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Cover of Cleverlands

Inside the World's Best Classrooms

I’ve spent the last two years learning about the best education systems in the world – from the inside. This book is about my journey, living with teachers, listening to parents and learning what education looks like in completely different cultures. It was a particular moment in a year 11 Science class four years ago that set me on this journey. They had their exams coming up in a few months, and we still had a lot of material to cover. Abdul, a boy who was quick to grasp concepts but slow to do classwork, put up his hand.

“Miss, why do we sneeze?”

My first instinct was frustration. Here we were with the whole of the digestive system to cover by Friday, and he was asking me irrelevant questions.

“We don’t have time for that Abdul”.

He slunk back into his seat. On the train home, my only time for reflection, I worried about that encounter. What had I become? When did the interests of children become irrelevant? I thought that it might be when schools were threatened with takeover if they didn’t get the required number of C grades, and yet, we were told by politicians that this was the kind of thing they did in the ‘top performing’ systems.

In that case, I thought, maybe we shouldn’t be copying the top-performing systems. I signed up for a Masters degree, keen to learn more about how education systems could be run better, and discovered something that came as a shock: these countries were not doing what our politicians said they were doing. They were designing education in a completely different way, different from us, and different from each other. And yet despite their differences, they were all getting top grades in Maths, reading and Science.

I had to find out more. I read a lot of reports and studied a lot of graphs, but they didn’t give me any idea about what education actually looked like in each place, only about what policies were ‘officially’ followed (I know from experience that these are not the same thing). So I decided to go and have a look for myself. I emailed teachers in Finland, Canada, Japan, Shanghai and Singapore (countries which are regularly at the top of the education-superstar charts) and asked if I could come and help out in their schools. I spent at least three weeks in schools in each country, teaching, watching, listening, and asking lots of questions. The teachers became my friends. I stayed with many of them. And I came to learn what education is really like in these places.

In this book, I’ll take you on a guided tour of these education systems, painting a picture of school life, and making sense of the theories, facts and figures through the stories of real teachers and children. I’ll invite you to reflect on the goals of education in light of these varying possibilities, and provide you with some clues about how these countries came to be so successful.

Please pledge if you think this is an important book to ‘get out there’, even if it’s just so that politicians can’t keep making stuff up!

Lucy is the eldest of 5 children and the daughter of two headteachers, so it surprised no-one that she chose to work in the education sector. She studied Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford for her undergrad degree, then spent a year working with autistic children before teaching for three years in a secondary comprehensive school in South West London.

What was slightly less predictable (and worrying for her mother) was that on the completion of a Masters degree, she then chose to travel around the world to research this book, staying with strangers, and ending up in hospital twice. Lucy has also been working as a freelance education consultant/researcher for the past three years, most recently writing a 40,000 word report on teacher career structures across the world for UNESCO (which makes the task of writing her book seem less daunting!).

Tyvestä puuhun noustaan

A tree is climbed from its base. (Finnish Proverb)

‘Oh I’m sorry I’m late, that’s not very Finnish of me!’ Kristiina hurried over to find me under the clock at the central station in Helsinki, just a couple of minutes after our arranged meeting time. Kristiina is a typical Finn in many other ways; modest, articulate, reliable and quite private, and yet she had taken a punt on me – an unknown English woman who wanted to come and teach at her school – and had given me the confidence that my trip was not such a hare-brained idea after all. We chatted excitedly about plans for my month there, including my teaching schedule and Zumba class, and were then joined for tea by Elsa, a friend of hers who was also a teacher. Both spoke perfect English, of course, and their only English-language queries were about the names of obscure plants that I hadn’t even heard of.

Back at the house, I was welcomed with a ‘show’ by Kristiina’s two blonde daughters, Elina, six, and Venla, four, who leapt around the sitting room, twirling and dancing. Later that evening, I had the first of my ‘Finnish lessons’ with Elina. Yes, she was six, and no, she couldn’t quite read yet, but she had a picture book of everyday objects with the Finnish name written under each one, and she traced the letters with her finger as she ‘read’ each word. ‘Sateenvarjo,’ (umbrella) she said, and then looked at me expectantly. ‘Sateenvarjo,’ I dutifully repeated.

Elina hadn’t been taught to read yet, because she hadn’t yet started school. In Finland, children don’t start school until the August of the year they turn seven (so the starting age ranges from six-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half). Before then, nearly all children attend a year of kindergarten, which is where Elina spent her day, and many also attend state-subsidised preschool in the years leading up to that. The next morning we dropped off Venla, Elina’s little sister, at one of these preschools, and I went in with Kristiina as she needed to have a chat with one of the teachers. The courtyard we walked through was full of sandy children in bobble hats, bright coats and wellies, running around, pouring water through little plastic windmills and digging holes in the sandpit with great concentration. On the door there was a sign asking a question, surrounded by lots of words that made no sense to me (despite my Finnish lessons with Elina), and I asked Kristiina what it meant when we passed it again.

