Using their noodles

Their parents might be whizzes in the kitchen, but it's schoolwork that the children of Chinese immigrants are excelling at. Caroline Haydon reports
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The Independent Online

Soho Parish Church of England Primary nestles in the unlikely surroundings of London's red light district. A high Victorian brick wall separates the school from its nearest neighbour, a lingerie shop, and the school is a stone's throw from the capital's Chinatown.

It is the nearest primary for the area's Chinese restaurant and takeaway workers, and inside the bustling, cheerfully decorated classrooms Chinese children are the largest ethnic group. They are also, says a report now attracting government interest, the group putting the highest value on education in this country, and it shows in the league tables.

The two-year study was carried out in London, where almost half the total Chinese population in Britain is congregated. This is an often overlooked minority. Families can be far flung and relatively isolated, running the single local Chinese eatery. The London survey was small, with 80 British Chinese 15- and 16-year-olds, and 30 parents and teachers interviewed. But what is remarkable about the results is their consistency.

"The answer to the question 'is education important?' was universal," say the report's authors Dr Becky Francis and Dr Louise Archer, from the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University. All pupils and parents, from whatever social class or whichever gender, said that education was vital - a finding researchers may be unlikely to reproduce with almost any other ethnic group. Government figures show the likely repercussions - 75 per cent of Chinese pupils gain five or more GCSEs at A-C level, compared with 55 per cent of white pupils and 34 per cent of black Caribbean pupils.

Children at Soho Parish bear out what the report says about the willingness of Chinese pupils to study out of school (even if in some cases that means learning seven days a week); to take up extra-curricular activities; and the fondness of both boys and girls for subjects such as maths. High self-esteem and ambition - aspirations were usually towards top business and professional occupations - also help.

Most of the school's pupils live locally in Soho or Chinatown, speaking Cantonese as a first language, and were born in the UK to first-generation immigrant parents. Wei Yu Lin, whose daughters Angela, five, and Violet, 10, both go to Soho Parish, tells me Chinese children do well at school because it is important to parents coming in to the country that the next generation achieves academic success. Violet, like many of London's 10-year-olds, is busy searching out a secondary school, and has spotted one in Victoria she thinks she would like. Sitting in a group of Chinese children from all year groups in the school she is articulate about her likes and dislikes - she is fond of history. Out of six children, four choose maths as their favourite subject. And two of the group are polite but keen to be off to after-school guitar and sports lessons. Three have done extra lessons in Mandarin or Cantonese after school.

Head Rachel Earnshaw says many of the Chinese children do join in extra activities such as music. "I've a very strong sense that they're keen to participate," she says. "Teachers don't have a hard time encouraging them to do things, whereas other groups might be more reticent."

She is in absolute agreement with Francis and Archer about the value the whole community places on education. "Without exception, and whatever the ability of the child, our ethnic Chinese parents tend to value education very highly and are keen to work with us to support their children's learning," she says.

Francis, whose husband is British-born Chinese, says even she was surprised at just how marked a feeling this was among the Chinese, and also by the level of attainment of the children. The team had expected more range in ability than they actually found - in the end, only two of the children could be classified in the lowest ability bracket, and one had special needs.

"I think what also surprised us was the way the whole community used education as something that defined them and set them apart from other groups, which they felt didn't value learning so highly," she says.

One pupil, Amy, put it succinctly as "School first, life later", and a parent described education as "a way of life".

But to the British, who pay little attention to a group they perceive as hard-working and non-troublesome, usually performing the socially useful function of providing takeaway meals at most times of day and night, the difficulties and inequalities some children and parents speak of in this recent report might come as something of a surprise.

They said that for many pupils and their families, racism at school and in the job market is an everyday, though often unrecognised, experience. The economic and educational success of many has meant real needs have often been overlooked.

More than a third of the parents in the report lived up to the stereotypes by working in catering, and many owned or managed their own restaurant or takeaway. The authors, however, warn that these people don't fit normal British assumptions about middle-class managers, because they come from poor backgrounds and work long, anti-social hours.

Their single most astonishing achievement, coming mostly from the impoverished enclaves of the New Territories of Hong Kong, was to have catapulted their children - in one generation - into the educational middle class, says Archer. And that means boys as well as girls performing as well as their female counterparts.

"The majority of testimonies came from parents from a peasant background, who were themselves not formally educated and are sometimes illiterate," she says. "Levels of education often progress through several generations, and yet these parents have turned things round in a generation, working long hours in hard conditions in order to be able to pay for extra support and more time for their children to study."

In addition to their success in school, this is a group that is now proportionally more likely than any other to go on to university, and every single child in the study cited future jobs as important.

Stereotypes, even when positive, can work against you, however, and Francis says this has been the case, particularly with the girls. "Many teachers described Chinese girls in negative terms, as excessively quiet, overly diligent and repressed," she says. "So girls can feel that popular assumptions about 'cleverness' are 'a big pressure'. Actually, when we talked to girls we found this view of them wasn't particularly true, and these views are far too simplistic."

Both Francis and Archer are keen that the ability of teachers to turn a virtue (willingness to learn) into a problem is more widely recognised in schools that have Chinese pupils. They say their research has implications for other high-achieving groups - Indian pupils nudge up against the Chinese in the achievement tables.

The efforts of the children themselves not to be seen by their classmates as "geeks" and "nerds", while living up to the high expectations of their teachers, makes revealing reading. As Donna, 15, puts it: "A lot of people think Chinese people are clever. Sometimes I feel I have to be clever, to be up to their standard. But sometimes, it is difficult."

If Donna's teachers read and understand, Francis and Archer will think they have notched up an achievement.