Education from around the world: visits to Shanghai and New Zealand

In a special report, CEO of the St Bart’s Academy Trust, Christopher Brislen, reflects on his recent educational visit to Shangai and New Zealand.

How does anyone who has been as long in the profession as I have keep themselves motivated and refreshed for the challenges that lie ahead? Well, on this occasion I was privileged to join a party of senior school leaders from across England on an educational tour of schools in Shanghai and Auckland, New Zealand. Lucky me you might say and you may well be right, though at the end of the two week tour, which included the October half-term, I felt I needed a break! Please don’t feel sorry for me …… just yet!


Shanghai, a city of 34 million people is about as removed from Stoke on Trent, my work base, as one could imagine. Yet, despite the cultural differences, which are well documented, there are remarkable similarities too, not least the need for increased social mobility and the demands for skills to meet an increasingly technological and fast changing economy. Shanghai is famous for its maths and rightly so, but it was the pedagogy and classroom management across the curriculum that caught my attention.

Here we have a curriculum that appeared to promote replication. Much was made of the Blue Peter, “Here’s one I made earlier model.” Put simply, the Chinese appeared to be very good at copying, replicating and repeating what they were being taught. Reading was frequently by “Look-Say” methodology and text books were everywhere. (Most written and printed in Britain, by the way.) Assessment appeared to be focussed on the success of the replication as much as the acquisition of the skills necessary to become competent and innovative.


The Chinese frequently talked about needing to be creative, but this was not clearly evidenced. The system seems geared to finding jobs, not in finding the new Steve Jobs! But, let’s face it with such a sizeable population, can you blame them?

Not for me then. The social and economic needs of China do not culturally transfer to the English system.

Indeed I would argue that a replication of Chinese methods in the UK would be counterproductive. We have much to learn from each other. But, that is precisely the point, we both have strengths and weaknesses. A synergy of the best of both would seem to be the ideal, but with the health warning that British young people would not follow the social control model so evident in China and indeed our society demands non-conformity in order to grow democratically as well as economically.

New Zealand

What then of New Zealand? Well, as expected the system in New Zealand was more familiar than that of China. Yet fundamental differences were clear.

Pupils are given much greater freedom to learn at their own pace and school accountability levels are significantly lower than here in the UK. Yes, there is a focus on standards, but with nowhere near the rigour we have come to accept as the norm. Teachers work hard, but the expectations of them are not as high and as a result comparative standards are lower than in England. Teaching is focussed on the whole child and academic progress is just one of the measures that are central to the desired outcomes.

Certainly the very high regard for New Zealand culture and the celebration of cultural heritage has a much higher place than in the UK. New Zealanders are proud of their past and show it. Every school we visited welcomed us with a full on Haka! It was a clear demonstration of national pride and will always be an abiding memory of the visit.

Assessment systems were well developed in some schools, but by no means all and the focus was much more on formative rather than summative. This led to a longitudinal view rather than short term targets and as a result the system seemed “healthier”, with the needs of the children being central, rather than politically driven. I know this sounds simplistic and I suppose it is on one level, but New Zealand children and teachers seemed happier over all!

Reflection: a more holistic approach to learning

As a result of this reflection one of my abiding goals is to look at developing a more holistic approach to learning.

This will not be revolutionary but rather an evolutionary process, probably led by work force reform and curriculum innovation and development. I have already held discussions with senior leaders about how we start the ball rolling and I shall continue to give energy to this long push. The lesson from down under was clearly to nurture and develop staff and pupils alike. It is something, I guess, we have always known, but somehow we have allowed it’s centrality to be removed. The challenge for us as leaders is to regain control and to create schools where every child and adult matters, not because of a government slogan, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

written by Chris Brislen

Executive Principal / CEO of St. Bart's Academy Trust


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