What Can We Learn If We Look East: Are we slipping back into a Tripartite system of education?

I had the good fortune to attend a seminar by Prof Akito Okada hosted by LLAKES at the Institute of Education titled ‘Education Policy and Equal Opportunity in Japan’.  Briefly, it was an overview on the “evolution and historical transformation of the concept of equality of opportunity as applied to educational policies in Japan from the end of World War II to the present day.”  For anyone interested in comparative studies of Education, the seminar provided valuable insight into the structure of Japanese state education and the political machinations surrounding most recent changes in policy.  What I personally took from the seminar, both from Prof Okado’s presentation and the subsequent Q&A, were the parallels with changes in English Education policy over recent times, especially since 2010. What follows is a little conspiracy theorist with a dash of x-files-esque ‘The Truth is Out There’.

If you are like me and know little of the Japanese state schooling system then it is helpful to know that since the end of WWII and the American occupation, Japanese state provision has been split into a 6-3-3-4:


The first 9 years being compulsory, with exams required to continue on to 3 further years of Upper Secondary education, and then 4 years + of Higher Education.  The design was implemented under the American occupation and the aim was to provide all students with an equal opportunity of access.  However, since the 1990s, the Japanese Education design has come under attack by neo-liberal and neo-conservative political ideologies in ways that we in the UK would recognise.

A shift has taken place within Japanese politics towards a more conservative viewpoint, ushering in a desire to return to an historical greatness that Japan once enjoyed and that includes a move to re-militarisation.  The education system inherited from the American occupation after WWII, with its focus on equal access of opportunity for all, is considered to be at the heart of problem of Japan’s lessening status within the region and worldwide.  The argument has started that Japanese education is to blame for their lack of global competitiveness and with it the language of choice and competition that is so recognisable from the debate on Education in England has surfaced; Japan isn’t good enough because their brightest and best are not permitted the opportunity to develop to be bright enough.

For me, an interesting aspect of Japanese Education reform is an honest drive towards improving the Japanese ‘elite’ and what I find most interesting are the methods that they are employing in pursuit of it.  Such language about elites would not sit well within British politics but it is interesting to compare what is happening in Japan and the actions of the Conservatives since 2010 and Gove’s agenda for reform.  Abe’s Government in Japan believes that Japan’s competitiveness has suffered because Japan’s elite aren’t academically good enough due to insufficient rigor in the current system for education.  Bolstering of the elite requires a move away from the comprehensive system of education for all towards one that includes a “choice” for greater academic rigor; creating an opportunity to replace the current 3+3 of lower and upper secondary education with a more academic 6 years, aping that of the 6 years offered by Japan’s private schools.  This new 6 year option is intended for those that display, through entrance exams, sufficient ability and is restricted by the limited capacity of places available, doing away with the notion that everyone should have equal access to equal education.

It is here that I began considering what we have witnessed under the Gove and now Morgan regimes. Acadmisation, on the face of it, has been a push to remove control of Education away from perceived left leaning LEAs; just as the push towards direct school training of teachers is intended to rent control of teacher training away from perceived left leaning teacher training at universities.  I’m sure that, somewhere, there are plans to dislocate teacher representation away from left leaning teacher unions. It’s a battle that Thatcher started and (apart from being anti EU and cutting social benefits and cutting taxes) nothing appeals more to Conservative party supporters than bashing Unions, so a good course of action if you were career minded.

In Japan, Abe has redesigned textbooks to be more ‘patriotic’ and that sentiment has been pushed through the curriculum generally. Anti-bullying initiatives have been introduced, ostensibly as means to increase discipline, and the message is “Be more patriotic. Obey what you’re told by your elders and betters. Obey your government. Obey me.”. The Abe’s Japanese government have been fairly open about what they’re doing (if not their explicit motivations) but, in Gove, we also have had personal rewriting of curriculum (History over a weekend), personal selection of ‘patriotic’ literature, pushes towards ‘character’ development, the narrative of better discipline, the narrative of promoting ‘British’ values. Taken at face value, they just seem a bit ‘little England’ but they also tally with what Abe’s Government are doing, for the specific purpose of engendering a Japanese elite and creating a narrative from Abe of “Be patriotic. Patriotic Japanese desire a strong Japan. I am making Japan stronger. Oppose me and you are not patriotic”.

Abe’s Government in Japan are creating selective education system that, on the surface, is intended to offer a fair opportunity for all to choose a more academically rigorous education but they are not offering enough places for everyone to choose that route and they are using selection by tests as means of entry/control. As we know from the evidence of the impact of the Tripartite system in England, this form of selective education fails excessively more people than it assists, it is unfair, and there is no equality of opportunity or access. The evidence shows that selective entry favoured a strata of society that were better equipped to exploit it, at the expense of the majority of the rest of society.

With all we know about the failings of the Tripartite system, it would be an almost impossible political sell to get British voters to accept a return to it but, comparing what Abe’s Government in Japan are attempting with what Gove and the current Conservative Government have done, the Academisation program may just be a means of reintroducing a three tiered selective system of education.  Yes, they’re making a complete mess of things but are the Conservatives doing more than just exposing the Education budget to privateers?