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Why is Britain so keen to copy China’s test-oriented education?

China's education system

This evening the BBC will carry forward the great myth that Chinese education is "better" than Britain's. A documentary comparing Chinese and British teachers in a Hampshire school will show Chinese teachers appalled at how disruptive, challenging and idle British pupils could be. That, by implication, is why Chinese children do better, far better, in international tests.



All this tells us about is tests. Only exam salesmen and Whitehall officials believe this has anything to do with education. The OECD/Pisa global league tables in maths have long been discredited, most recently by the Chinese educationist, Yong Zhao. It turns out they compared results for all British and American 15-year-olds with a few highly corrupt "testing factories" in China's richest city, Shanghai, and other urban communities in Hong Kong and Singapore. Like was in no way compared with like.



In addition, the most publicised scores related to one subject, maths, for the obvious reason that maths could most easily be rote-learned and recorded. The fiasco was a classic of making what is measurable important, rather than what might be important measurable. Yet the BBC and the government still churn out the Pisa figures.



We have no knowledge of how well these children do later, the extent to which they lead busier, richer, happier, safer, more fulfilled lives. The scorers are not paid to care. What we do know is that America and Britain, after half a century of consistent poor performance in these league tables, have led the world in academic research, scientific patents, invention, innovation, prosperity, creativity, power and, to those for whom it matters, democratic vitality. It seems plain to me that Chinese education, like Russian education, is good at making communist automatons. Why does that so appeal to British ministers?



The irony is that, as Zhao writes, the Chinese are rushing in the opposite direction. They want to know why their pupils may be good at rote learning yet seem so enervated thereafter. Chinese parents crave the British private schools being set up across China. Chinese students cram into US and British universities. They can see that a dragooned, mechanically competitive schooling is no path to creativity, challenge or happiness in the long run in a dynamic economy and a critical open society.



Basing education on testing is as mindless today as when Dickens ridiculed it in Hard Times. Yet its appeal to British governments – from the days of Lord Baker to those of Michael Gove – is relentless. The reason is simple: it holds the easiest means of central control. It is the dictatorship of number. The Chinese are realising this, but not the British.



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