I feel so strongly about this issue, I am therefore attempting to offer my own perspective to describe the reality of an obsession that is so destructive that it can kill – children under intolerable stress. . . . It is the obsession with the PISA league table – leading to some politicians’ fanciful notion that longer school days and shorter holidays are guarantees to academic success, like what seems to be the case in those Far Eastern education systems such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan (Hong Kong and Shanghai participate as two cities representing China). Behind the glowing statistics, however, the social reality is alarmingly bleaker. The all-consuming obsession with PISA league table can ultimately suck the life out of children, literally.
If you think that this is going to be a bleeding-heart apologist’s sentimental tripe to excuse for the alleged “poor teaching” in British schools, you are much mistaken. Trust me, I know what I am talking about. I’ve lived through some of the darkest moments of the kind of schooling experience that the two Michaels have exhorted to be the Holy Grail of academic excellence.
This is my story. . . .
A “typical” child from a modest family without any higher education connection, I grew up in an intensely relentless exam culture and unforgiving education system of performance-based hierarchy of schools, colleges and universities in Taiwan between the 1970s-90s. The idea of academic hierarchy was deeply intrenched in our psyche long before we started formal schooling.
Apart from the first three years of primary school when I genuinely and thoroughly enjoyed learning, going to school and consistently winning top academic prizes, I couldn’t wait to run away from that intensely oppressive system as I grew older and the pressure became greater.
During my schooling, the majority of children between 12-18 went to school five and a half days a week, Monday to Friday, from 7:15am – 5:00pm; 7:15am to 12:00pm on Saturdays. Revision classes were typically organised for everyone at school for some parts of the winter and summer vacations. Attendance was compulsory. On top of that, commercial cram schools mushroomed up as a parallel education universe to cash in from those who need or seek additional boost to their grades, or more crucially, a better chance to succeed in passing high school or college entrance exams. For many, they were the second schools after school. It was also an additional financial strain to many families who were already paying for their children’s education.
In this climate of fearing to fail, I was driven to suicidal thoughts on numerous occasions. I recall vividly one occasion when I expressed my wish by drawing a dagger stabbing through a bleeding heart on a piece of paper. I left my sketch home “by accident” for my mother to find when I went to school. That evening, my mother called me for a heart-to-heart. She showed me the piece of paper and asked if I had drawn it? I admitted. An awkward silence ensued. Life continued as nothing had happened afterwards.
I was certainly by no means alone in having suicidal thoughts; many succeeded in acting them out, succumbed to the murderous pressure. My experience seems to be evinced by at least one academic study in 2006 on the link between academic pressure and adolescent suicides. To ignore the potential mental health hazard as a result of test-driven culture is to deny young children the right to live a life free from unreasonable stress.
In my own career, I retook both my high school and my university entrance exams so that I could fulfil my dream to go on to higher education. Many a night I sat in cram schools like a battery hen till between 7:00pm and 9:00pm. After that I either took a bus or rode on my scooter home 4 miles away – alone – still in school uniform that I put on over some 12 hours ago. Walking around those streets flanked by cram schools in Taiwan day or night will give anyone a clear idea of what I am trying to describe. It is still common to see school children in uniforms on public transport on their way home after cram schools at 10:00pm.
I was already 20 when I went up to university, two years behind my British counterparts, despite my starting schooling a year earlier then my contemporaries. It was not until in my third (out of four) year at university did I rediscover the intellectual confidence that once won me my many praises and almost all my exercise books (stamped with a trophy in a deep-blue ink on the covers). It is now funny to reminisce how I used to feel frustrated that I didn’t have a legitimate excuse to purchase my own exercise books which was part of the excitement and ritual of going to school.
No doubt, Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw would dearly love to hold me up as a shining example of the academic supremacy of the Far East, and attribute my early schooling to my later academic achievements. I am more inclined to consider my modest success as the result of my good fortune of having a scholastic temperament, many supportive friends and teachers who believe in me, and crucially starting a new academic career in an education system that fosters, nurtures and in so doing produces many Mr Burtons and many more Musharrafs.
Longer school hours helped nothing but killing my passion for knowledge and independent learning. Why? Just think. Twelve or more hours would leave any teenager with a meagre couple of hours with mum and dad before he/she has to go to bed, ready for another 12 hours studying a few hours later. And the government ministers have the cheek to preach us about the importance of family life? What is a family when all the parents see is a pale-faced, ghostly figure drifting in and out of the house before sunrise and after sunset?
Without sounding too Blakesque, school was the darkest time of my life.
I was finally able to regain my passion for learning when I enrolled on a postgraduate research course in Britain in the early 90s. After twenty years of being shackled by the tyranny of continuous testing, I could at last breath the air of independent learning and begin to truly exercise my intellectual curiosity. It took me some time to acclimatise to my new-found intellectual freedom, but I went on to complete an MA, a DPhil, and now another Master’s whilst holding down a full-time job. Ironically, my chance of passing another entrance exam to graduate schools in Taiwan would have been extremely slim giving the fierce competition.
Most heartbreakingly sad about Michael Gove’s idea about longer school days and shorter holidays, and in Michael Wilshaw’s drive to raise the “teaching quality” of nurseries is the fact that both men show no genuine regard for the welfare of young children. To them, raising academic achievements of the children is a job not a calling. They have to push for “reform” simply because it is in their political interests to do so. Whether or not the reform is going to result in a generation of damaged minds is a purely secondary concern.
We mustn’t forget the one chilling price to pay for the so-called “academic excellence” of the Eastern Asian countries is adolescent suicides. What Michael Gove, Michael Wilshaw and their unsuspecting supporters don’t want you to know is the real human tragedy behind the top league table positions. They don’t want you to know that one of the main causes routinely cited for adolescent suicides in countries such as South Korea is exam pressure. Not a happy bunch then. Another study (2012) also identifies that educational stress is the most predictive variable for teenage depression. It is, not surprisingly, not strongly associated with happiness.
Then again, what should politicians and their cronies care about a few deaths of some obnoxious, spotty-faced kids so long as they can win popular votes for the next election?