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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

'Culture of deference' could hold back Pacific Asian economies

'Tiger mother' parental obsession with exams & uniformity undermines innovation

A 'culture of deference' that has worked well for many Pacific Asian economies over the last 50 years could hold them back over the next 50 years, according to a new report published by the think tank IPPR today.

The report, written by Sir Michael Barber, former head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit under Tony Blair and now Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, argues that to be the global leaders in innovation in the 21st Century, Pacific Asian economies will need to change important aspects of their culture. He argues that Britain needs to learn from both East and West.

Sir Michael Barber argues:

"In Singapore, 15 year olds are 10 months ahead of those in the UK in English. They are 20 months ahead in Maths. South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and now Shanghai match Singapore's educational performance. So we most definitely have something to learn from Pacific Asia. The question is what?

"Eastern cultures have valued education for centuries; where the belief is that diligence will be rewarded. The 'talent myth' which is so ubiquitous in the Atlantic societies - that either you're smart or you're not - is roundly rejected. Parents - like 'tiger mothers' - prize and prioritised education.

"Eastern governments do likewise. Korea pays teachers well and recruits the best graduates into teaching. They pay for it by having much larger classes, whereas across the Pacific in California they chose a class size cap which in effect limited teachers' pay.

"But at the very moment when Education Secretary Michael Gove is looking East, the East is looking West. Leaders in Pacific Asia are realising that what worked in the last fifty years is not what will be required in the next fifty.

"They realise that their economies need to become more innovative and their schools more creative. It is one thing for an education system to produce well-educated deferential citizens; another to produce a generation of innovators.

"They see that mastery of the basics, while essential, is not enough. They understand too that while exams are important, the obsession with them among parents can be dangerous.

"The educational challenge for Pacific Asia is to encouraging greater diversity and individuality by building on their undoubted high standards in the basics. Meanwhile in Britain we need to try to match the reliability and equity of the Pacific Asian systems while simultaneously promoting innovation among our schools. In future, education systems will need to combine a high-quality, reliable system with the capacity to innovate at scale."

Notes to Editors

Oceans of Innovation: the Atlantic, the Pacific, global leadership and the future of education by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi is published today by IPPR and available at:


Richard Darlington, 07525 481 602, [email protected]

Tim Finch, 07595 920899, [email protected]