The state secondary school where the only language taught is Mandarin

In a school serving one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, Mandarin is the only language on offer

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Learning Mandarin has tended to be an opportunity only available to a minority of Scottish pupils, often in private schools.

But in a school serving one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, Mandarin is currently the only language on offer.

In October, when Castlebrae Community High's only modern languages teacher left for maternity leave, it struggled to replace her – but then the school received some external investment to teach Mandarin.

This enables it to share a teacher with several other schools in the city. The subject is taught in the first and second year. Next year, some pupils hope to continue it in their third year, with the aim of achieving a national qualification in the language.

In October, 12 pupils will head to Beijing to experience Chinese language and culture for themselves.

Mandarin Higher

Castlebrae headteacher Norma Prentice said: "These children will never have been on an airplane before – some of them might not even have really accessed the centre of Edinburgh because that is also costly. So an opportunity like this is just amazing."

Her school has a roll of just 160. There are 37 pupils in the first year. 

Ms Prentice said: "When you have a small roll, the difficulty is getting that breadth of curriculum.

"When I arrived at the school there were lots of vocational courses on offer. There's nothing wrong with vocational courses but these children will engage with Mandarin, they will engage with the sciences. You limit opportunity by pigeonholing them into certain subjects.

"If we can get some of our pupils a Mandarin Higher you're really talking about starting to close the attainment gap. We have not got there yet but the opportunity is going to be there."

UK development

Attempts to spread Mandarin teaching across Scotland have struggled to take off. The Scottish government has so far missed its targets for increasing the number of Mandarin teachers working in state schools and, as of January last year, there were only 14 Mandarin teachers working in the state sector in Scotland.

In Castlebrae's case, the investment has come from the Swire Group, a UK company that oversees operations in shipping, property, sheep farms and tea plantations in the Far East.

Over the next 10 years across the UK, the Swire Chinese Language Foundation plans to spend £25 million on developing Mandarin in schools – a commitment equal to that made by the Westminster government which pledged £10 million over four years back in 2015 to increase the number of pupils learning the language.

In Edinburgh and Glasgow, Swire Chinese Language Centres have been set up. There are also centres in Birmingham, Gosforth, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield. 

In Edinburgh, the scheme will fund three Mandarin teachers by June.

In Glasgow – where the schools involved in the group are Jordanhill School, Knightswood Secondary and St Thomas Aquinas Secondary – there is currently one Mandarin teacher, funded through the scheme, with plans to recruit a second.

'Spread the benefits'

Donald Macdonald is the headteacher at James Gillespie’s High in Edinburgh, which is part of the Edinburgh Swire Chinese Language Centre, along with Boroughmuir High and George Watson’s College.

In the next five years, Mr Macdonald is hopeful that investment from Swire will amount to “several million”; at the moment the schools are receiving around £250,000 a year.

Last year Gillespie’s and Boroughmuir saw their first pupils attain Mandarin Highers.

Mr Macdonald said: “Prior to this the most we could offer was taster courses, or one-year courses. People will say 'these leafy suburban schools get everything', but a key criteria for us is that of equity. We are determined to spread the benefits of this to other schools.”

Teddy Watson, who runs the Swire Chinese Language Foundation said: “The foundation was set up to mark the 200th anniversary of Swire because the company wanted to do something of value.

"They felt that by spreading the teaching of Mandarin across the country and improving the quality of that teaching we would get substantially more young people who understand something about China and who speak its language. We hope this will improve understanding between the two nations and therefore relationships.”

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