quality of public education.

The Education Rebuilding Council, comprising 17 experts from business, academia and government, proposed in its report released Friday such measures as upgrading moral education as a special subject and giving schools the option of holding Saturday classes.

It said teachers at public schools should work under a performance-based salary system. Also, universities and graduate schools should accept more foreign professors and students, and some some classes should be conducted in English.

The report embodies policies in the panel’s first set of recommendations compiled in January, including increasing class hours by 10 percent at public schools and taking measures to instill discipline in students.

Abe, who has placed education reform high on his agenda, wants to adopt the proposals identified as urgent by changing related laws and academic guidelines, according to panel members. Based on some proposals in the first report, the government submitted some revisions, now before the Upper House, to education related laws.

Jun Yoshinaga, an associate professor of educational methods and content at Kobe University, said the council’s recommendations are needed.

Bringing back Saturday classes would help teachers who already face a heavy workload to better prepare for classes, he said. In his opinion, two Saturday classes a month would be appropriate.

Reinforcing moral education at elementary schools and junior high schools is necessary, Yoshinaga said, although teachers will have to get behind the proposal if it is going to be a success.

Summary of proposals

Kyodo, staff reports

* Allow public schools to offer Saturday classes. Local boards of education and schools would decide whether to have such classes.

* Make moral education a special subject at elementary and junior high schools. Students would not be evaluated by numerical assessment.

* Introduce an evaluation-based pay scale for public school teachers.

* Set up support teams consisting of retired police officers, lawyers and clinical psychiatrists to help solve problems at the local level.

* Promote introduction of a system allowing parents and children to choose which school to attend, and allocate funding for schools in line with a school’s achievements, such as the number of students choosing to enroll there.

* Instruct universities to allow more students to enter in September.

* Set a goal that at least five Japanese universities and graduate schools should make it into the world’s top 30 within the next 10 years, with at least one making it into the top 10.

“The panel’s proposals aim to improve students’ academic performances and enhance their respect for social morality as a member of a community, which I think have been lacking due to excessive individualism,” he said. “I support the (panel’s) ideas.”

However, critics of the panel said its ideas could harm the quality of public education.

Takaji Asakura, a high school teacher in Kanagawa Prefecture, is concerned that resuming Saturday classes would increase the burden on educators.

The five-day school week was introduced in schools in phases starting in September 1992, reaching full implementation in April 2002 as part of a more “relaxed” education policy.

“If one school (in a local area) begins Saturday classes every week, others would follow. Then our burdens would increase unless more teachers are provided,” he said. “I wonder if the panel looks at the reality facing teachers.”

Criticism of the Education Rebuilding Council has also come from within the Liberal Democratic Party, which Abe heads.

A group of six Lower House members published an essay in the June issue of Sekai magazine that states the council failed to review the relationship between the relaxed education system and academic performance, or to examine whether and why students’ morality has declined.

Currently, elementary and junior high schools have a class on morality once a week.

However, the panel, which sees bullying and crimes committed by children as a sign of a loss of morality, argued the current setup is insufficient because many schools use ethics classes for other purposes, such as school events, and that government-authorized textbooks should be used with supplementary materials to teach morality.

Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of educational sociology at Nihon University in Tokyo, said strengthening moral education may result in students being forced into one particular standard of morality — set by the government.

“If citizenship would be taught in morality classes, I support (the panel’s idea.) But the panel seems to be proposing ethics education to teach students particular moral values that the government prefers,” Hirota said. “Such a direction is the opposite of a multicultural society, in which people live with diverse values.”

He said the most important measure to improve academic performance and morality would be to allocate a bigger budget for education so more teachers can look after students more carefully.

Japan’s percentage of government spending on elementary, junior high and high school education to gross domestic in fiscal 2001 came to 3.5 percent, far below the 5.1 percent average ratio among the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to government data.

According to its latest report, the panel is not seeking a major spending increase for education.

“What the panel has proposed is to reform (public education) by asking (teachers and schools) to make more efforts and increasing competition among them,” Hirota said.

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