Anthropologist Robert Levine has always had doubts about the impact of schooling, despite a longstanding teaching career. In particular, he disapproves of the competition and institutionalisation that education so often involves. The renowned academic, who carried out extensive research on child-rearing practices in Africa between the 1950s and 1970s, values the strong ties in large families, where children look to older siblings as role models. 'School has a way of slowing down the learning process. You don't get seven-year-olds imitating 12-year-olds, for example, as they don't see each other that much,' he said. The former Harvard anthropology professor is currently a distinguished visiting professor in the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Education. He will stay in Hong Kong until June. He is particularly interested in cultural differences and their effect on children's development. He recently edited the book, Japanese Frames of Mind, which contains studies by several of his former doctoral students on Harvard's human development programme. It is due to be published later this year. Many other former students from various parts of the world have come up with additional evidence that culture rather than schooling is the predominant factor in child behaviour. 'We get more data all the time to prove it,' said Professor Levine, 68. The nurturing role of parents was a key factor, he said. 'They decide how much of their children's potential is going to be realised. They have an agenda that is set by their culture.' Parents transmitted to their children cultural values, such as beauty and what constitutes a good human being as determined by the particular society they were living in, he said. By the time children were three, their behaviour already showed cultural traits. Compared with children in America, African children were much quieter and complied more with parental wishes because their mothers were keen to make the child sensitive to what they wanted. Professor Levine said: 'They give lots of open, clear-cut commands instead of posing questions. They never praise their children, thinking they would make their children conceited if they did. 'In contrast, middle-class Americans often ask their infants questions in a bid to help their verbal skills.' In Japanese society, mothers have high expectations for their children, but they are unwilling to impose these on them. Instead, they determine to get the child to do what they want in a more subtle fashion. He referred to a study done by one of his doctoral students who had videotaped 20 Japanese mothers interacting with two-year-olds at home. The study found mothers were persistent in their demands but never got angry with their children or issued any straightforward command. 'They used a very sweet voice to teach their child, and the children became incredibly sensitive to their wishes,' he said. Despite his view of the central role of parents, the idea of home-schooling, popular in the United States, holds limited appeal for him. 'The parent-child relationship is important but it should not be the only one,' he said. 'For home-schooling, there is a problem with the learning relationship. Parents have to think seriously about how their children are going to acquire social skills. 'Even at playgroup level, it requires a good deal of parental attention to developing children's social skills to replace what you get automatically packaged in schools.' Yet his criticism of schools, which he labels as units in a set of modern bureaucracies, remains. The system of mass schooling, which emerged in the 19th century, created the age-segregated environment of the classroom, depriving children of contact with older role models. 'Schools provide children with the skills, aspirations and appropriate models of interaction in the modern society,' he said. Professor Levine prefers to avoid the term 'intelligence' in describing people's potential and does not subscribe to the contemporary idea of IQ tests based on skills taught in schools. 'A large proportion of the intelligence tests adopted nowadays are heavy vocabulary tests. A child from a highly educated family knows more vocabulary. 'I know people who have not been to school who do not have the verbal skills people label as intelligence. They often do develop other skills, though not those particularly related to reading and writing, which are skills encouraged by the school system.' Yet he agrees on the importance of equal access to schools. 'It is good to have 100 per cent of children in pre-schools. This equalises children's opportunities to receive formal education, whether or not their parents are educated,' he said. In Hong Kong 95 per cent of young children attended pre-school, perhaps the highest rate a society could have, he said. His latest research project was conducted with his anthropologist wife, Sarah, and a Harvard graduate student, in two communities in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal and centred on the benefits of schooling for women. People's access to education varies widely from region to region in Nepal, but between 1960 and 1995 the country has seen a great expansion in schooling for girls. Professor Levine's study shows positive links between education and falling fertility and child mortality rates. The infant mortality rate in Nepal dropped from 199 per 1,000 live births recorded in 1960 to 93 per 1,000 in 1997, after more women had access to education. The fertility rate also dropped from 5.8 to 4.6 (defined as the number of children born to the average woman during her reproductive years) in the same period. Professor Levine's years of experience in areas of Africa with no formal schooling have convinced him that informal routes to learning have their value, even if they cannot meet the demands of modern living. 'We should not impose one uniform system of schooling across the whole world, although it is too late to stop that process now,' he said.