LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair was right when he emphasized that education was the top priority for Britain. It is certainly a major issue in Japan, too. Britain and Japan face real problems in education, but the issues for each country, while interesting to compare, are different and almost equally difficult to solve.

When the Labour Party came to power in 1997, the government determined to make major changes in public education, recognizing that without such improvements Britain could not compete effectively with other developed countries and that the electorate demanded a better system. They have been only partly successful.

Primary education was regarded as the first priority. The curriculum was reformed and there was a reversion in primary schools to some of the older teaching methods designed to improve performance in the “three Rs” — reading, writing and arithmetic. Standards do seem to have improved as a result.

The next problem was how to improve secondary education where the “comprehensives” (schools covering the widest range of abilities and subjects) were the norm, the emphasis being essentially egalitarian. Teaching classes with children of differing abilities was a difficult task; often the brighter pupils were held back as a result. Specialist schools and sixth form (pre-university) schools were developed.

At the same time a major effort was put into improving and expanding the examination system. This was only partly successful. Some parents and teachers complained that overemphasis on examination results meant that the fundamental purposes of education were being overlooked. Schoolchildren had to take examinations each year, and unless they obtained good grades they would fail to obtain entry to university. The summer examination season became an ordeal for pupils, teachers and parents. Employers and universities, however, complained that standards were being undermined in the process.

A further problem has been how to maintain discipline without excluding too many obstreperous pupils. Bullying remains an issue in many schools.

The government has aimed to increase considerably the proportion of young people going on to university, although it has not thought through the funding implications.

In the postwar years university education was generally free for British students, but the government, unable to meet the full costs, has imposed an annual levy, subject to a means test, on university students. This has, however, been inadequate to cover the rising costs of the universities. University teachers are generally underpaid, and funds for research have been inadequate.

It now seems likely that universities will be allowed, and indeed required, to charge top-up fees. The biggest problem has been how to recruit adequate numbers of competent students and teachers in mathematics, the sciences and technology. Too many students have been opting for the humanities or social sciences, which are, sometimes mistakenly, thought to be easier subjects.

Not surprisingly the job of secretary of state for education has been a difficult one. Teachers unions, university councils, examination bodies and parents have all been sources of trouble for the minister. The last minister, Estelle Morris, began well, but was overwhelmed by the problems she faced. In a rare moment of honesty, humility and self-criticism for a politician, she resigned saying that she recognized she was not up to the job.

Recently the BBC aired a television program about problems in Japanese education. It primarily focused on boys in their late teens who apparently felt so overwhelmed by various pressures that they had become “hiki-komori” (withdrawn shut-ins). It was alleged on the program that up to “a million” of these young people stayed in their rooms, refused to go to school or speak to their parents, let alone do anything to help around the house.

Parents were reluctant to talk about their children’s problems or seek psychiatric help for reasons of shame. The figure quoted sounds exaggerated, but when the program went on to depict a cram school, or “juku,” where young children crammed to pass exams, it was easy to understand why some young Japanese simply could not cope.

At the juku shown in the film, boys and girls worked all day without intermission on various subjects and then faced examinations in the evening. They were not allowed to go to their crowded dormitories until they passed the exams. In some cases, this meant working till 1 or 2 in the morning. If to the pressures of the crammers are added pressures from teachers and parents as well as frequent bullying, it is hardly surprising that some young people drop out.

Yet many Japanese complain against the new more liberal curriculum and deplore the decline in basic standards that they say is undermining Japan’s ability to compete in the world. Certainly high Japanese standards of basic education have been important factors in Japan’s postwar economic success, but Japan is no longer essentially a manufacturing economy. Its future is going to depend on value-added products and entrepreneurial flair. This requires individuality and imagination. These are qualities that the old system often suppressed.

A major element missing from much of modern education in Japan has been the encouragement to question received wisdom.

Above all, youngsters in Japan and Britain need to be motivated. A little ambition is a good thing and “the nail that sticks out” should not be hammered down, as has been the custom in Japan.

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