How East Asian children get so far ahead of their classmates

Racing ahead. mamahoohooba

It is no secret that children of East Asian heritage excel at school. In England, for example, 78% of ethnic Chinese children obtain at least 5 A* to C GCSE grades, compared to a national average of just 60%. Yet, despite some very interesting research done by my colleague at the Institute of Education, Becky Francis, we still know very little about why this is the case.

I have explored this issue in a new paper using Australian data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment data. Just like their counterparts in the UK, Australian-born children of East Asian heritage do very well in school – particularly when it comes to maths.

I show that they score an average of 605 points on the PISA 2012 maths test. This puts them more than two years ahead of the average child living in either England or Australia. They even outperform the average child in perennial top PISA performers such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

Politicians frequently tell us that we need to learn lessons from high-performing countries. Yet, in my opinion, it is actually more insightful to consider what is driving the high performance of East Asian children born and raised within an “average performing” country such as Australia. After all, they clearly excel at the PISA tests, despite having been exposed to a western culture and education system similar to that in England.

No silver bullet

First, there does not seem to be a “silver bullet” that explains why East Asian children excel at school. Rather, a combination of inter-linked factors are at play.

Second, I find little evidence that children of East Asian heritage simply put more effort into the PISA test. So it seems unlikely that their high performance is a statistical artefact, or that they are more motivated to do well in the test than their British or Australian peers.

Third, the type of school matters a great deal. This accounts for roughly half the achievement gap between children with East Asian parents versus those with western (either Australian or British) parents. This may partly be a reflection of culture, including the high value East Asian families place upon their children’s education – meaning they send them to the best possible school.

Outside the school gates

Even after accounting for differences in family background and schools, children with East Asian parents remain one whole school year ahead of their peers with Australian (or British) parents. This is partly due to East Asian parents investing more in out-of-school tuition and instilling a harder work ethic in their children. These out-of-school factors therefore play an important role in explaining why East Asian children do so much better in the PISA test than their British and Australian peers.

What are the implications of these findings for us here in the UK? Well, every time international assessments like PISA are released, we hear about the lessons to be learned from the high-performing East Asian economies. This has led to us comparing our curriculum to those in Singapore and Hong Kong, and sending delegations to observe teaching methods in East Asian schools.

Yet many of the key reasons why East Asian children excel are cultural and therefore beyond the control of schools. So what the data really teaches us is that parents and family culture matter a great deal. And we must not forget that England’s overall middling performance in such international comparisons depends on a lot more than just the “performance” of our education system, teachers and schools.


_ This article is co-published with the IOE London blog. _