£10m Mandarin schools programme reaches less than third of target half-way through

Concerns have been raised about DfE programme aimed at getting 5,000 young people speaking Mandarin by 2020

Eleanor Busby

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A government programme to increase the number of pupils learning Mandarin in schools has reached less than a third of its target half-way through the scheme.

The four-year Mandarin Excellence Programme, which is now in its second year, set out to have at least 5,000 young people speaking Mandarin by 2020.

After 382 pupils in 14 schools took part in the programme last year, around 1,000 pupils in 23 schools were expected to join the scheme this year – although final numbers have not been confirmed. 

Figures released today show that the majority of the 382 pupils on the £10 million programme achieved marks of 80 per cent or higher across tests in reading, writing, listening and speaking.

But Nick Gibb, schools minister, has previously acknowledged that the first year of the programme was targeted at “highly motivated pupils” and the schools selected to take part had already been teaching Mandarin.

In a parliamentary answer in November last year, Mr Gibb wrote: “The first group of schools that started the programme in 2016 were selected on the basis of their good track record in teaching Mandarin Chinese and their capacity to meet the demanding conditions of the programme, including that pupils study the language for eight hours a week.”

'Completely unsustainable'

The programme, which is being delivered by the UCL Institute of Education with the British Council, aims to have at least 100 new qualified Chinese teachers by the end of the programme.

So far only 15 new Chinese teachers were trained last year as part of the programme – and another 15 will receive training this year.

There are concerns that the four-year programme is unsustainable in the long-term.

Carmel O’Hagan, the former head of languages at CILT – The National Centre for Language, said: "This is completely unsustainable and that's what really worries me. The only way for Mandarin to succeed is with a huge, huge, huge number of home-grown Mandarin teachers.

"How on earth are you going to teach a subject when there are simply not enough teachers? You don't need a thousand teachers. You need 23,000 teachers if it is going to happen in every school."

Ms O'Hagan said, with the current numbers that have joined the progamme, the DfE would be "lucky" to reach 3,000 pupils by 2020.

She added: "It is a colossal waste of time and public money."

In January this year, the Home Office Migration Advisory's Committee (MAC) said a national shortage in Mandarin teachers justified schools recruiting from abroad.

The MAC review said: “Given that there are only around 100 teachers of Mandarin in the state-funded system, and a limited domestic supply pipeline, the department said that schools needed to be able to boost teacher numbers by recruiting from overseas."

It added: “Partners provided evidence of a drive to encourage more pupils to study this subject and that the pool of Mandarin teachers presently available was insufficient to meet this drive.

“The department said that it did not intend to rely on temporary teachers from China to achieve its commitment on the expansion of Mandarin teachers, but in the short term it said it will need to boost current teacher numbers by opening up opportunities to overseas Mandarin speakers who wish to teach and/or train as Mandarin teachers in the UK.”

Mr Gibb said: "I am pleased that this programme is continuing to grow, allowing more pupils to be taught Mandarin at an advanced level.

"I would like to congratulate the first cohort of students on their success. They have achieved some excellent results thanks to their hard work and dedication.

"This will give them a significant advantage when competing in the global jobs market, and is particularly important as we prepare to leave the European Union.”

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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