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UK and China forging new links in education

In the past month, we’ve seen massive fanfare over the official state visit by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, and first lady Peng Liyuan. A major goal of their visit was to forge closer links between the education sectors of our two nations.

During a speech to the Institute of Education (IOE), the president said: “The British have learned the virtues of strict discipline. Chinese children do not play enough. They should play more.”[1] This observation points at one of the key differences between the two approaches to education.

The Chinese leader’s comments were made days after a prominent figure in British education made similar points at a meeting in Shanghai. [2] Sir Anthony Sheldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said that although Chinese schools were excelling academically, they were missing an important aspect of education. Sir Anthony stated: “Many schools are robbing the young of the opportunity to blossom into the unique individuals they are; because too many teachers think that solely cramming pupils’ heads full of facts is education.” He added: “Many education systems focus on exams being the sole validators of school, but recent research suggests that jobs with a big growth in salary have been those that require a high degree of social skills.”

This focus on results over individuality has been a point of discussion since the BBC aired the documentary; ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough?’. [3] The programme introduced Chinese teachers and teaching methods into an average British school. Since the show aired, professionals in education have been asking what lessons can be learnt? International rankings rate schools in Shanghai and Hong Kong as amongst the very best in the world, but how much of this is down to teaching styles?

As any teacher knows, the most influential aspect of a child’s development is their environment. The Communist party has been enforcing limitations on child numbers for families for over three decades, which means parents are reliant on their only child for security in old age. This sense of duty is multiplied by the political system they are born into. In Chinese society, order and duty are highly valued ideals. By the time they have reached school age, children have an ingrained reverence for authority. When you combine this with twelve hour school days, intense discipline and a ‘listen and copy’ style of teaching, the reasons for high academic results become clearer.

By contrast, British children grow up in a free and democratic country; they are raised to value concepts such as free speech and individual expression. The level of parental pressure is also far lower in the UK. From an early age youngsters here know that it’s ok to be different.

This difference in upbringing was well summarised by author and journalist Xinran Xue. When she spoke to the Independent about the subject,  Xue described the differences in expectations, saying: “In China, when students come to the classroom, you have to tell them you must learn something. It is your duty to your nation, your country and your parents. British students are asked, what’s your future, what do you want for yourself?” [4]

In the near future, we are going to see an increased level of educational cooperation between the UK and China. Last month, the UK government announced a new fund to increase the teaching of Mandarin in British schools. [5] Describing the scheme, the Chancellor stated: “This investment means we can give more young people the opportunity to learn a language that will help them succeed in our increasingly global economy. I’m here in China to help forge closer economic and cultural relationships between our nations and this announcement is another great example of things we are doing to help grow both of our economies.”

Last month, the two countries signed 23 educational agreements. Among these is the ‘UK-China Strategic Framework in Education’, aimed at cultivating closer ties between the two school systems. The UK will provide sports education, whilst China will help to boost this country’s science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) provision.

Despite these lofty ambitions, some important questions remain unanswered. Is it possible to change educational outcomes without changes in wider society? The cultural factors that shape young people in China are unlikely to change. Whereas we live in a more open society, it would take change at a national level, over a prolonged period, to change attitudes to education. Even if we could make these changes, would it be beneficial in the long term? By adapting, would we lose an essential part of what makes us British? Only time will tell if this fusion of ideas can produce positive results for our two nations.

[1] Julian Borger (2015) ‘Xi Jinping: China has taught UK schools discipline – and learned about play’ <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/22/xi-jinping-china-taught-uk-schools-discipline-learned-about-play> [Accessed: 23 November 2015]

[2] Hannah Richardson (2015) ‘Chinese schools ‘robbing young of individuality’’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34605430> [Accessed: 23 November 2015]

[3] BBC (2015) ‘Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06565zm> [Accessed: 23 November 2015]

[4] Doug Bolton (2015) ‘Is China’s world-beating school system really the best for students?’ <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/is-chinas-world-beating-school-system-really-the-best-for-students-10436813.html> [Accessed: 23 November 2015]

[5]GOV.UK (2015) ‘Boost to Mandarin teaching in schools’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-announces-boost-to-mandarin-teaching-in-schools> [Accessed: 23 November 2015]

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