Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the overwhelming favorite to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister later this month, lists education reform as one of his policy priorities.

Abe’s latest book, “Utsukushii Kuni e (Toward a Beautiful Country),” suggests that the education reform he has in mind is modeled after a similar initiative implemented by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Thatcher, who took power in May 1979, pushed neoconservative reforms based on market principles. She privatized national enterprises one after another and sought to reactivate the moribund economy, derided as a victim of the notorious “British disease,” through deregulation.

As with medicine, reforms have side effects. Thatcherism led to wider income gaps and a deterioration in public health service and education. Displeased with these results, the majority of British voters rejected Thatcherism in the May 1997 parliamentary election.

In its second term, the Thatcher administration set out to mend the tattered British education system and reactivate the economy by implementing radical reforms based on both centralized power and the principle of competition. The 1988 education reform law introduced national school curricula for the first time in British history, and standard national tests to assess student performance. Inspection bodies assessed performance at individual schools and posted the results.

Despite these reforms, students’ reading and arithmetic skills saw little improvement. Gaps in education opportunities widened as education problems worsened. The number of school dropouts and truants increased, many turning to criminal activities. Various social problems were attributed to the deterioration of education.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, asked at a news conference on assuming power in May 1997 to list the three top policy priorities of his administration, replied “education, education, education.” Blair expanded centralized educational reform promoted by the governments of Thatcher and her successor John Major. He also implemented new policies to improve basic scholastic abilities, narrow regional and class-based gaps in opportunity, and deal with the growing challenges in modern education.

Compared with Britain and other Western countries, Japan’s education system, especially compulsory education, has been highly rated. In Asia, Japanese middle-school students score high in scholastic-level tests, along with their South Korean and Singaporean counterparts. Among students of member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese have ranked high in terms of mathematical literacy and problem-solving abilities, despite a recent decline in these scores.

Reading comprehension, however, is another story, as indicated by the OECD-conducted Programs for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000 and 2003 for 15-year-old students in compulsory education. In the 2003 tests of students’ ability to apply their knowledge, Finland ranked No. 1 in reading comprehension, No. 2 in mathematical literacy and No. 3 in problem-solving abilities.

Hideki Wada, in an article on Finnish education published in the August issue of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, writes that education in that country — from preschool to graduate school — is free, including school lunches, transportation and supplementary classes.

He notes that additional education budgets are allocated in some areas plagued by social problems such as unemployment to help prevent gaps in income and the parental enthusiasm for children’s education from contributing to regional differences in scholastic abilities.

Thatcher’s education reform, while modeled after the centralization of power in Japan, sought to improve students’ performance by introducing a market mechanism. Instead of improving performance, though, the initiative unexpectedly widened regional and personal gaps in scholastic levels.

A market mechanism inevitably breeds wider gaps. Whether regional and personal gaps should be narrowed or tolerated is a debatable. Finland has attached importance to narrowing regional gaps in education and now boasts the highest level of measurable scholastic performance among the OECD member nations.

In Britain, affluent parents have moved to regions with higher standards of education after checking school ratings. As a result, economic gaps between parents have led to education gaps between children.

The 2000 PISA results suggest that British education reforms have failed to accomplish the goal of improving students’ scholastic abilities.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.