Look East: Why Chinese lessons are booming

Where Chinese was once an exotic subject to study, today it has taken off in many schools. Hilary Wilce finds it has won the ultimate accolade – its own GCSE textbook
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Two East London schoolgirls are chattering animatedly about their families, but not in English, or in their home languages of Urdu or Bengali. Instead Shajedah Kayum and Johura Hasna are gassing confidently in Mandarin Chinese.

At Kingsford Community School, in Beckton, east London, every pupil studies Mandarin when they start at age 11, and growing numbers are now choosing it at GCSE. Last year, 15 students took the subject and 66 per cent of them achieved A or A* grades. In Year Nine, about 50 students have already embarked – one year early – on Mandarin GCSE.

Kingsford is not alone. Mandarin is fast going mainstream with about 500 schools – no one knows the precise figure – offering it as part of the curriculum, and many more in after-school clubs. The first GCSE Chinese textbook has just been published by Pearson Education, in conjunction with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, tailored to a new EdExcel exam.

The language that used to be seen as an exotic novelty is taking its place as a normal GCSE languages option.

Sceptics say that this is all just a gimmick and that classroom time could be better used to help pupils become competent in a more accessible language such as French or Spanish.

But according to school heads who offer Mandarin courses, which include language and culture, the subject opens pupils' eyes to the biggest country in the world, hones general language skills, engages boys – who relate to the visual and spatial aspects of the language – enhances students' resumes, and can be a subject in which pupils who struggle with other languages do well.

Twelve schools in Britain have now become Confucius Classrooms, receiving support from the Office of Chinese Language Council, known as Hanban, along with help from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, itself a Confucius Institute since 2006.

This allows them to grow as specialist hubs, helping other schools to bring in Chinese studies.

Kingsford, a language college for 11- to 16-year-olds, is a Confucius Classroom and believes Mandarin has brought many benefits to its pupils. The school is a new one and only moved into its current building in 2002. The original head asked colleagues to suggest innovative cross-curricular programmes and the current head, Joan Deslandes, who was then in charge of humanities, languages and technology, suggested doing something on China.

"China had just joined the World Trade Association, I was interested in Confucius and I thought it was a language which none of our children spoke, so this would be a level playing field," she says. In a school where the pupils speak 55 languages between them, finding such a language was no easy task. Even so, some governors were initially resistant.

But Mandarin triumphed and since then the school has won a national Mandarin-speaking competition, sent students regularly to visit China, and built a close link with Brighton College, an independent school in Sussex, where Mandarin is compulsory.

Three Kingsford students a year go on scholarships to Brighton College to do their A levels. Other pupils have this year moved to other independent schools, including Cheltenham Ladies College, with their applications bolstered by their Mandarin skills.

The Mandarin programme brings many national and international visitors to the school, where they listen to pupils talk and watch them perform a tai chi-based fan dance.

The whole programme has clearly given many pupils a feeling of confidence and achievement. "I really like it and I'm glad I chose it," says Johura Hasna, who is just embarking on her GCSE and says she might want to work as a lawyer using her Chinese.

She was one student who won a trip to China "where, when you started talking people were, like, 'Wow'".

Osman Abdul-Moomin, another Year Nine pupil and who won the trip, says he was struck, in China, by how well everything was organised and how hard people worked. He is delighted he is doing the subject. "Speaking Mandarin – it's a trump card!"

The school has two permanent Mandarin teachers and is looking for a third. It also gets support from Hanban teachers who come on placement from China. Linying Liu is the school's Confucius classroom manager, who is helping to write the new Chinese textbooks. She says that she could easily find a job in an independent school, but is happy in the tougher conditions that Kingsford offers.

For the head teacher Joan Deslandes, the programme is just one aspect of an education of high expectations. Mandarin is in the top three languages that employers say they want, she says.

"But any school that wants to do it will have to have the full backing of the school leadership, and will need to make an investment in curriculum time. And it will have to recognise there are no quick wins here. It will not necessarily make your exam results look good." Even so, Kingsford students, despite coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, far exceed the national GCSE average.

Mandarin has now reached take-off point in British schools with the publication of the new textbook, according to Katharine Carruthers, the director for the SSAT Confucius Institute. "For the first time it is going to look like any other GCSE," she says. "Before it could be seen as something exotic and heads could get away with a bit of teaching after school, but now it's going viral and heads are starting to think, 'I'd better take a look at this because it's obviously changed.'" Textbooks for Key Stages 3 and 2 are also in the pipeline.

According to Andrew Hall, the head of Calday Grange Grammar School, in West Kirby, the home of another Confucius Classroom, the language "has gone from novelty to mainstream" in 10 years. His school works with five other secondary schools as well as with primaries and nurseries. "The students enjoy it and parents are very supportive," he says. "There's a great and growing awareness of China."

But just how proficient are students who have gained GCSE Chinese? In speaking and listening they are not far off the level they would be in, say, French, says Katherine Carruthers. Their reading and writing, however, takes longer, which means the passages that are set for them are shorter and easier. "But there is every sign that the subject is engaging children," she says. "They love learning about the culture and it is very motivating."