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Lessons of Cross-national Comparison in Education
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Oxford Studies in Comparative Education

Lessons of Cross-national Comparison in Education


1992 paperback 176 pages, £24.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-02-1

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About the book

This collection of articles is a contribution to the debate about two important questions in the study of comparative education: ‘What lessons can be learned from cross-national studies of issues in education?’ and ‘What problems of comparative method do such studies have to address?’


David Phillips. Introduction

A.H. Halsey. An International Comparison of Access to Higher Education

Harry Judge. Schools of Education and Teacher Education

David Finegold. Education Training and Economic Performance in Comparative Perspective

Patricia Broadfoot & Marilyn Osborn. French Lessons: comparative perspectives on what it means to be a teacher

Bernard Casey. Apprentice Training in Germany: the experiences of the 1980s

Keith Watson. Alternative Funding of Education Systems: some lessons from Third World experiments

Karl Heinz Gruber. Unlearnt European Lessons: why Austria abandoned the comprehensive school experiments and restored the Gymnasium

Roger Goodman. Japan – Pupil Turned Teacher?


The chapters which make up this first volume in the Oxford Studies in Comparative Education series were for the most part presented at a programme of seminars given in Oxford in the autumn of 1990. The seminars in question represented the first activity of a new Centre for Comparative Studies in Education established at the Department of Educational Studies of the University of Oxford in January of that year.

The Centre’s principal objective is to collect and analyse data on education in other countries in order to make comparisons with the UK which might inform policy discussions. It will do this by means of a continuous process of monitoring of educational policy developments in developed countries generally, but particularly in a number of countries and areas identified as providing a focus for the Centre’s interests, and through a series of research projects which will investigate particular issues on a cross-national basis. The Centre aims to make a general contribution to the study of education in a comparative and cross-national context; in so doing one of its considerations will be to subject the methods of comparison to critical scrutiny.

The comparative dimension in the processes leading to educational policy making has become increasingly manifest in recent years, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States. Keith Watson reminds us in his contribution to this volume of the widespread interest in what can be learnt from other countries, quoting the view of Steve Heyneman of the World Bank that so many educational issues are now seen to be universal, to transcend country boundaries, that it would be wrong not to examine them from a comparative perspective.

Interest in the education systems of other countries has a long history. In the present volume Roger Goodman examines the case of Japan as learner and teacher in its historical context, and Karl Heinz Gruber describes the continuing failure of Austria to benefit from foreign examples of different practice - and that interest is fraught with the many problems that are dealt with by Goodman and Gruber and the other contributors. In the early years of the century the Office of Special Inquiries and Reports of the Board of Education was producing, under Michael Sadler’s direction, an exhaustive series of comparative studies of educational issues, with much importance attaching to Germany. The ‘Sputnik Shock’ of the late 1950s jolted policy makers in the United States into considering the extent to which American educational provision lacked the competitive edge that the Russians seemed to be gaining. By 1958 the National Defense Education Act was providing massive support for curricular reform.

Now it is Japan which seems to hold a particular fascination for educationalists in the United States, and increasingly in the UK. The literature on Japanese education has become very extensive, but the purpose behind some of the studies, as Roger Goodman demonstrates, is on occasion questionable: the example of Japan is often used ‘as a “strawman” or “idealised model” off which to bounce [particular authors’] own ideas and beliefs’. In A Nation At Risk (1983), the report of the US National Commission on Excellence in Education, there is an explicit message that the Japanese example must serve as a reminder of shortcomings at home. In January 1987 the US Department of Education itself published a report called Japanese Education Today, with a contribution by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett on the implications of the report’s findings for education in America.

In the UK there has been sustained political interest, since Sir Keith (now Lord) Joseph’s tenure as Secretary of State for Education and Science, in education in the Federal Republic of Germany. Reference to the German example became almost a sine qua non of many official statements, speeches and interviews, in which assertion too often served as evidence. The properly analytical work of Prais and Wagner, however, on comparative attainment in England and the FRG, figures prominently in the discussions, as did accounts of the highly developed system of vocational training in the FRG, considered in this collection by Bernard Casey and now the subject of a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI). The recent publication of a series of reports by HMI on aspects of education in other countries has been a most significant development: the first of them confirmed the ‘official’ interest in Germany by covering curriculum and assessment in the FRG. The reports in question are the first such to be made available to the public since Sadler’s pre-World War I series, and they have clearly been issued with a view to furthering the discussion of particular current UK policy issues. Members of the Inspectorate have recently (1991) reported on education in Japan.

The HMI series includes studies of higher education in the United States, one of which covered teacher education; it includes too a study of teacher education in France. The opening papers in the present volume describe the purpose of two Oxford research projects on these subjects: A. H. Halsey’s work on access to higher education in a number of countries, and Harry Judge’s cross-national study of teacher education in the UK, France and the USA. Other papers impinge on topics that have emerged significantly in the HMI reports: David Finegold’s contribution on training and economic performance and Bernard Casey’s paper on apprentice training in the FRG. Patricia Broadfoot and Marilyn Osborn describe their comparative work on perceptions of what it means to be a teacher in France and England in a paper which also deals in detail with the difficult methodological considerations in undertaking such a study.

In offering the present collection of papers as the first volume in the new series, the Oxford Centre for Comparative Studies in Education hopes to have made a contribution to two important questions in the study of comparative education: ‘What lessons can be learnt from cross-national studies of issues in education?’ and ‘What problems of comparative method do such studies have to address?’ It is anticipated that the Centre will return to these questions in its future seminars and in future volumes of Oxford Studies in Comparative Education.


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