2013 “Chinese Bridge for UK Schools”
Study visit 21-28/9/13: Beijing and Shandong province
1. Introduction: Strengthening links between Wales and China
CILT Cymru has worked successfully in partnership with the Cardiff Confucius Institute for some years, and for the last two years we have transferred ￡45k of Welsh Government ‘IEP’ funding to CCI in order to support its work of promoting Chinese culture and language in Welsh schools. This work includes ‘China days’ in primary schools as well as the introduction of Mandarin within some Welsh Baccalaureate centres.
There is a network of 3 Confucius Institutes in Wales (based within Cardiff, Trinity St David’s and Bangor universities) and a further 11 ‘Confucius classrooms’ around Wales, each benefiting from financial and other forms of support from the Confucius Institutes. The CI network is global and is funded by a Chinese government agency called Hanban.
2. Chinese Bridge for UK Schools
I was invited to join 60 delegates participating in a visit entitled ‘Chinese Bridge for UK Schools’, the aim of which was to acquaint the participants with Chinese culture and the Mandarin language prior to establishing school or institutional links with China. Of the 60 delegates, 12 came from Wales, 30+ from Northern Ireland and the remainder from England. In the main the group comprised primary and secondary Heads, Assistant Heads/Deputies and MFL teachers. All costs in China were covered by Hanban, with air fares being paid for by UK schools or host institutions.2013 “Chinese Bridge for UK Schools” Study visit 21-28/9/13: Beijing and Shandong province.
Whilst the Welsh Government has for years nurtured links with Chonqing province and Cardiff was the first UK city to twin with a Chinese city (Xiamen) these links are not exclusive and the massive demand for links from Chinese schools (particularly to further the learning of English and Mandarin, but also more generally) means that a wide variety of linking options is open to Welsh schools and institutions.2013 “Chinese Bridge for UK Schools” Study visit 21-28/9/13: Beijing and Shandong province.
The Welsh delegation visited Shandong Province, a journey of 1.5 hours from Beijing by bullet train. The provincial capital, though having a population of 6.8 million, feels much smaller and greener than Beijing, and is known as ‘the city of springs’ due to the number of freshwater springs surfacing in the city centre. The province has a population of 96m, with 35,000 educational institutions including 12,047 primary schools, 3,004 middle schools and 565 High Schools. In addition there are 591 secondary vocational schools and 63 universities.
3. Official welcome in Jinan and Institutional linking
We were greeted in Jinan by a group of Shandong province’s top education officials, with an official welcome taking place at the Shandong Experimental High School. The Shandong Director of Education spoke of the high standards achieved throughout the province but admitted that they were striving to introduce a greater degree of creativity into their curriculum. A lack of creativity was seen as a weakness and needed to be addressed if China were to maintain its impressive rate of economic growth. Schools were exchanging teachers in an attempt to spread best practice around the province.2013 “Chinese Bridge for UK Schools” Study visit 21-28/9/13: Beijing and Shandong province.
Moral education and pupils’ mental health were mentioned on several occasions and these were seen to be a top priority, perhaps because of the considerable pressure put on pupils to achieve the best possible results in tests. Parental support and pressure is a notable feature of Chinese education. Following the 9 years of compulsory free education, the competition for places at the best High Schools is intense and the cost to parents is reduced if their children are high achievers. There are therefore several in-built incentives and drivers to ensure that pupils work hard and remain focused!2013 “Chinese Bridge for UK Schools” Study visit 21-28/9/13: Beijing and Shandong province.
At an evening official reception, at the invitation of Cardiff Confucius Institute, I made a speech referring to CILT Cymru’s partnership work with the 3 Confucius Institutes and 11 Confucius Classrooms in Wales. Despite the huge differences between modern China and Wales, our industrial heritage means that we have some common experiences, and there is a growing interest in cultural, educational and linguistic links between our countries. A mutual fascination with dragons also helps to build bridges! Presents were exchanged and a commitment made to promote further exchanges between Wales/UK and China.2013 “Chinese Bridge for UK Schools” Study visit 21-28/9/13: Beijing and Shandong province.
In this respect we can learn from our colleagues at Scottish CILT, which has merged with the Confucius Institute in Scotland and is now actively promoting educational links. SCILT has recently established 1 year scholarships for 12 young people from Scotland to study Mandarin in China before going to university.
4. School visits in Jinan /Shandong
The Shandong group of delegates was further divided into groups of 4, with each being taken to one or more schools to observe lessons and meet teachers. Schools visited included primary schools, middle schools, high schools, specialist MFL schools and private specialist schools. Some schools (both private and state-funded) included boarding facilities.
School buildings and facilities varied in standard from the functional and basic (though not very different from those at a number of schools I have visited in Wales and significantly better than some) to the startlingly lavish (e.g. a music room in one private school apparently contained 27 pianos!) However it was clear that delegates were being taken to leading schools in Shandong province, each acting as a showcase for its sector or specialism and able to boast the top test marks in the province.
I visited Jinan Shungeng Middle School, which receives 1,800 pupils aged 13-15, divided into 36 classes. I was accompanied by a Principal and 2 Assistant Principals from Academies in the London area. This in itself was a worthwhile learning experience and I shall be visiting one Academy in particular which achieves excellent results despite being non-selective and having a Free School Meal rate of 70+%.
