Long march to mutual understanding

China is opening itself up to the West as never before, and looking to Britain to help with education reform. Lucy Hodges visited Shanghai to see how the two nations are making connections
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The Independent Online

Stuart Turton is a tall, gangling youth who, less than six months ago, was finishing a degree in English and philosophy at Liverpool University. Today, he is an English-language assistant at Chang-zheng middle school, on the outskirts of Shanghai, one of an army of 86 such helpers in 12 cities across China, and the living embodiment of the extraordinary changes taking place in the People's Republic.

After three weeks' training, he is helping to bring reform to the Chinese education system by introducing his pupils to English as it is spoken, to British culture, and to the much looser, more relaxed teaching styles of the UK, where children are encouraged to say what they think, make choices, express themselves and use their imagination. Chinese education is extremely formal, dominated by chalk and talk, memorisation and writing. Children sit in serried ranks taking orders from their teacher. Other classes are very quiet, says Turton. His, however, are "a riot".

"I made them do public speaking," he explains. "I asked them to talk for one minute in class about a subject of their choice. Some chose to talk about Shakespeare, others about science, Charlie Chaplin or football. Then I increased the time of the talk to two minutes, and, finally, to four minutes in the hall in front of everyone. They hated doing it because they weren't used to it, but all of them did it, which was the important thing."

The head teacher, Li Hai Tang, is very pleased with what Turton is doing and with his cheerful, can-do attitude. He is convinced that his pupils need to learn to speak decent English if they are to get on in modern China and, indeed, the world. To that end, he has also formed links with Ashcombe, a comprehensive school in Dorking, Surrey. During the summer, two Chinese teachers attended a summer camp in southern England to cement the exchange, and a group of English teachers and pupils paid a return visit to China.

One of the Chinese teachers, Chen Nini, said that she had learnt a great deal from a "culture week" at Ashcombe. "I think there are more activities for UK students outside the curriculum, such as plays and concerts," she explained. "Maybe we can transfer some of these things to China."

Her colleague, Mao Lei, agreed. She was impressed that the Ashcombe pupils had been able to plant strawberries, pick them and use them to make strawberry cakes. Chinese students can't do this kind of thing. "They have to labour too long and hard on written work," she said.

The teaching assistants and school-links programmes are just two strands in a new drive to promote mutual understanding between the two countries. In 2000, the former Education Secretary, David Blunkett, signed a cooperation agreement with Chen Zhili, who was then China's education minister and is now deputy prime minister. The new Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, will continue the connection. Economic reform has swept the country, bringing unprecedented levels of growth and Japanese motorbikes to a population that had little until recently.

Now, China's leaders are ready for education change. Britain's leaders, for their part, are keen to establish a relationship with a country that could well turn out to be the next world superpower, and to ensure that the UK plays a part in that development. At an education conference in Shanghai this month, attended by 11 sports-college heads from the UK, and a similar group from China, Mr Ping Jie, sports director at the Shanghai Education Commission, made clear that his country was looking beyond its borders for ideas. After a period in which its physical education had been influenced by the Soviet Union, it was now examining what was going on in Britain, the US and Japan. "Education should be student-oriented and human-oriented," he said.

In other words, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2007 Special Olympics in Shanghai, China wants to learn from the West how to loosen its teaching and learning styles by allowing students more creativity. This may seem odd, given that sporting excellence comes from discipline rather than creativity, but you can be sure that the Chinese will carve out their own path. Winning medals is unlikely to be sacrificed on the altar of the individual.

The head teachers at the conference, which was organised by the British Council with support from the Department for Education and Science, the Department of Health, and the Youth Sport Trust, resolved to form links. That was easier said than done. All links between schools in different countries take a good deal of organisation and commitment. There are special problems with Sino-UK links because the countries are so far away and the cultures so different. Moreover, none of the British school heads speaks Mandarin, and few of the Chinese heads speak more than a few words of English.

And the British were only too aware of the great divide between the notion of a sports college in Britain, which is about giving all children a rounded education, and the Chinese version that is concerned with selecting the most successful athletes and training them hard to come out on top. Nevertheless, there are signs that the Chinese are keen to move away from their hothouse academies for the gifted, towards educating the whole person.

Despite the differences, many of the heads were positively enthusiastic about their joint ventures. One head in particular, Chris McGrath, of Collegiate High School Sports College in Blackpool, which Tony Blair opened in October 2002, has even decided to teach himself Mandarin.

"The next generation will be the leaders of the world, and that is exactly why this cultural understanding is essential," says Li Fengxiang, head of Beijing No 66 middle school. His colleague at Beijing No 22 middle school concurs: "Most Chinese schools, and my school in particular, are very traditional, but when it comes to the globalisation of education, we feel that this kind of international exchange is very important."

Although the British heads are concerned that it might be difficult to persuade children and parents of the value of links with China, Bernard Clarke, the principal of King Alfred's Community and Sports College in Wantage, is convinced that they should try. "China is going to take the world by storm," he says. "I want the young people at my school to know about it so that they are ready for it and, ideally, can be part of the action."

For Jonathan Hickman, head of the Manor School in Nottinghamshire, the partnership has an essentially practical rationale - he sees it as an opportunity to raise the status of his school in the eyes of the local community, and as a way to stop the best teachers leaving.

Peter Bradbury, head of Poltair Community School and Sports College in St Austell, Cornwall, speaks for many when he says that exchanges between students and staff will broaden their minds. Both sides will learn from one another. The British can learn from the Chinese about using technology (some classrooms in China had fantastic ICT kit for the teachers' use), and the Chinese can learn from the British about new ways of teaching and learning.

But Vanda Tillotson, head of Cavendish School in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, thinks that the people who will benefit most are the students. The exchanges will help to raise their aspirations. "It's my job to open students' eyes and encourage them to do things," she says. To try to ensure that the links work, the British schools teamed up into pairs. Cavendish School, for example, is working with the Coopers' Company and Coborn School in Essex, and both have their own partners in China. This way, the schools will be able to support one another in their own countries as well as in the links that they form abroad.

The conference was not all plain sailing. The British and Chinese schools were worried about different things, the former about where the money would come from for the exchanges, the latter about the bureaucracy that they would encounter in navigating tortuous immigration controls.

The big question for the Chinese is how to import British ideas about teaching and learning without the unsavoury aspects of Western culture - pupil disaffection, drug addiction and street crime, for example. But a glance at the local Chinese papers suggests that some of those have already arrived.


Funded by the Department for Education and Skills and HSBC, the new partnership in education between China and Britain is building up gradually. The effects have been noticeable. Head-teacher visits have proved popular, and immersion courses in Mandarin for sixth-formers have led to young people changing their minds about the subject that they want to study at university. Out of the original 36 sixth-formers who visited China in 2000, three switched and decided to read Mandarin. The first group of Chinese teachers arrived in Britain this year to teach Chinese culture and language.

In addition, the British Council is organising joint curriculum projects whereby schools arrange activities that students in both countries can take part in. For example, they tested and compared river pollution in their respective countries, and Chinese students were pleased to discover that the Yangtse was less polluted than they thought.

"The school links is an excellent scheme that brings children together and encourages a better understanding of one another's culture," said David Green, director of the British Council, on a whistle-stop tour of China earlier this month. "There has been a strengthening of links between the United Kingdom and China in so many ways, and it was very good to see how this is happening in practice."