Ditch French and German lessons for Mandarin, says David Cameron as his visit to China draws to a close

PM announces language plan for UK schools on last day of China trip

David Cameron has thrown his weight behind efforts to prioritise the teaching of Mandarin in UK schools.

The Prime Minister, speaking on the last leg of his visit to China, urged them to “look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin”.

His comments follow a report by the British Council late last month which put Mandarin Chinese in the top five of the ten most important languages that should be taught in UK schools. It was given second place ahead of French and German - and behind only Spanish.

Yet the report acknowledged that only per cent of people in Britain are fluent enough to conduct a conversation in the language.

As the Prime Minister ended his visit, it emerged agreement had been reached between the British Council and the Hanban (the Chinese national office for the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language) to double the number of Chinese language assistants in the UK by 2016 - with a view to also doubling the number of pupils learning the language to 400,000.

Funding will be increased to schools to reducing the cost of training teachers to teach the subject and, in addition, 60 headteachers from the UK will be invited to go on study visits to China next year.

Mr Cameron said: “I want Britain linked up to the world’s fast growing economies - and that includes our young people learning the languages to seal tomorrow’s business deals.

“By the time the children born today leave school, China is set to be be the world’s largest economy. So it’s time to look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin.

“As Mandela once said: ‘if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.”

Mr Cameron is not the first UK politician to highlight the need to increase the number of UK pupils learning Mandarin but - despite good intentions - reaction from schools on the ground has been lukewarm.

Ed Balls when he was Education Secretary said every secondary school pupil should have the right to learn an “up-and-coming” language such as Mandarin whilst at school,  He also encouraged primary schools to put languages like Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic on the curriculum.

However, despite that exhortation, growth has been slow with the number of GCSE candidates this year 600 down compared with the highest figure on record of 3,650 three years ago..  At A-level, the number of candidates fell by 99 to 3,326 this summer.

Over the past decade, GCSE numbers have risen by just 377 while A-level candidates have gone up by 1,590.

The British Council believes that the lack of trained teachers in the subjects has played its part in limiting the take-up.

However, Dr Anthony Seldon,  master of Wellington College - which has a mandarin centre at the school, believes exam boards should set separate papers for native speakers and those approaching the language for the first time - as has happened with the International Baccalaureate.  Exam boards, however, reject this approach - saying it has not been necessary with other minority languages such as Urdu.

Some principals and heads say it is the perceived difficulty of the exam that is putting them off entering more pupils for the subject.  “I guess some headmasters are not keen on taking Chinese on,” said one. “The reason for that is because they are more keen on league tables and they think Chinese may be too difficult for students and will affect their status, which is understandable.”

After this year’s exam results, exam regulator Ofqual said it was carrying out an investigation into languages - which is expected to look at claims it is harder to get a top grade pass in the subject than in others.

Whether it is a difficult language to learn in itself rather than just - as is suspected of all modern foreign languages subjects - harder to get a top grade pass at either A-level or GCSE is debatable.

“Some people say it’s a difficult language to learn but I think that’s a misconception,” said Tony Xu, principal and managing director of the Confucius Language Academy in Leeds. “They look at the characters and think ‘how can I learn that?’ But Chinese is not a difficult language to learn. It’s easier than English and other European languages in many ways.”

Language experts add that - as with any other language - successful learning is more likely the earlier you take up the subject. That is why they enthusiastically support the Government’s stricture that language learning should be compulsory for all seven-year-olds from next September.  Mandarin is one of the languages that can be offered under this extension to the national curriculum.

Further to the announcement on Mandarin, Downing Street also revealed that a group of UK maths teachers would also go to China to study their maths and science teaching in the hope of coming back with ideas about how to improve the UK’s world ranking in these subjects.

Shanghai, China, topped the international league table of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test results published yon Tuesday. Their 15-year-olds were said to be three years ahead of those in the UK in maths.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Bianca Miller in the final of The Apprentice
tvMark Wright and Bianca Miller fight for Lord Sugar's investment
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick