Expert Opinion

British education in crisis

Last week it was reported that the literacy and numeracy skills of young people in the UK are among the lowest in the developed world and that pupils are now worse at maths and English than their grandparents, with England being 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries. Dr Caroline Bligh asks why.

According to a study by the OECD which was published this week (in which information was gathered first-hand) the UK has fallen behind most of the developed world in literacy and numeracy. So why did Japan come top of the league table with Finland second and Korea third? Apparently the high-school graduate in Japan has literacy skills comparable with those of an Italian university graduate!

As the advantages of children starting formal education at 7 years of age (Finland) instead of 4 (UK), have already been widely debated; for argument’s sake let’s focus on one tentative explanation as to why Japan and Korea should score so highly – albeit a long shot.

Q1: What have Japan and South Korea have in common?

The answer:

Unlike the UK, both countries are situated in the East of the world where silence is considered as a high status tool for learning.

‘Change happens, when those who don’t usually speak are heard by those who don’t usually listen’(Marshall, 2006:1)

Q2: Where is our acknowledgement of the international differences in the status of silence?

Cultural distribution:

The value of silence and the spoken word is unequally culturally distributed. In the Western world, speaking is aligned to higher order assessments of cognitive development in pre-school children - in contrast to countries such as Japan and India; where silence and thoughtfulness appear as more highly valued. Trawick (1990) added that, ‘silence in relationships in India does not mean absence but is more of a tool that invites dialogue, probing and further understanding’ (1990, p.33).

The preschool study (Tobin et al., 1989) of children in Japan, China and the USA presented startling variations between the three cultures on how each perceived silence in relation to the purpose of words. In sharp contrast to China and Japan, the American preschool viewed the use of spoken words as an expression of individuality, autonomy and cognitive development – 38% of Americans listed in their top three priorities for their children’s learning in contrast to only 5% of Japanese parents. Asa and Barnlund's (1998) study revealed silence as highly valued in Japan; with constant and uninterrupted verbal interactions considered as highly unfavourable, shallow and to be mistrusted.

Literacy Stations: Handwriting
Image used under creative commons license and courtesy of Chrissy Johnson.

Q3: Is the Western world correct in prioritising the spoken word as a tool for learning?

Viruru asks whose interests are best served when spoken, ‘language is privileged over other modes of communication’ (Viruru, 2001a, p.31). Set in India, Viruru’s (2001a, 2001b) nursery school study set out to question the high status bestowed solely upon the spoken word as the main vehicle of human expression and communication. Interestingly, the study suggests that children, ‘engage in complex forms of communication that do not involve language’ (Viruru, 2001a, p.31)

Based in a University in America, Kato’s studies (2010, 2001) compare the learning of Japanese students with those of indigenous American students (America being bottom of the OECD league table). Kato reveals (2010, p.13) that for, ‘some Japanese students, silence is interpreted as a legitimate form of classroom participation.’ The Japanese students argued that non verbal learning through such modes as, ‘writing papers, taking notes during the class, listening to the teacher, and reading the assigned books’ demonstrated alternative means of participating.

Q4: Can UK children improve their learning through adopting silence?

Magraw and Dimmock’s (2006) ‘Merridale’ nursery project revealed the important role of teachers in mediating children’s learning through silence without an expectation of dialogue.

We became aware of the length of silences during a session, when we listened to the audio recordings. On reflection we realised the inevitability of silences... and that good relationships are based on the acceptance of them. We came to realise that presence is the other side of silence, and allows for the child to continue comfortably doing their self-allotted task, knowing that support and assistance is available if wanted, but it is not forced. (Magraw and Dimmock, 2006, p.4.)


In terms of improving our literacy and numeracy ranking in the UK; perhaps current early years, primary and secondary practice, should re-embrace silence as a valued tool for learning.

  • Bligh, C. An Early Years Teachers Perspective on Silent Participation in Bligh, C; Chambers, C; Davison, C; Lloyd, I; Musgrave, J; O’Sullivan, J. and Waltham, S. (2013) Well-being in the Early Years. Plymouth: Critical Publishing.
  • Bligh, C. Rights in Early Years Settings and a Young Child's Right to Silence in Jones, P. and Walker, G. (Eds.) (2011) Children's Rights in Practice. London: Sage.

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