‘It means, “You only played today?” and it gives all the reasons why play is helpful for children. Children don’t do formal learning at desks in preschool or kindergarten, they learn through playing.’

‘How can that be?’ I thought to myself. ‘How can 15-yearolds from Finland be coming near the top in international tests of reading, maths and science when all they did was play until they were seven? Surely they ought to be a couple of years behind teenagers in England (who start school at five), not ahead… ’


Orange book: upcoming

Friday, 25 November 2016

This is the first time I’ve addressed a letter to ‘the people who have access to my shed’.

You are made up of the people I love, live with and work with, alongside strangers who thought the book’s premise sounded interesting. All of you took a chance and paid money for a book that did not yet exist, and for that I am very grateful.

I’ve been a bit quiet, I know. But there has been a lot of work…

Thank you

Sunday, 21 June 2015

To the wonderful people who have got the ball rolling,

A huge thank you for supporting my book! It is only day 3, and already 34 people have put their faith and money into Cleverlands.

I launched the project on Friday at the Sunday Times Education Festival where I was speaking about education in Finland, Japan and Singapore. As I was speaking for just half an hour, I had only 10 minutes to paint…

Katrina Patterson
Katrina Patterson asked:

Hi Lucy
Love the idea of this book.

Are you going to be looking a visual accommodation in reading and the incidence of wearing glasses in different countries? There is a very easy exercise with a piece of string and a bead to discover whether children's eyes are meeting on the page, before or after it which often indicates problems in reading.

There is a much higher incidence of wearing of glasses in children under 12 in Singapore, in fact often parents think that their children aren't working hard enough if they don't wear glasses! Take a look at Magic Eyes - Vision Training for Children - the author Leo Angart is Danish and has taught Natural Vision in Europe and the Far East. It has some fascinating stories. Happy to discuss further. Katrina Patterson

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Katrina,
Thanks for the ideas! I'm aware that there is a higher incidence of wearing glasses in Singapore, and I may well mention it in the book though I probably won't make a feature of it. The Leo Angart book sounds interesting, I'll take a look. Thank you so much too for your support of my book!

David Maxwell-Lyte
David Maxwell-Lyte asked:

I can't wait to read your book. I was educated in the private sector but taught in the public and private sector at secondary level, although I returned in the end to the public sector. I left teaching exhausted by the workload when the change to GCSE made an exponential increase to my after hours work as an English teacher. I have 4 children and 5 grandchildren and am concerned that the UK education system is still very misguided. Do you hold out any hope that a future government will steer things in the right direction. I want my grandchildren to be happy, creative, confident and fulfilled by their education.

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi David. I too feel that the UK education system is misguided, in that they are focusing on the wrong things. I think part of the problem is that in the UK the decisions are made by politicians and civil servants that don't necessarily have any education experience, whereas in many countries (e.g. Singapore and Finland) the majority of policy decisions are made by experienced educators.

However, I do hold out hope, particularly because a new 'College of Teachers' is being established, which will give educators more influence over teacher policy at least. I also know there is a growing movement supporting the increased use of evidence in education, and so I hope that the UK government will start to intelligently learn (though not copy) from what is working for other countries.

Thank you for supporting my book!

Geoffrey Darnton
Geoffrey Darnton asked:

Two questions:
1. which countries were visited for this book?
2. several politicians recently got excited about PISA data and how the UK should be emulating those countries - however, when I looked at the PISA data and the global happiness index, there was a negative correlation - so high educational achievement does not automatically mean happier children - it may mean the opposite - is this something likely to be discussed in the book?

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Geoffrey,

I visited Finland, Canada, Singapore, Japan and China (focusing on Shanghai).

I agree with you that high achievement does not automatically mean happier children. But equally, it doesn't automatically mean less happy children - Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada all do well in both PISA and the 'happiness index'. It's definitely important to consider what effect certain educational approaches seem to be having on children's happiness, and I will discuss this in the book, although it is rather a difficult relationship to come to any firm conclusions about given the difficulty in measuring both!

Thanks for your questions and your support!


Ben Gibbs
Ben Gibbs asked:

Hi Lucy ... this sounds fantastic! A really important project. I very much look forward to reading the results!

I too have had the privilege of travelling as part of a schools-education related job, and it *is* fascinating to see the reality of overseas practice. It's also really interesting to find out what overseas visitors think of our practice, when they visit. I've hosted parties from Finland, China, Vietnam, Dubai and Egypt in the past, and their objectivity was really refreshing.

Your Singapore example above addresses parental engagement to an extent. Is this a feature of other sections too? It's an area that particularly interests me. I'd be interested to 'interrogate' your methodology at the launch, just in case I decide to undertake a similarly cross-cultural analysis of parental attitudes/engagement.


Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Ben, thanks for your interest, and for getting tickets to the launch party!

I interviewed parents in every country I went to (open-ended interviews, opportunity sampling), but not enough of them to draw any general conclusions from my research alone. I'll write about the views of the individual parents I spoke to, and the impressions that teachers have about parental attitudes, but I'll draw on other research in this area too before making any sweeping statements!

Please do undertake a cross-cultural analysis of parental attitudes, because I'd love to read it!



Kathryn Sharpe
Kathryn Sharpe asked:

Hi Lucy!
Did you look at any traditional or other Montessori schools? Highly recommend.

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Kathryn,
No, sadly not. This time I was looking at regular state schools, but if I write another book I'd love to go and visit schools with different educational philosophies. Let's see how this one goes first!

Oranga Cat
Oranga Cat asked:

Just checked back into this Lucy - great guns...looking forward to the party! Can I wear my Chinese hat?

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

You can wear whatever you like! I would be inclined to make it fancy dress, but I fear that might put a few people off.. There will be gin cocktails though!

Mark Mitcheson
Mark Mitcheson asked:

Hi Lucy! Is it OK to ask about when, roughly, you expect the book to be ready?

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Mark,
Of course. It's looking like the special edition will be coming out in November of this year. I'll write a blog confirming this when all is settled. Sorry about the wait!

Pontus Wendle Ekholm
Pontus Wendle Ekholm asked:

Hi! I first wanted to say that I'm thankful for the time you're putting into the book! My Wife is studying to become a teacher in Sweden, is a part time substitute teacher and special education's assistant (I think that's the word) for children with special needs while also being a passionate activist for autistic children's right to special education, something they sadly can't take for granted. We recently pledged and is eagerly waiting.

I heard on one of your talks that private schools publishing GPAs to induce competition is not automatically good, according to the OECD. What metrics would you like the policy makers to use when looking at the quality of education? I'm an engineer and take performance metrics for granted, and in health care you can look at average lifespan, cancer survivability rates and what not to see if we are being healthier, do you mention any metrics in your book for education and how one should interpret them? Is there any metric that can be used by parents looking for a good school?

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Pontus, thanks for your support and your questions!

I think there are two separate issues here - one is whether or not it is helpful to the system overall for schools to publish data. There is no overall correlation between the proportion of schools doing this in a country and PISA results, so it is not an automatic good as is sometimes assumed by politicians. For me the answer to the first question depends on what kind of data is being published, which is the second issue.

What kind of metrics should we be using in education? My feeling would be that there should be a broad 'basket of measures', with schools being judged on a range of different metrics. If too much weight is attached to any one measure, such as particular exam results, then this measure becomes distorted. When looking for a good school, I think important metrics which are often overlooked are 'value added' and progress measures. I don't know whether you have this or a similar thing in Sweden, but this is a measure that takes into account the intake of the school - the prior performance and backgrounds of these students - and measures what difference the school makes.

The problem with looking at the GPAs published by private schools is that this isn't just a measure of how well the school is doing - it is a measure of the kind of students that enter it. The school I used to teach at had the lowest results in the borough, but the highest value added - in other words, although looking at the former made it appear that the school was doing a bad job, they were actually making the biggest difference to their pupils.

Hope that helps!


Marlène Martin
Marlène Martin asked:

Dear Lucy,

We are a French publisher, specialized in educational books. As you may see on our website,, our catalogue includes translations of American and British authors such as Prof. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (‘'”Mothers and Others”), John Holt (« Learning all the time », « Instead of Education ») and Noel Janis-Norton (« Can’t smack ? Won’t smack ? »), which are very welcomed by French readers.

We are really interested in your book, and we would be pleased to read it in order to publish it in French, if the rights are still available.
How could we arrange receiving a copy ?
Should you need further information, we will be happy to provide it.

Sincerely yours,

Marlene Martin
Editions l’Instant Présent.

Unbound replied:

Hi Marlene,

Thanks for your message. I will get in touch and introduce you to my colleague Jason Cooper who deals with Unbound's rights deals.

Best wishes,

Caitlin - Community Manager

murray hudson
murray hudson asked:

Very much enjoyed your book and the accessible way you approached the subject. Do you have any comments on the different physical school environments ie classrooms that you encountered on your travels? Did they make any difference to learning outcomes?

Lucy Crehan
Lucy Crehan replied:

Hi Murray,
I'm so glad you enjoyed the book. I did visit some beautiful schools and some schools which made learning more difficult (one without walls between classrooms which seemed to distract the children), but these were atypical. Most schools were fairly traditional in their set up, with a board of some description at the front and desks facing it. In Japan junior high school classrooms were 'owned' by the students, who were responsible for the displays and included their own slogans, but I'm not sure this had a direct effect on learning.
It's hard to say what causes what!


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