Why Mandarin teachers have the remote control

Pupils increasingly want to learn Mandarin – but the UK has only 100 people qualified to teach the language. Jeremy Sutcliffe visits a schools that's found a novel solution: lessons by video conferencing.

Oliver Piggott is not the sort of student you would expect to sign up for a crash course in Mandarin Chinese. Having opted to take chemistry, biology, physics, maths and computer science A-levels, he hopes to study a combination of science and technology at university in preparation for a career in industry.

The 16-year-old is about to start his A-levels in the sixth form at Woldgate College in Pocklington, a picturesque market town nestled at the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds. He is one of a group of students considering taking a two hours-a-week course in Mandarin as part of the school's enrichment programme. The aim is to give students the chance to learn the language spoken in the world's fastest-growing economy.

For Oliver, who like many of his generation dropped languages at 14 after the Labour government ended the requirement for pupils to study a language to 16, the idea of learning Mandarin makes perfect sense. "I've seen Mandarin come up in the news and it seems to me like quite a good skill to have if you want to go around the world," he says. "It's an up and coming language and I think it's a good idea to be able to work with people in China and to speak their language. It appeals to me on a business level. If you want to be successful, you have got to be able to adapt to the places that are up and coming. Learning Mandarin is a good start."

This argument perfectly sums up the national debate about modern languages in schools. With China predicted to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by 2027, successive government ministers have spoken of the need to establish Mandarin as a mainstream subject.

In January 2010, Labour education secretary Ed Balls said he wanted every secondary school pupil to have the right to learn an "up and coming" languages such as Mandarin, Japanese or Arabic. His successor Michael Gove announced a five-year programme to train 1,000 extra Mandarin teachers for England's secondary schools.

Gove's bold statement looked set to dramatically increase the number of pupils learning Mandarin from Year 7 onwards. The move was necessary, he said, to equip the next generation with the skills needed to ensure the long-term success of the UK economy.

But despite these ambitions, the stark reality is that very few schools have the capacity to teach Mandarin. When Gove made his announcement there were just 100 qualified Mandarin teachers in the UK. The most recent Language Trends survey by CfBT Education Trust shows that, while the proportion of state secondary schools offering Mandarin rose from 9 per cent to 16 per cent between 2007 and 2009, it fell back to 14 per cent in 2011.

Moreover, while this still means that around 500 schools offer Mandarin, the reality is that only a minority teach it as a GCSE or A-level subject and most of those are in the independent sector. The majority offer it as a short "taster" course, often after school.

One reason is that qualified Mandarin teachers are like gold dust, says Rachel Cope, head of modern languages at Woldgate College. "I tried to put Mandarin on the curriculum last year in the sixth form and I really struggled to find a teacher because there simply aren't enough. At the moment it isn't appearing in any schools in the East Riding, which is a shame because we are all keen to take new languages on board. But for now the languages taught in schools remain very much the European languages, French, Spanish and German."

Woldgate's answer is to offer its sixth formers Mandarin lessons via video-conference link, offering Oliver and his fellow students the chance to be taught by an experienced Mandarin tutor.

The course is run by MB Learning Solutions, a Conwy-based firm that provides A-level, GCSE and taster courses to schools unable to supply in-house teachers in specific subjects. The company is the first in the UK to offer schools GCSE and enrichment courses in Mandarin via distance learning.

Video conferencing, which provides a two-way visual link between a class of students and their tutor, has enabled Woldgate to offer a number of additional subjects they would not otherwise be able to provide, including GCSE Latin in Year 10 and electronics and law at A-level.

"This course is a really innovative answer to our problem of not being able to find a qualified Mandarin teacher," says school principal Jeff Bower. "It gives our students an introduction to the language and shows their interest and commitment to learning something different that will stand them in good stead when they apply to university.

"This is a first step for us but we hope to expand Mandarin courses lower down the school in future. I know of schools that are considering introducing Mandarin as a language from Year 7, instead of French or Spanish. The problem they are having is staffing. Video conferencing is an effective alternative."

Course tutor Joseph Buck, 27, a fluent Mandarin teacher, says that by the end of the one-year AQA short course in speaking and listening, students will be able to communicate in Mandarin on day-to-day topics with confidence. They will also learn about Chinese culture.

He says: "They will come away with a genuinely practical skill they are capable of using straight away. I teach a lot of adults, many of them international buyers who regularly visit China and who are looking to gain a better understanding of Chinese culture. Just being able to say a few words in Mandarin to a Chinese person gets you a long way."

The person tasked with delivering Michael Gove's pledge to train 1,000 Mandarin is Katharine Carruthers, director of the Confucius Institute at London University's Institute of Education. She is adamant that the target will be met.

About 30 teachers a year will be produced through mainstream training routes such as the PGCE and Graduate Teacher Programme, she says. The institute is also running a 30-hour course in classroom management skills for teachers visiting from China, to give them a taste of teaching in British schools, a very different experience from what they are used to. So far, 178 Chinese teachers have taken the course, while 48 British language teachers have offered the chance to take a crash course in Mandarin in Beijing.

But while all these teachers will receive a qualification, only around 150 are set to become fully qualified Mandarin teachers able to teach to GCSE and beyond. Most will gain only basic qualifications. "What we need is a proper strategy over a number of years to build capacity to teach children properly," says Teresa Tinsley, co-author of the CfBT Language Trends report and an expert in Mandarin teaching. "At the moment there are all sorts of excellent initiatives, some in primary, some in lower secondary and some at sixth form level. Are we going to start in primary and build it up through the system or is it best to offer Chinese to pupils who have already been successful at learning another language?

"At the moment we are spreading our resources too thinly and too often a school gets a teacher in and then they leave and all that good practice is lost. The reality is we cannot assume we are going to teach Chinese in the same way as European languages. The answer may be in very innovative solutions such as distance learning and blended learning by video link."

Jeff Bower is happy to be a pioneer in this experiment: "Video conferencing is the only option for schools like ours. The principle of starting Mandarin in Year 7 or even primary school is terrific but you can't just announce a policy and expect it to happen. We have to look at alternatives and that's what we have done."

mblearningsolutions.co.uk

Chinese whispers: Mandarin facts

One in four employers rate Mandarin as an essential skill for today's young people, placing it fourth behind German, French and Spanish (CBI/Pearson report 2012)

China is predicted to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by 2027

There are only about 100 qualified Mandarin teachers in the UK

Mandarin is offered by one in seven state schools but by more than a third of independent schools

It ranks alongside Latin as the fifth most common language offered in state schools after French, Spanish, German and Italian

Almost two-thirds of Mandarin lessons are offered as "taster" courses outside the regular school curriculum

Entries for GCSE Chinese fell by 35 per cent to 2,417 in 2010 after changes in the way the exam was assessed

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
News
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
News
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Nursery Manager is required t...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living