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South Korean elementary school students at a marine boot camp in Ansan in this 2008 photo. About 70 students took part in the three-day camp as a way to mentally and physically strengthen themselves. (Ahn Young-joon/Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)
South Korean elementary school students at a marine boot camp in Ansan in this 2008 photo. About 70 students took part in the three-day camp as a way to mentally and physically strengthen themselves. (Ahn Young-joon/Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Economy Lab

Education rankings: The new schoolyard bully Add to ...

Nations don't fight much over territory any more with a few absurd exceptions, such as Argentina's eternal quest to recover the Falkland Islands. Today's Alpha male sovereigns beat their chests, preen and pose about economic power. The competition is over statistics, such as GDP, trade surpluses and currency values. Which nation is richest; which is poorest and in more detail, elaborate calculations about which people have more wealth to spend: GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity.

It's tiresome and vulgar - the neighbourly equivalent of having a bigger house or a bigger car. For those nations who score less well, it is easy to rationalize and dismiss the success of others: they inherited the oil, the rich soil or those people next door are crooks, drug dealers and money launderers. Unfortunately, national pride and neighbourly competition is going one step deeper, right into the spleen where the real green bile of envy and resentment is found. Top nations are now saying: our kids are smarter than your kids.

The OECD has just published PISA 2009, its latest survey on the academic achievement of children in state schools among OECD member and partner states. Predictably, the league tables, in which South Korea and Finland lead the pack in reading attainment at age 15, are provoking cries of woe from nations, such as Britain, which again scored average - well below the level of national pride and pomposity. Britain has fallen numerically in the rankings (although the number of nations surveyed is greater) and the education minister, Michael Gove, blamed the previous Labour government and said this justified his plans for reforms.

In Canada, which again scored very well, there is disappointment that South Koreans are reading better. Worse still, China is torturing the OECD rabble: Shanghai and Hong Kong took part in the survey as regions and if they were states, their scores in reading and maths would have easily trumped the top triumvirate of Korea, Finland and Canada.

Are those Chinese kids so much smarter, we wonder in our secret fearful hearts? Of course, this survey is about schools, teachers, classrooms and curiccula, not kids' brains but we still wonder. I still recall my first visit to Beijing more than a decade ago when I spotted a class of 20 or more primary school kids at a street corner. Policed by a single teacher, they were squatting on the pavement with drawing pads, busily sketching a traditional Chinese house. Amid the din of a big city traffic intersection and hundreds of pedestrians around them, they drew, silently and diligently, while the teacher watched. No group of British nine year olds would be capable of such mental and physical discipline.

If you want exam performance discipline helps, as does parental encouragement, even call it pressure or bullying. Schools can do only so much and the rest comes from homes, parents and the child's inner wit and ambition.

Schools draw on what walks in the door. There was huge embarrassment in Britain over the laggardly performance of Wales in the Pisa survey. Welsh school children's score for reading came in well below England and Scotland. Welsh teacher's unions are fighting a rearguard action, blaming lack of funds but what is really going on? Are Welsh children really less bright than children in Shanghai?

There is similar anxiety in Canada over the performance of remote provinces, such as Prince Edward Island compared to the powerful core provinces. Even if it were true that Han Chinese were smarter than Celts, the difference in intelligence would be almost statistically insignificant compared to the difference in education output.

Meanwhile, consider Shanghai and consider Wales. Shanghai is a magnet for China's brightest and most ambitious. The city is full of determined, clever and grabby people, migrants from all over, who are likely to produce children of similar ilk. Wales also has such people but a lot of them have done what Chinese in remote provinces do - they move to Shanghai or London.

Schools are laboratories for social experiments. In London, there is an arms race underway among the middle classes to get their children into the best schools. Huge sums are spent on coaching and cramming kids to pass the entrance exams that control accesss to elite schools. Those who cannot afford cope with what is left. Like all arms races it is self-defeating. The children may pass the exams but success offers them no meal-ticket to a job or a life.

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