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High test results in Asian schools, but at what cost

Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan regularly get the highest scores on international tests for education. Other countries, including Australia, seek to emulate these results.

A key factor behind the success of these countries is the cultural emphasis on studying at the expense of other activities outside school. This brings costs in terms of student well-being and health.

The OECD recently published the findings of its first student well-being study involving 540,000 15-year-olds across 72 countries as part of PISA 2015. It shows that while East Asian countries are at the top of the league table of test scores they are at the bottom in student well-being.

Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and four mainland Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong) participating in PISA have the lowest levels of life satisfaction among students out of 50 countries participating in the survey, apart from Turkey. The average index of life satisfaction in these countries/cities was much lower than the average for the OECD. Australia did not participate in the survey.

East Asian countries also have among the highest percentage of students not satisfied with life. Some 22% of Korean students were not satisfied, 16% of students in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the four mainland Chinese cities were not satisfied and 15% in Macao were not satisfied. The only other countries with higher or similar rates are Turkey with 29%, Tunisia 19%, United Kingdom 16%, Greece, Italy and the United Arab Emirates with 15%.

In contrast, only 4% of students in Netherlands and 7% of students in Finland, France and Switzerland are not satisfied with life. The average for the OECD is 12%.

The OECD data also show that students in several East Asian countries spend a large fraction of their waking hours in school lessons and studying outside of school. For example, 41% of students in the four mainland Chinese cities spend at least 60 hours a week at school and doing homework, extra lessons or private study outside school. In Singapore, 25% spend at least 60 hours a week studying while in Korea it is 23% and 18% in Hong Kong. While high percentages of students in many other countries also spend such long hours in study, the average across OECD countries is only 13%. In Australia, only 9% of students spend at least 60 hours a week studying and it is only 4% in Finland and Germany.

The OECD report raised concerns that the long hours of study by students mean less time on leisure time out of school and can come at the expense of quality of life.

One cost is that in many countries where students spend a lot of hours studying is that they spend little or no time in physical activity. The PISA data show that high percentages of students in the high performing East Asian countries do not engage in any significant physical activity during the week. Japan has the highest percentage of students who do no physical activity during the week in the world at 18% while 14% of Korean students don’t do any physical activity during the week. This compares with 6% in Australia and across the OECD. Eleven per cent of students in Hong Kong and Macao don’t do any physical activity during the week while 9% in Singapore and 8% in Taiwan don’t.

Lack of engagement in physical activity has significant implications for health and well-being.

"High education success has its costs and Australia must be careful to avoid taking the East Asian route. The challenge is to combine good learning outcomes for all students, irrespective of family background, with highly satisfied, healthy students. Education policy should have regard to the physical, psychological and social needs of students as well as academic success. Parents should recognise that academic success is not all-encompassing and have equal regard to their children’s happiness and well-being," commented Trevor Cobbold, National Convenor for Save Our Schools.


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