Books in brief: Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

A 2016 review for Prospect

Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan (Unbound, £16.99)

The academic progress of the world’s 15-year-olds is tested regularly by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Pupils from Finland, Japan and Shanghai consistently excel. In 2012, the UK finished near the bottom of the top third, despite relative economic strength. In footballing terms, we’re Everton. Good, but room for improvement.

Rankings matter. For David Cameron’s government, our PISA level became a rhetorical tool, and an enabler of Michael Gove’s reform agenda — why can’t the UK be more like Shanghai? More pertinently: how are high PISA scores achieved? What can others learn from this? What is the price of success? Lucy Crehan decided to find out in her audacious and important Cleverlands — crowd-funded through publishers Unbound — which follows her journey from frustrated London teacher to globe-trotting education expert.

Crehan stays with families in five countries, visiting schools, teaching, talking and listening. She finds out surprising things. The myth of Finland as a schooling nirvana where children play their way to academic success gently encouraged by ecstatic teachers on doctors’ salaries is — at least partly — debunked. As is the idea, pushed by traditionalists, that investment in student welfare is wasteful and unnecessary. Each school drop-out eventually costs Finnish taxpayers €1m. Japanese primaries do not always insist on immaculate behaviour, and sometimes permit chaos. Why? So students can discover over time the value of orderly collaboration.

Cleverlands is not just for specialists: it is a wry and accessible narrative of personal enterprise, which will be fascinating to anyone who cares about schools. And that should mean everyone.

Originally published at on December 14, 2016.