Book Review: Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

I had the privilege of meeting Lucy not too long ago at a conference we were both speaking/delivering at…by pure seredipity, I was reading her book at the time. Here’s my review that is book 39 of 45 of my Reading Challenge 2018.


What is it like to stand in front of 30 Chinese ten year olds and teach them fractions in one of the top performing systems in the world? I’ve often speculated.

For me, this is a particularly pertinent question, given the hankering for Asian maths curriculum and pedagogies in U.K primary education. Surely, they must be doing it better than us, given their PISA results. This, amongst many other questions, has often lingered in the back of my mind as i’ve taught my ten year olds on a dreary Wednesday afternoon in an inner city school.

With a keen interest in what is going on in the schools around the world, as soon as I had the chance, I bought Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands to see if it met some of my curiosities. As a classroom practitioner and middle leader, I was particularly eager to understand what it was like at the chalk face in Shanghai, Tokyo and Vancouver amongst others; I wondered whether teachers in these countries might have the same struggles as me.

After an enviable trip around some of the world’s top performing education systems, Crehan offers up her 300 page, beautifully written perspective on the educational world. Here are some of my thoughts on what she has written. I’ll begin with the things that stuck with me about the countries she visited and then reflect on Crehan’s five principles of equitable education systems.



Crehan begins the story of her year in Finland. There were loads of interesting things that she discovered in this country and loads of things I think the Finnish system is doing really well. Fascinatingly, textbooks in Finland are key to classroom practice, she writes about the wider issue here. I let out an audible gasp when I read this:

‘In Finnish schools, textbooks are the main tool. Experiences and skilful teachers have come together with the publisher to create an interesting, enjoyable and motivating textbook that is based on current curriculum…Nowadays teachers have so much other things to do than planning the lessons that I would say all the teachers depend on the materials A LOT.’ (p.60)

I think this is a good thing for a number of reasons. First, I think it says a lot about the teachers and the philosophy of instruction teachers have in Finland. Educators in this nation think so highly of the quality of content within these textbooks that they choose to let that part of their teaching be left up to curriculum designers and textbook writers. But that’s just it: I got a feeling that Finnish teachers see their role as ‘content deliverers/instructors’ of a rather fixed curriculum, rather than a conglomerate of instructor/worksheet machine/up all night thinking of something creative for an observation sort of professional. In other words, they saw themselves as limited, finite cogs within a far larger systematic chain of education for their pupils. And, they’re very okay about this. Being the ‘same’ is a good thing. At the end of the day, in the case of attainment for pupils, the ‘same’ sort of teaching across the nation is gleaning the same sorts of results for pupils, regardless of socio-economic background or context. This is quite remarkable.

Singapore, Shanghai and Japan

I felt unease when reading about there regimes in these regions. Some felt better than others but regardless of this, I’ve grouped them together in this review. In these nations, the pressure that children and young people are under to perform well on high stakes tests seems to be excruciating, leaving several with mental health issues. To me, it seemed as though the pressure came from a combination of the way the systems are set up and the ‘pushy’ parenting that is rife. Education, or more accurately, achieving well on tests, is seen as the golden ticket to success. This is linked to the other take home message: the high stakes testing regime is fuelled by the school streaming that is embedded in Singaporean educational culture and to some extent Shanghai. Shanghai is similar to Singapore in its high stakes testing regimes. It also has a dodgy and quite political way that it streams its children into schools. Japan also has an unhealthy culture of being accepted into higher education.

One definite positive is the curriculum: all three countries have very carefully constructed curriculums with less content and more depth. There are many strengths but the things mentioned above are what stood out to most.


Canada seemed to have a more measured approach to schooling. in Crehan’s view Interestingly however, in recent years, Canada’s international performance scores have declined, with some speculating that this has coincided with an emphasis on discovery based learning strategies. Regardless of this, Crehan liked the consistent balancing of a range of academic, social and moral skills within the Canadian curriculum and a more thoughtful approach to school accountability.


What makes a great school system?

Lucy finishes her trip by reflecting on the underpinning principles that make the most effective, equitable educational systems tick. Here are my thoughts on her key points:

1. Get children school ready

Time and again in the narrative it is clear that some educational systems prepare children for more formal school learning far, far better than others. There is a variety of approaches that are taken in the system’s she surveyed; however, whatever the approach, it is abundantly clear that top performing nations don’t let children start formal schooling unprepared, or, quite significantly, with undiagnosed learning difficulties that are not rigorously supported by experienced professionals. Nothing is left to chance in the early stages of their children’s education.

2. High Expectations

Irrespective of socio-economic background, ethnicity or other social factors, top performing, equitable systems have sky-high expectations for all as the norm, rather than the exception. This is of course the mantra of teachers’ standards, Ofsted inspectors and leaders and consultants in our country but what is different about the nations that Crehan visited is that high expectations of all pupils tends to be a practical reality in almost all classrooms. It seems to be far more embedded within the fabric of the systems across the world than in our own.

