Chasing the dragon

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
The year of the dragon represents power and good fortune - just the things to light a fire under governments worldwide. But with Scottish ministers reluctant to invest in Mandarin teachers, our `China plan' could be a case of chasing smoke

The Year of the Dragon has just begun, with millions still celebrating across China and around the world.

In Chinese astrology, this legendary creature signifies power, success, happiness and good luck - which is not far off what China itself represents to a host of other nations all vying to become the Asian giant's closest business ally.

Scotland claimed to have taken great strides in that direction last year with the delivery of another deeply symbolic animal to Edinburgh Zoo.

Education is arguably the key to a prosperous relationship based on mutual respect and understanding of language and culture. The zoo is quick to point out that the pandas' 10-year stay is being used to develop a decade- long educational programme, through which primary and secondary pupils will learn about the environment, wildlife and people of both countries.

Projects will include a "carbon pawprint" activity, challenging schools to look at reducing their carbon footprint through initiatives such as "walk to school" weeks. Critics of the arrangement would suggest that calculating the environmental impact of flying the pandas to Scotland from Chengdu in China might have been a better starting point.

There has already been great interest in the zoo's schools programme, however. Last month, more than 1,000 pupils were turned away from two special panda days for schools, arranged jointly with the Scotland-China Education Network (SCEN), after all 600 places were quickly snapped up.

Whatever the educational value of pandas, Scottish schoolchildren clearly need more than a trip to the zoo to equip them for the opportunities in further study and work which lie ahead.

Since 2008, 10 Confucius Classroom Hubs have been established in Scotland's schools to promote Mandarin and let pupils experience Chinese culture.

The network was set up through an annual pound;10,000 donation per hub from the Chinese government - match-funded by Education Scotland - to pay for ICT, books and other materials.

One of the newest was established in 2010 at Queen Anne High in Dunfermline for pupils throughout Fife.

As a result, pupils at Queen Anne and its 14 feeder primaries have been learning Mandarin and participating in numerous workshops on cultural activities ranging from t'ai chi and dragon dancing to calligraphy and music.

This year a group of pupils is visiting China and S2 classes have taken part in two major online projects, working with peers in Chinese schools.

Depute headteacher Peter Billington says achieving hub status undoubtedly made a "tremendous" difference to the school's ability to offer Chinese education, which was impossible before.

But he is deeply critical of the Scottish government, accusing it of failing to put its money where its mouth is, by investing "nothing" in teachers for the hubs.

He explains: "The Scottish government says it has an accord with China and a China plan, which it is revamping this year, and they are reaping the benefits, with Alex Salmond standing with the Chinese premier during his recent visit to China. But - and it's a very big but - they don't give any money.

"The money for the hubs is not allowed to be spent on teachers, and you can't fund a teacher for pound;10,000 anyway. A Mandarin teacher costs around pound;35,000.

"Take Fife, for example. There are 19 secondaries and about 165 primaries, and just pound;10,000. How much is each pupil going to get? Nothing.

"My question is, is this a real partnership, or is it just words?"

The cost of employing Mandarin teachers for the hubs is met by local authorities. In addition to funding one for the Queen Anne hub, Fife Council has invested in one at St Columba's High, Dunfermline, another at Madras College, St Andrews.

But there is nothing requiring councils to employ any Mandarin teachers, although it is encouraged.

"Most independent schools are buying in Mandarin teachers because of the business opportunities for young people. Why shouldn't that opportunity be given to every pupil in Scotland?" Mr Billington asks.

"The Scottish government needs to bite the bullet and say it will spend, say pound;500,000, providing a Mandarin teacher for each hub.

"You cannot develop a new language (in terms of teaching) in one year and with such limited investment. If you want to do it properly it's a long- term project."

The Scottish government's stated aim is for every school in Scotland to have an opportunity to access the hubs and their resources.

Aside from Fife, the centres currently cover Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Kinross, West Lothian, Ayrshire, East Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, Aberdeen and the north-east.

But there are noticeably none so far in the south or the north-west, for example, where teachers say Sino-Scottish education seems as distant as China itself.

SCEN has also warned against a "central belt" bias, in its response to the Scottish government's forthcoming China Plan 2012, setting out priorities for the year ahead.

Judith McClure, SCEN convener, adds: "I'm not saying every pupil should learn Chinese or every school should offer the language, but all pupils should be able to learn it."

