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The first of two parts. The second part will appear on Wednesday’s Opinion Page.

The importance of improving standards of basic education has been recognized for some years by all the main political parties in Britain. It is agreed that teaching methods must change and that the curriculum must put more emphasis on the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic). But school teachers do not accept some of the measures that the government, backed by public opinion, want to take.

There are good arguments in favor of some modern teaching methods that put the main emphasis on project work and are designed to encourage children to develop their own individual talents. But these methods required well-trained and inspired teachers, as well as children who are self-disciplined and given appropriate help and encouragement by their parents. Unfortunately, there are not enough teachers of the required caliber and increasing numbers of children, especially from single-parent families, lack self-discipline and parental supervision. Another problem is the number of children from immigrant communities who lack necessary linguistic skills to take proper advantage of such modern teaching methods. Industry and commerce increasingly complain that their new recruits from schools lack basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

Despite considerable opposition from teachers unions wedded to modern teaching methods, teachers have been forced to revert to more classroom teaching. Reading ability has been improved by the use of phonics and arithmetic by repetition of the “times tables” and by mental arithmetic exercises in class. As a result, many of those now going from primary to secondary schools have better basic skills than those who entered secondary schools in earlier years.

In order to ensure that standards are maintained and continue to improve, a series of national tests have been devised and much to the fury of teachers league, tables of results are being published. The teachers argue that these are unfair to teachers who work in areas with large immigrant populations and deprived single parent families. But the government has not given in. The schools inspectorate has been strengthened and checks have become much more rigorous. These have been the main reasons, for a sustained attack by teachers on the integrity of the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead.

Incentive plans and rewards for good teachers are being instituted, and teachers are to be subject to annual assessments of their performance so that the better teachers can be promoted and the worst weeded out. These measures have aroused resentment among teachers who see them as a slur on their integrity and independence.

The relationship between the “New Labor” government and the teachers is as fraught as it was under the last Conservative administration. The secretary of state for education and employment, who has a reputation as a left winger, has shown the same kind of courage and determination in standing up to the teachers’ unions as he has shown in overcoming the handicap of being blind.

After the war, there were two main types of secondary schools in Britain. There were so-called grammar schools that provided traditional education in the arts and sciences, and the so-called secondary modern schools that were supposed to provide a more practical skills-based education for those whose work would be more manual than intellectual. Children took the so-called “11 plus examination” (an exam taken when they were 11 years old). The results of this examination provided the basis for deciding which type of school a child should attend.

Educators and parents thought it unfair to make such a momentous decision about a child’s future at such a young age, particularly as children develop at different rates. This led to the abolition of secondary modern schools as well as of many of the old grammar schools and their replacement by so-called comprehensive schools providing both intellectual and practical education.

Some of these schools gave a good and flexible education; others, especially in urban and deprived areas, were at best inadequate and the performance of their pupils in examinations was low. The government is determined to improve the performance of these schools, even going so far as to bring in private-sector managers to achieve this.

Teachers who put the emphasis on equality as such, rather than the more rational concept of equality of opportunity and who were firmly opposed to ability-streaming — which they regarded as elitist — continue to work against the reforms that are needed. They command support among “old labor,” who would like to see the end of the remaining grammar schools and of any system of selection by merit. They also regard private education as unfair, if not immoral.

The struggle to improve education in Britain’s schools has not been won. Some teachers are ready to take industrial action in support of the status quo, but progress has been made and the government will have to be persistent in the pursuit of reform and improvement. They will need to ensure that in so doing, they are not too prescriptive over the curriculum and that individuality is not suppressed in favor of conformity. They should also ensure that when extra funding becomes available, it goes to schools and not to the education bureaucracy.

To the outside observer Japan faces one problem similar to Britain: Its teachers union appears to be even more wedded to outdated ideology than their British opposite numbers. A worship of egalitarianism does not, however, seem to have been accompanied in Japan by the espousal of modern teaching methods with their emphasis on individual project work. Classroom teaching has ensured that basic standards are maintained, but what seems to us an overemphasis on knowledge and on conformity seems to have led to a suppression of individuality and held back personal development.

Japanese standards of basic education are admired in Britain, but other features of the Japanese system would not be generally acceptable in Britain. Bullying in schools is a problem everywhere, but reports of bullying in Japanese schools leading to children committing suicide arouse much concern. There have also been reports that indiscipline in some schools has made the life of teachers unbearable. Some Japanese conservatives think that the cause of this breakdown is the attempt to encourage more individuality and that the answer is even greater emphasis on conformity, but very few in Britain would subscribe to such reactionary views.

Some foreign observers think that the Japanese stress on a strictly egalitarian approach to education is a hypocritical facade. Private education seems to be flourishing and many children who attend state schools are pushed hard by their ambitious parents who supervise homework and ensure that their children attend private cram schools (“juku”). These children and their parents are demonstrating that the egalitarian state system is morally bankrupt. This would not, of course, be admitted by the bureaucrats in the Japanese Ministry of Education who attempt to control every aspect of what Japanese children learn and are as much to blame as the teachers unions for the straitjacket that encloses Japanese education.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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