3. Curriculum for Mastery

This one was quite close to my heart, as someone who wrote 20,000 words about curriculum for his masters, it was wonderful to read that the top performing systems work very hard at ensuring that their curriculum is high on the agenda of education professionals at every level. A distinctive feature of the curriculum of high performing systems is less content in more depth. More than this, all pupils are expected to fully understand the concepts in detail before teachers move on. It is assumed by teachers that the curriculum must be learnt not covered. The amount of practice teachers give their pupils, particularly in countries such as Japan, China and Singapore to ensure that concepts are embedded within the long term memory seems to be, inasmuch as I can gather from Crehan’s experiences, far more than we generally give our pupils in the U.K.

4. Treating teachers as professionals

I was flabbergasted to read about teaching in other nations for a few reasons. First, I was encouraged to read about teachers across all of the nations Crehan went to being treated as important professional people within society doing a great work. I’m not saying that this isn’t the case in the U.K but I definitely got the sense that in the countries that Lucy visited, teachers are held in high regard more generally than they are in this country. This is good. This should happen here. Next, I was really impressed by the professional development progression that they have for teachers in Singapore. I think this would be a really good thing to have in this country. Crehan has written more about this here. I won’t steal her thunder. Go check it out. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness the teachers Crehan had towards their craft. It comforted me to know that thousands of miles away, there are teachers reflecting on their day to day practice really seriously. It comforted me to know that across the world there are teachers who are reading the research and blogs to consider how they can become more effective practitioners and make more of a difference to their pupils each and every day. I got a real sense that I was part of a global community of people who care about this thing called teaching and love what they do.

5. Keep schools accountable and combine it with support

This was a really interesting thing to read about in Lucy’s book, especially comparing it with the accountability regimes in England and Wales. Throughout the vast majority of nations, it seemed clear to me that those who kept schools to account (they took on various job titles depending on the nation they were in) combined all their challenge with ample amounts of support. More than this, all the nations’ school accountability structures spent lots of time in schools helping teachers and leaders to improve what they did. Lots of time. One quote that will stick with me is when Crehan told a Japanese school governor about how Ofsted spends three days in a school and is then expected to make a judgment on it, they replied saying that this was far too short a time to get a feel for a school. This was particularly apt considering that in Japan they spend over six months doing the equivalent of ‘inspecting’.

Due to its style and narrative being  accessible and conversational while remaining razor sharp in its structure and diagnosis of national systems, this was an excellent read.

Final thoughts

This book skilfully combined an accessible, conversational style with an unrelenting focus on understanding what makes the top performing educational systems so successful. I felt like I went with Crehan on a journey and was easily persuaded to arrive at the same conclusions (not something I often feel). Throughout though, I was directed to sharpen my focus to deep, thoughtful insights into the weaknesses and subtle strengths of these systems and what we might be able to learn from them.

Without a doubt, it has opened my eyes to what British education could be and will be if we continue in the direction we are going. We must heed the advice gleaned from these nations.  As a classroom teacher, after reading, I felt encouraged to do my job a little better everyday, knowing that teachers the world over seem to have the same drive and ambition to do the best they can for every child they teach, regardless of their background or social standing. I was also reminded that no system is perfect, even the ones that perform really well on international tests. Given the conversations going on in our country and some of the changes being made, I am hopeful for the future.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan”

  1. The ‘school readiness’ issue has strong echos of the ‘reading readiness’ theory that plagued primary schools up until the 1990s. When children such as my own son failed to make a start in reading in infant school, their parents were fobbed off with the excuse that they weren’t ‘ready’ to read. Fortunately, we got a second opinion from a retired teacher, and with her help we managed to get him well ahead of his calendar age in only six months. Being that I was doing a degree course in History at UEA, I spent a lot of time in the education stacks and found that the evidence for the then fashionable theories on reading pedagogy were hotly contested by cognitive scientists, and that children who were behind in reading at age 8 only had a one-in-ten chance of catching up later.

    We decided to start a charity to help Norfolk parents teach their own children to read, and I trained a few students to guide them in the use of scripted lessons. It was a massive success, and we were succeeding where ‘trained professionals’ had failed miserably. Unless you’ve been there, you have no idea what it’s like in a home where a child is taunted as a ‘thicko’ at school. By 1996 our charity was teaching so many of the SEN pupils at the local comp that they hired me as an unqualified teach to work with the rest of them. By then I was also writing articles for academic journals and think-tanks; eventually I was awarded a DPhil by published works by the University of Buckingham, despite not having any training other than an excellent two-week Regimental Signals Instructor’s course whilst in the TA.

    Even though the synthetic phonics approach we used has been thoroughly vindicated, the belief that SEN children need highly-trained professionals is grossly exaggerated. Undoubtedly, a small minority–probably no more than 1%–need special schools, but the notion that children in mainstream education need specialist teaching is not borne out by the evidence. In schools with rigorous synthetic phonics teaching, virtually the only children identified as SEND are there for health or statutory reasons, such as being in care.

    Although the dyslexia industry is totally sincere in their desire to help children like my own son, they are also counter-productive: the notion that dylexics ‘learn differently’ has no more support in the cognitive sciences than any other ‘learning style’ philosophy. Some children need much more over-learning than others to master a phonetic spelling code, but in all other respects they represent a normal distribution of cognitive abilities. I’ve taught enough of them to understand that supposedly dyslexic children come in all shapes and sizes, and that the key to success is to focus relentlessly on teaching the skills that must be learnt.


  2. Thanks for this review. Very interesting. I wonder does she cover how outcomes are measured in different education systems?


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