She stresses that the government has made a "good start", pointing to the creation of a "proper China option" in modern studies as well, but says more action is needed for Scotland to compete on the world stage.

The Confucius Institute for Scotland is even more critical of the government over both a lack of investment and, crucially, a failure to act speedily to keep Scotland's young people ahead of the game.

Institute director Natascha Gentz says: "When we started five years ago there was big enthusiasm and everyone was very motivated, but that seems to be dissipating a bit now, because it takes so long for the Scottish government to make decisions.

"That's worrying because we are competing with countries like America, Germany and the rest of Europe and things are moving very quickly there.

"There is a lot of goodwill, motivation, plans and visions of where Scotland should go but the realisation or translation of that into action is not there yet.

"It's mainly lack of resources. If the plan is to embed Chinese language and studies into the curriculum, then we need qualified people to deliver that, they need to be trained and put in place and people (councils) should be encouraged to hire them. That is not really happening.

"We can't wait for people (councils and universities) to pick that up themselves. There should be stronger incentives from the Scottish government to convince them.

"It's sort of like a chicken and egg situation at the moment, because we don't have sufficient students to appoint people to teach, but if we don't appoint people to teach we won't get students."

The Scottish government does pay (through the Scottish Funding Council) to put trainee teachers of Mandarin through the one-year PGDE course.

Since 2007, between four and six trainees have completed the course each year, with current costs, paid by the government, averaging pound;8,950 per student.

However, another growing concern is that the few Mandarin teachers who are being trained in Scotland are moving to England for work, because they cannot find jobs here.

"When we started the programme of training language teachers at Moray House (at the University of Edinburgh) a few years ago, it was positively received at first, but now numbers are going down because they have difficulties finding a job here," Professor Gentz warns.

"We only have five students training each year and I have heard of several examples of people going to work in England."

Meanwhile, there are those who believe that the current drive to teach pupils Chinese is misguided because it is just too complex to learn.

In 2010, the East of Scotland European Consortium, which represents 13 of the nation's 32 local authorities, said Mandarin should not be a priority for Scottish schools whose poor record with languages suggested there was no point trying.

However, teachers of Mandarin argue that in some respects Chinese is actually easier to learn than more traditional second languages.

Caroline Lindsay, who teaches in Fife, says: "There are basic differences between languages. In French and German you have to conjugate verbs. You don't need to do that in Chinese, because they don't conjugate verbs.

"Each character is a word which can stand alone or join with another character, so from that point of view Chinese is a lot easier to learn.

"On the other hand, obviously there are the Chinese characters and pupils are not used to having to go away and practise writing down words over and over again. Some love it, but others find it more of a challenge.

"The tones do add a different dimension (with different tones producing sometimes radically different meanings of what appears to learners to be the same word). But even that isn't as difficult as people think it is."

The most sensitive concern over the Sino-Scottish relationship is human rights, or rather the tendency for China's appalling record to be ignored in such programmes.

While there are plenty of classes in pretty, uncontroversial traditions such as lantern-making, tough issues are also addressed.

University of Strathclyde researcher Claire Cassidy, whose recent work on human rights education revealed a fear of the subject among both trainee teachers and qualified professionals, says it is still being taught, and with reference to China.

It is too soon for pupils at Queen Anne to show their potential exam-wise, with only one senior pupil currently studying for the Access 3 Mandarin course.

However, elsewhere in Scotland, pupils have started to reveal their new skills.

At Glasgow's Hillhead High, another Confucius Classroom, S4 pupil Ellie Koepplinger won a place in next week's final of a UK-wide British Council contest. The teenager has been studying Mandarin and Chinese culture since S2.

Mandarin at Access 3 is the most popular course, with 169 pupils in Scotland taking it in 2011 - a huge rise on the 21 who enrolled in the first intake in 2008.

Then, all bar one pupil was from an independent school. Last year the majority, 130, were from local authority schools, with 39 from the independent sector.

Since the courses were launched in 2010, 74 pupils have taken Highers in Chinese, while 18 have sat Advanced Highers. The SQA has been delivering HNDs in China since 2003.

A Scottish government spokesman agreed that it was "vital" that it, and other organisations and businesses, continued to build closer educational links, "which is exactly why both the first minister and education secretary have recently visited China".

He added: "We intend to continue promoting Scotland's excellence in education in this key overseas market, while maximising the economic impact which the international activities of our universities have at home."

