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China schools hold out hand of friendship

Education featured strongly in the First Minister's visit to China last week to boost links between the two countries.

Anxious to capitalise on China's growing strategic and economic power, Jack McConnell stressed in speeches during visits to Beijing and Shanghai that two-way benefits could flow from close co-operation in education.

After a meeting with Zhang Xingsheng, the Chinese Education Minister, it was agreed there would be twinning of individual Chinese and Scottish schools. Mr McConnell met pupils from Balerno High who, by happy coincidence, were on a 10-day exchange with Number 8 High School in Beijing during his visit.

The First Minister later presided over a ceremony to mark a new "friendship agreement" between Lasswade High in Midlothian and Tianlin No 3 Middle School in Shanghai, which was also attended by Ken Thomson and Liu Xiaozhou, the respective headteachers.

The two schools will co-operate to run teacher and pupil exchanges as well as using e-mail and the internet to develop joint projects. They were carefully chosen: each school has around 1,300 pupils and both place a strong accent on science, technology and sport.

During his visit to No 3 Middle School, Mr McConnell revisited his old subject as a teacher, taking part in a maths class. The pupils performed traditional Chinese songs and dances, and sang Auld Lang Syne in Mandarin and English.

"It is clear that there are many similarities between our education systems," the First Minister said. "But, perhaps more importantly, we share the same ambitions for our schools."

Mr McConnell also used the opportunity of his visit to Shanghai to announce a programme under which up to 50 young Scots could soon be attending summer schools in China, learning about China and "making new friends that will last a lifetime". He said there would be early talks between the Scottish Executive, the British Council and the Chinese authorities to develop the scheme.

Among other measures agreed were partnerships to develop vocational education, exchange schemes for undergraduate students, research opportunities between the two countries and initiatives on rural education.

Mr McConnell said Scotland had particular expertise to offer in rural education, including the experience of the emerging university of the Highlands and Islands which he believes has the potential to help China with the major challenge of bringing higher education to its rural provinces. An official from each government will be appointed to develop these links.

Mr McConnell was accompanied on his trip by a group of college and university leaders keen to develop links with their Chinese counterparts.

One ground-breaking announcement was that by Napier University which is to open the first Scottish campus in China, and expects the first intake of students to Zhengzhou University in Henan Province in central China next year.

Aberdeen University was quick off the mark this week with the announcement that senior executives from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation were to attend courses there.

The university has signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the Petroleum University of Beijing.

An earlier inroad into the Chinese higher education market was made by the Scottish Qualifications Authority which has arrangements with 20 Chinese universities and colleges to offer their students higher national diplomas (HNDs).

It is clear from the First Minister's visit to China that he aims to use educational links around the world, not just to foster international understanding and develop business opportunities, but to draw in young people from other countries as part of his "fresh talent" initiative.

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