The English education community is presently suffering a moment of self doubt as two new studies suggest the country's best and brightest are still two years behind their Asian peers in Maths by the time they reach 16. For the UAE, which has elements of both systems, the studies should be of particular interest.
Asian and English students are said to be on a level until the age of 10, after which their "harder working", more focused peers begin to pull ahead.
The study, by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, looked at the children's maths achievement in two studies, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).
In the rankings England has slipped down to 28th in maths for the Pisa 2009 tests.
Study author Dr John Jerrim said in the UK's Telegraph newspaper: "At age 10 the highest achievers in England can roughly match the highest achievers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but by age 16, the highest achievers in England are roughly two years behind the highest achievers in those countries."
The research also found England's most able youngsters make less progress generally than those of similar abilities across the 12 other countries studied.
Countries studied were Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Slovenia, Norway, Scotland, the US, Italy, Lithuania and Russia.
"Cultural and social factors" may be behind the strong scores in east Asian countries the report argues. "In east Asian cultures education has historically been highly valued. This can be seen not only in teachers' high salaries, but also in the heavy investment of families in private tutoring services."
The latter will ring true in most communities in the UAE, where private tutoring, and after hours study is far more prominent, certainly in more Asian curriculum focused schools, but even within England and Wales curriculum based environments. That no doubt, in part explains why also English National Curriculum based private schools in the UAE achieve in general better results than an average UK state counterparts.
The report also rather pointedly notes: "Having a pool of very highly skilled individuals is vital for technological innovation and long-run economic growth."
Defenders of the English education system have noted however that while Asian education systems do better at learning by rote, the English system is designed to encourage skills and thinking. These attributes, they argue, cannot be measured by standardaised international tests.
There is a well documented bifurcation between the two systems. However, whilst at its best the UK system undoubtedly nurtures the "whole person" in combination with a rigorous focus on academics, at its worst this "whole person" emphasis can leave academically weaker students leaving school without the foundations needed to progress into higher education and a cereer. Faced with the choice, surely it is better to choose the sometimes horrors of the 'by rote' style of learning and allowing self development to take place later, whether (preferably) at secondary school or at university. Certainly a private school English boarding school education is more likley to emphasise the former approach, and more successfully. However, this trades off the developmental benefits of family life and a truly expat education. In this case, and based on my own experience of a UK borading school education, just perhaps an education in Dubai, in combination with an acedemically rigorous approcah to education at school, might just be the better choice.