Asked by TESS to respond to calls for greater funding and speedier decisions, he said ministers were working closely with Education Scotland to "extend the teaching of Chinese culture, history and language in our secondary schools - including offering a full range of qualifications in Mandarin".

There was no mention of the publication of the Scottish government's China plan for 2012 or specific targets for promoting greater learning of Chinese language and culture.

So the question of whether Scottish pupils will be equipped to grasp the opportunities ahead remains.

As Mr Billington asks back at Queen Anne High: "In 15 years, China will be the number one country in the world. Is Scotland going to be there with them?"


"Ni Hao!"

This cheery greeting from 12-year-old Connor Schlemmer is increasingly common at Queen Anne High, since the Dunfermline school became one of Scotland's latest Confucius Classroom Hubs for Chinese learning.

It is also not unusual to see colourful lanterns during the spring term as pupils celebrate Chinese New Year.

Connor and his classmates already knew some basic Mandarin before they started at Queen Anne, thanks to a decision to focus the hub's initial work on teaching P7 children from primary feeder schools.

Now he is among 58 S1 pupils split into two classes who are continuing to study the language and culture of China.

And he has already decided that he will use Mandarin in his future career.

"I don't know what I want to do yet but I would be looking to work in China," he says.

While admitting that Chinese is difficult, he enjoys the challenge and feels he is making progress.

"The best part is being able to add all the characters together now to make words. We have also learnt about the Chinese culture through our work," he adds.

Joanna Martin, also 12, agrees.

"I wanted to be a vet before but with learning Mandarin maybe I'll go to China too.

"There are a lot of jobs available around China, so Mandarin will be useful."

She too admits that it was hard at first, but adds: "It's much easier now, because I know what the characters look like and I really like it. I especially like the characters - it's like drawing pictures."

She is aware that few schools in Scotland have a dedicated Mandarin teacher.

"We are really lucky here. It's going to be really useful. I think every pupil should have this chance," she says.

Teacher Caroline Lindsay also counts herself fortunate to have found a job as a Mandarin teacher at a Scottish state school.

She says: "It wasn't too bad for me. At the end of my probationary year I heard that Queen Anne might be looking for someone. I have now got a three-year contract here."


"The Chinese culture seems some distance from us, and so do the pandas arriving at Edinburgh Zoo."

As headteacher at Ullapool High in Ross-shire, Peter Harrison feels that the Scottish government's talk about ensuring all schools benefit from the Confucius hubs rings a little hollow.

Asked what he is currently able to offer his pupils in terms of Chinese language and cultural learning, he says simply: "Nothing at all. In small schools like this we have had to cut minority subjects. We have already had to cut a second modern language, so introducing something like Mandarin is impossible.

"(As a result) there would be other subjects which I would prioritise ahead of Mandarin. Obviously if there was specific money for it, as there is for Gaelic, we could do something.

"The government can say whatever it wants, but if the money isn't attached to the policy, local authorities and schools will find other ways of spending it.

"We understand that we chose to live here and we are prepared to put more time and effort into accessing opportunities for pupils, for example, we sent a group to Edinburgh a few weeks ago to visit the Scottish Parliament.

"But within Highland we have also been discussing the need to make sure that pupils in more remote communities like this have the same opportunities as those in cities in the central belt."


Every university in Scotland today has either long-established or fast- developing links with China or Hong Kong, promoting collaborative research, education and business.

At Aberdeen, the relationship dates back to 1892 when the Hong Kong College of Medicine for China was established by an Aberdeen alumnus.

The college, which later became the University of Hong Kong's faculty of medicine, has the longest history of fostering and developing western medicine for use in Asia.

Now Aberdeen has partnerships with numerous institutions in Hong Kong and China, with exchanges and joint degrees in subjects including business, law and linguistics.

Dundee's links include computing and engineering, while the University of Edinburgh welcomed 806 students from China and 131 from Hong Kong in the 2009-10 academic year alone, thanks in part to becoming the first UK university to secure an undergraduate exchange with Peking University.

Newer universities are keen to catch up, with Queen Margaret eager to break into the Chinese market through its new campus in Singapore.

Meanwhile, Nigel Fong, a Hong Kong finance professional who was educated at Morrison's Academy, in Crieff, has just launched the Hong Kong Scotland Education Connection, forging links between schools in both nations.

Original headline: Is Scotland's brush with China enough to make a lasting mark?

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