Engineered melodrama when worlds pretend to collide. School telly is back! Tom Bennett writes
Here are two truths: television loves school and television struggles to know what to do with it. The camera loves, "Oh Captain! My Captain!" moments – tears, hugs and journeys – but so much of real teaching and school life is procedure and patience. The usual telly compromise is either to engineer drama (Jamie’s Dream School), or film for months then juice it down to the trailer: teachers walking away from explosions (Educating Essex). AOKTE? went for the former. You could, for example, do a program where children and teachers were taken from Guangzhou and Inverness, swapped, then interviewed about their experiences. But no: it has to be an ‘experiment’. It has to be a race. And they say Chinese education is competitive. It has nothing on Brit telly formats, where cake baking becomes an Olympic sport.
Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School (a title designed by an anxious committee of people terrified of being misunderstood. Why not just call it Children and Chinese People Shouting at Each Other While We Tut?) is the latest attempt to mine the melodrama from the often mundane world of teaching. Five teachers from China (although some of them had taught for years in the UK) were dropped into Bohunt, a school in Hampshire. Fifty year nines would spend four weeks with them, a Chinese walled community inside an Anglo territory, with hilarious consequences, as the schedule says. Children would tumble down the rabbit hole and, when they woke up, would be wearing track suits, star-jumping in morning exercises, and staying at school from dawn til dusk. The Chinese style is big, authoritarian, and prescriptive. For a country fond of its own revolution, it isn’t keen on starting any more, at least not within its classrooms.
Of course, this neatly mirrors one of the planes of Western education: the prescriptive versus the progressive approaches. Parachuted into the Chinese system, like Gullivers washing up in Lilliput, they get lost in translation. Chinese teachers are used to assuming obedience and effort; English kids get wobbly when their iPhones are less than 80 per cent charged and they aren’t polled on what ice-cream the canteen should serve for lunch.
Predictably, cultures clashed, with hilarious consequences. To be fair to the kids, if the program showed the worst of the behaviour, then it never exceeded a certain level of awfulness. Some of the kids even said they liked the way they were taught, although the pace exceeded many. They were used to being asked, presumably, how they felt about Pythagoras, or turning King Lear into a scene from Glee. The narrator told us that England was "child-centred" in its approach to education, and I wondered what system isn’t, ultimately, aimed at the child? One of the Chinese teachers said that in her classes, she would expect 90 per cent of the students to get an A or an A*. She’s probably considered a reckless bunny-hugger for not rounding it up to the ton. By 3:30pm the kids were climbing the walls, and the two hours of self-directed study went as well as you would expect.
Despite my reservations that this was essentially brainless telly-school, I started to enjoy it The teachers were earnest and utterly committed; and the morning exercises looked fantastic – a surprise hit with the kids, and an interesting way to embody the Chinese philosophy, "We belong to each other, we do something together". There was, I thought, an interesting tension at the heart of the English style. They described how, in a science lesson, students learned by failing in experiments, rather than merely being taught and told. But then we saw poor Joe, heartbroken on the running track because he didn’t want to run 1000 metres and look bad (and incidentally, I was a bit like that at school, being lapped by the chain smokers, so I felt the pain). But challenge is at the heart of what we do – pushing them to achieve what they didn’t believe they could. And sometimes that means stepping outside of their comfort zone.
It's the only language they understand
You know what these Chinese teachers need? Chinese kids. Children who have grown up with a lifetime of cultural expectations that revolve around community, collaboration and a greater understanding of hierarchy and deference than British children are accustomed to. Decades of socialism have been built on deference to the need of the community, and the understanding that the collective will is the common good. In our neo-liberal society founded on individualism and liberty, that chafes. Our political and social expectations are a mongrel of the rights of I versus the rights of we, and these ambitions at times orbit each other with suspicion. You can see it playing in every edited second of this program. Teacher: "You let down the school." Sophie: "She just called us stupid! She can't do that!"
This isn’t even edu-tourism, because at least the Saga tours of bureaucrats are bussed into authentic – albeit showpony – classrooms. This is Disneyland. This is ‘Allo ‘Allo. This is Epcot’s World Showcase. This is a Geordie doing an Italian accent, calling himself Luigi and selling calzone. There was at least a flicker of acknowledgement of this from the programme when they observed that, lawdy lawdy, the Bohunt students didn’t take to Chinese teaching methods, and perhaps some form of cultural immersion would help. But a few fan dances and dim sum isn’t an immersion. You can’t unpick a lifetime of expectations in a week. Asking, "does the Chinese method work?" is almost missing the point. If the students had followed every instruction, they might have learned a considerable amount, but they would also have had to have worked like that all their lives. This intervention, like so many complex interventions, can’t be easily dismantled and rebuilt. It's like exporting London Bridge to Moscow and still expecting to get to Battersea when you cross it.
There’s a lot of debate already about the relative merits of the Chinese method versus the English model (helpfully illustrated by the programme-makers with the Dambusters theme playing at comical moments. If a French man walked on set they’d probably start playing ooh-la-la accordians. Eurovision has a subtler approach to the granularity of nationality). This isn't the way to investigate it. If you want to see what good direct instruction is like, go somewhere the pupils are habituated to it; if you want to see when large class sizes might work, don't start by doubling a regular class and dropping in unfamiliar teachers. Amazingly, a lot of people are watching this and trumpeting how much it confirms what they already thought: kids don’t learn from lectures, etc. But there are so many confounding, complex factors going on here, it’s impossible to tease the multiple interventions apart.
Because a lot of the problems these teachers faced were exactly what you’d expect any new teacher to face in the first phase of their relationship with the class, in a school where the teacher relationship is a crucial part of leading behaviour. This was like filming a bunch of supply teachers and crowing when the kids didn’t trip over themselves to meet their expectations.
But then, this isn't an experiment, despite the BBC press releases calling it one. This is telly. This has more in common with Jamie’s Dream School than Panorama. Strangely, the Open University describes itself as ‘series co-producer’ on its website, which is revealing. Their interests seem to lie in attracting attention to their language and cultural education offers, which is perfectly fine. This programme is no more about discerning comparative pedagogies than it is about cake baking. At the end, the narrator promised us that it was "time for the Chinese School to get serious". It hasn’t yet. But I’ll give it another week to start showing us that it can.