The reasons behind East Asia’s educational success


A range of cultural and other factors has been identified that could explain the consistently high performance of students from East Asia.

These include the level of parental education, choice of school, the time spent studying after school, and higher aspirations.

East Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea consistently top league tables produced by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

However, immigrant students from these countries also do consistently well in Western education systems. In England’s state schools, for example, 78 per cent of Chinese children got at least five A* to C GCSE grades compared to the national average of 60 per cent according to the latest figures. This is the highest score of any ethnic group.

Research by Dr John Jerrim, a reader in educational and social statistics at the Institute of Education in London, set out to discover the reasons behind this success. He has concluded that there is no “silver bullet”, but a number of factors.

The study focused on the maths performance of more than 14,000 Australian students who took the 2012 PISA test. This focus was chosen as the Australian data offered background information on parents’ country of birth.

It found that at age 15, second-generation immigrants from high-achieving East Asian countries are, on average, two-and-a-half years ahead of children with two Australian-born parents – scoring an average of 605 PISA points to 503. Second-generation immigrants from the UK scored an average of 512, putting them more than two years behind as well.

The study identifies several factors behind the gap and uses statistical analysis to establish their relative importance.

A combination of “out-of-school factors and personal characteristics” accounted for 25 per cent of the point gap between the East Asian and native Australian teenagers.

These included the fact that the East Asian children spent an average of 15 hours a week studying out-of-school, compared to nine hours a week for native Australians.

The IoE reported: “They had a very strong work ethic and were more likely to believe that they could succeed if they tried hard enough. They also had higher aspirations. Ninety-four per cent of them expected to go on to university, compared to 58 per cent of the native Australians.”

Parental education accounted for almost 20 per cent of the gap. Half of the second-generation East Asian children had graduate fathers, compared to only a quarter of the native Australians.

A further 40 per cent was due to school factors, with East Asian families more likely to send their children to “better” schools.

Dr Jerrim added: “The remaining 15 per cent is possibly down to factors such as educational experiences earlier in life – for example, the quality of primary or pre-school care.”

He adds that the findings are relevant to UK policy-makers: “They illustrate how the attitudes and beliefs of East Asian parents make an important contribution to their children’s academic success.

“Policy-makers should therefore make it clear that there are many influences on a country’s PISA performance, and acknowledge that schools alone cannot cause a country to leap up the rankings.

“The reality is that this may only be possible over the very long term, and will require a widespread cultural shift. All families would have to instil in their children a strong belief in the value of education – along with the realisation that hard work and sacrifice may be needed to achieve it.”

The paper, Why Do East Asian Children Perform So Well in PISA?, is available at


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