“You know what that reminds me of? A Thursday afternoon in my childhood, dying a thousand deaths.”
Stuart Vaughan, the teacher responsible for discipline at Bohunt School in Hampshire, has just been observing a class taught by Chinese teachers at his school.
Bohunt School – TES's 2014 school of the year – is the subject of a new, three-part BBC2 series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, which begins tonight.
For four weeks, 50 Year 9 pupils are being taught as though they were at school in China, by teachers from some of the top Chinese schools. At the end of these four weeks, the teenagers will compete against the rest of their year in an exam. (To underscore this competitiveness, the programme complements Chinese-style martial music with rousing renditions of Colonel Bogey every time Bohunt’s British teachers appear on screen.)
The Chinese school day lasts from 7am to 7pm, beginning with flag-raising and calisthenics, and including competitive PE and copious rote-based learning.
It is the rote learning that brings back unhappy memories for Bohunt staff. “I’m feeling quite irritated, actually,” headteacher Neil Strowger tells the camera, after observing a Chinese-style science lesson during the second episode.
“You’ve got a teacher stood at the front, basically talking to a PowerPoint. I was only in the room for 20 minutes and I was ready to bang my head on the desk.”
The Bohunt pupils, meanwhile, find more entertaining ways to pass their time. They talk; they sing; they simply ignore the fact that a lesson is taking place.
The Chinese teachers respond as they would at home: by attempting to shame the pupils into good behaviour. “You embarrass all Bohunt students,” maths teacher Zou Hailian tells teenager Josh, who has brought a kettle into school. “You embarrass Bohunt.”
Josh remains indifferent.
Working on the Chinese premise that the ultimate way to shame pupils is to call their parents into school, Mr Zou summons in Josh’s mother. She finds the whole situation rather amusing.
Heartbreakingly, though, the Chinese teachers themselves are less impervious to shame. “I feel that Chinese discipline is the best in the world,” says science teacher Yang Jun. “But here we need help with discipline from other teachers. That’s poor. That’s terrible. That’s not on.”
Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School begins on BBC2 at 9pm tonight.