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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (II) -The Problems Intrinsic to Combined Public Secondary Schools 1-

The introduction of combined public junior and senior high schools has been the focus of recent discussions on educational reform. In its June final report, the 15th Central Council for Education (CCE) is going to propose selective introduction of such schools as one of the special features of system reform. "Selective introduction" means that each prefecture can decide whether or not to introduce it.
This matter has been at issue for some time, having been proposed by the 9th CCE in 1971; there had also been a proposal for "six-year secondary schools" in the first report submitted to the Prime Minister in 1985 by National Council on Educational Reform. The issue is now taking on all the more currency: In 1994, in Gokase, Miyazaki Prefecture, a public school combining junior and senior grades was opened as a special measure; at the end of 1996, Tokyo Metropolitan University announced a plan for the establishment of "an affiliated six-year secondary school;" and finally, in 1998, the School Education Law and related laws and regulations were revised to make the selective introduction of six-year secondary schools possible.
This is one of the major issues that, among a series of proposals and measures for education reform, has the potential for causing important changes in the condition of Japanese public schools, particularly in elementary and secondary education. In this and in the next part of the current series, I would like to consider the problems intrinsic to this measure for reform.

Because the issue under discussion in the CCE report and the subsequent reform measure is the introduction of a small number of combined secondary schools, let us first consider the problems associated with such a plan.

1) The proponents of combined secondary schools claim that "because combined schools eliminate the need for high school entrance exams, flexible and comprehensive education will be possible." However, this applies only to the "chosen few," while the rest, the great majority of children, are neither spared "the pressures of high school entrance exams," nor will they receive "flexible and comprehensive education." This single point makes it clear that the argument in favor of combined secondary schools is self-righteous and elitist.

2) The argument in favor of combined secondary schools claims that its "main premise is to not exacerbate entrance-exam competitiveness," but no matter how they conduct the selection process, insofar as they recruit and select students from the city-wide area, these are "schools only for select students, i.e., elite schools."

3) Entrance exam competitiveness will become more of a problem the better the reputation of these schools gets, and a situation resembling that of Tokyo, where entrance exams for private and national junior high schools are only too common, will spread to non-urban areas too.

However, these are not the only problems intrinsic to the introduction of combined public secondary schools. Even bigger problems are the fact that it will lead to freedom of choice of schools at the level of lower secondary education, and the fact that the structure of the 6-3-3 year school system will be destroyed along with it.

In the first place, on the topic of freedom of school selection, at the moment, students are allowed to change schools or attend a school outside their assigned district if there are mitigating circumstances. But these are only in highly individual, exceptional measures: fundamentally, students are not given freedom to choose their public primary or junior high schools. Because combined public secondary school entrants are free to choose their schools, this will unfair to students who enter ordinary three-year junior high schools. It is not surprising that dissatisfaction is growing over the issue of why a student's right to choose his school is recognized if he is a combined school entrant but not if he is a three-year junior high school entrant. Of course, in this case, the problem will become more of a reality if the combined schools proliferate.

If school choice becomes possible at the junior high school level, in either combined schools or a three-year junior high schools, it will mean we are verging on a sea-change in the basis of Japanese public education.

1) Because schools will become rank-ordered from the junior high school level, junior high school entrance exam pressures will warp primary school life and learning.

2) Because primary school children may not be able to choose an appropriate junior high school according to their personal preferences and judgements, the educational background and economic circumstances of parents and families will have even more influence on children's educational opportunities. As is often said, entrance exams which are common among private and national primary and junior high schools are less a competition between students than one between parents, and the introduction of combined schools will only spread this tendency to public schools.

3) Students' lives will become even more divorced than they are now from the localities in which they live.

Even though combined public junior and senior high schools will have advantages for a "chosen few" children, for the majority of primary and junior high school students, the disadvantages of this plan far outnumber its advantages.
[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" May, 1997 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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