Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Look East: why Chinese lessons are booming

Published By: The Independent - 08 Oct 2009

Two East London schoolgirls are having an animated conversation about their families, but not in English, or in their home languages of Urdu or Bengali. Instead Shajedah Kayum and Johura Hasna are talking confidently in Mandarin Chinese.

At Kingsford Community School, in Beckton, every pupil studies Mandarin when they start at 11, and growing numbers are now choosing to take it for GCSE. Last year 15 students took it and 66 per cent of them got A or A* grades. In the school’s current Year Nine about fifty students have already embarked, one year early, on Mandarin GCSE.

And Kingsford is not alone. Mandarin is fast going mainstream with maybe 500 schools -- no-one knows the precise figure -- now offering the language as part of the curriculum, and many more doing it in after-school clubs. As a major sign of this, 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 just an exotic novelty is taking its place as a normal GCSE languages option.

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

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

Twelve schools in the UK have now become Confucius Classrooms, with support from the Office of Chinese Language Council (sic), 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, an 11 to 16 language college, is a Confucius Classroom and believes Mandarin has brought many benefits to 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.” 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 won through 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, a Sussex independent school, which also runs Mandarin as a compulsory subject. Three Kingsford students a year now go there on scholarships to do their A levels, while other pupils have this year gone to other independent schools, including Cheltenham Ladies College, with their applications bolstered by their Mandarin skills.

The Mandarin programme also 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, and the whole programme has clearly given many pupils a feeling of great confi
dence and achievement.

“I really like it, 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 expertise. She was one of the award-winning students who went to China, “where, when you started talking people were, like, ‘Wow!’”

Osman Abdul-Moomin, another Year Nine pupil and competition-winner, says he was struck, in China, how well everything was organized and how hard people worked. He is delighted he is doing the subject. “Speaking Mandarin – it’s a trump card!|”

The school currently has two permanent Mandarin teachers and is looking for a third, and also gets support from Hanban teachers who come on placement from China. Linying Liu is the school’s Confucius classroom manager, who is also helping to write the new Chinese textbooks. She says she could easily find a job in an independent school, but is happy in the tougher conditions of Kingsford, “because of the great support I get from the leadership.” Alex Ferraby, who learned Mandarin when he lived in China, also points out” “All our students are used to dealing with different languages. It’s incredible how adaptable they are.”

For 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 who 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.

Katharine Carruthers, director for the SSAT Confucius Institute, says Mandarin has now reached take-off point in UK schools with the publication of the new textbook. “For the first time it is going to look like any other GCSE. 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.

Andrew Hall, head of Calday Grange Grammar School, in West Kirby, home of another Confucius Classroom, says that after ten years the language “has gone from novelty to mainstream.” His school works with five other secondary schools as well as with primary and nursery schools. “The students enjoy it and parents are very supportive. There’s a great and growing awareness of China.”

Elspeth Wiltshire, head of Devonport High School for Girls, in Plymouth, and home of a Confucius Classroom based on a group of schools, says her drama students have performed Romeo and Juliet with Chinese students, both here and in China. “We teach the subject through the culture and we have great activities which are always the most colourful in school. It’s different and it’s motivating -- and I can see a good place for Chinese in the diploma, too.”

So just how proficient are students who have gained GCSE Chinese? Katherine Carruthers says: “In speaking and listening they are not far off the level they would be in, say, French. In reading and writing it obviously takes longer, so there has to be some flexibility. The passages that are set for them are shorter and easier. But there is every sign that the subject is engaging children. They love learning about the culture and it is very motivating.”