We were all struck by the focus and concentration displayed by Chinese pupils. Although energetic, bubbly and curious about their visitors during break times, once in the classroom they seemed to be 100% focused on the task in hand, whether it was the learning of Maths, English, History or traditional crafts. Excellent standards seemed to be achieved by the majority of pupils in Maths and English. Although teacher-led, there was some interactivity and questioning which prompted pupils to justify their answers or refer to their personal experiences or preferences.
In their language learning, pupils seemed to have mastered a good range of verb forms and were able to frame questions and respond fluently. They also seemed to enjoy lessons and were very motivated to learn a new language.
Questions about special needs and differentiation were posed to teachers and officials, though with typical class sizes of 55+ it would not be easy to work in groups or to provide support for individuals. The reality is that with such a huge population, large class sizes are inevitable in a developing country such as China.
In History, the teaching approach was markedly different from that in Wales / the UK, with no real debate or consideration of how things might have evolved in a variety of ways had key events taken a different turn. There was no real opportunity for learners to be creative in the lesson we observed and I made this point to teachers/ officials in a feedback session. However this was just one lesson and it is dangerous to generalise based on this experience alone!
The teachers at the school were eager to hear our responses to the lessons observed and there was an honest and stimulating exchange of views.
A craft lesson (the aim of which was to introduce the traditional decorative Chinese knot) showed how difficult it is to ensure that all pupils make reasonable progress despite the range of abilities within a class of 55. At the end of the lesson, some pupils had produced the beginnings of a Chinese knot, whilst others were left holding a piece of string. I suspect I would have been in the latter group had I not received the individual attention of the teacher! This is not meant to be a criticism of either the teacher or the pupils, but is rather a recognition of the fact that large class sizes and mixed-ability teaching are challenging. The teacher-pupil ratio was very different from that which would typically be found in a UK school.
In some subjects therefore, standards achieved at this school exceeded those that might typically be seen in a Welsh/UK school at present, whilst in others, methodology was more akin to my experience as a pupil in a Welsh comprehensive school in the 1970s. Given that test results are deemed to be the most important measure of success for pupils and schools, there may be little incentive for that methodology to change.
Another notable feature was the emphasis placed on Physical Education within schools. During the frequent breaks which we witnessed, pupils would engage in a range of activities with minimal teacher supervision. These included races around the school track, tug o’ war and ping pong, all carried out with considerable enthusiasm and commitment. On the whole pupils looked slim and healthy, though the problem of short-sightedness was mentioned on several occasions. To counter the effects of the long school day (not to mention the hours of homework completed after school) there would be breaks for ‘eye massage’, accompanied by soothing music. These scenes will remain long in the memory of the UK delegates, demonstrating as they do the great cultural differences that still exist between China and most Western societies.
At other schools visited by UK colleagues elsewhere in Jinan, some delegates were taken to ‘psychology centres’. These were areas where pupils could vent any physical frustrations and could take part in psychological analysis and counselling sessions. Typically, these centres contained a sand tray (placing hands in sand is said to be calming) plus a set of shelves with an array of objects or toys. Pupils were encouraged to select three or four objects from the shelves and a counsellor /psychologist would then offer them an analysis of their state of mind. Opinion was divided amongst UK delegates as to whether these activities would be beneficial for pupils, but all agreed that these centres were unusual and showed a markedly different approach to pupil well-being.
5. Options for establishing links
There are a number of possible avenues to pursue for those wishing to establish educational links with China:-
- The British Council offers a range of school programmes that support the learning of Chinese in the UK and the partnership with China.
Go to: http://schoolsonline.britishcouncil.org/
- To make a link directly with the Shandong Provincial Education Department, contact Ms.Liu Jia at the Office of International Exchange and Cooperation.
(N.B. There is an underscore after ‘tory’ in the above address!)
- Jinan Shungeng Middle School: a school of 1,800 students aged 13-15. Contact: Zhang Zhaoyin, Principal
Or Hou Juan (English teacher)
- To contact the Cardiff Confucius Institute for advice and support:
Cardiff Confucius Institute
Cardiff Centre for Lifelong Learning
Senghennydd Road, Cardiff CF24 4AG
Tel: 029 2087 6053
Finally, all delegates were touched by the warm welcome and superb hospitality displayed by our hosts in Beijing and Jinan. As well as gaining a fascinating insight into the Chinese education system, we all left China with an improved knowledge of its culture, historic and contemporary philosophies/values and of course its cuisine.
We were taken to Confucius’s birth city of Qufu and also enjoyed trips to the Great Wall, Summer Palace and the Forbidden City – all places of great beauty constructed on an impressive scale. Our guides had an excellent command of English and this, combined with the meticulous arrangements made by our hosts, ensured that all trips went very smoothly.
The visit was an enriching experience for all concerned and I would like to thank our friends at the Cardiff Confucius Institute and at Hanban for making it possible. We were left with a very favourable impression of China and its people and I am sure that many of the delegates visiting China for the first time will not wish this visit to be their last.
Director, CILT Cymru