The Conversation: Confucius classrooms

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Andrew Hall is one of a group of specialist school heads who are introducing their pupils to Mandarin and Chinese culture. He talks to Yojana Sharma about their progress

Andrew Hall is one of a group of specialist school heads who are introducing their pupils to Mandarin and Chinese culture. He talks to Yojana Sharma about their progress

Q: How did your involvement with China and Confucius classrooms come about?

A: Mandarin was first introduced 10 years ago as an extension activity at our on-site Wirral Able Child Centre for the gifted and talented. We did try other languages, including Japanese, but Mandarin was the one that captured pupils' imagination. When I became head in 2002, my instincts told me the growth of China as an economic power would be a catalyst for interest in the language and culture, so I made it part of our main curriculum alongside five other languages that we teach.

We now have 200 pupils learning Mandarin. Elizabeth Reid, chief executive of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, persuaded Hanban, China's equivalent of the British Council, to give the trust Confucius Institute status to promote the country's language and culture. This had been started in universities, but extending it to schools was new.

Q: What is a Confucius classroom?

A: It is not a physical classroom, but rather a hub school, helping other schools to teach Mandarin up to GCSE level, not just as an add-on to the curriculum.

Ten headteachers in the North West experienced in delivering Mandarin were interested in extending it to others. We set up a steering committee, of which I am chair, and divided the country into five areas, each headed by a Confucius classroom school.

Our school has adopted six "spoke schools". We give support and help train teachers. We want to make Mandarin as mainstream as French and Spanish.

Q: Mandarin is not the easiest of languages, yet you are helping to bring it into other schools, including primaries. What is the response?

A: Learning Mandarin needs a different approach to learning a European language. Students find it challenging but rewarding, and it is interesting that some prefer the written characters. This year, for the first time, more students in Year 7 are taking Mandarin than French. I certainly did not think that would happen. We firmly believe that children learn languages best when they start young, so we have supported a number of primary schools in introducing Mandarin. It is great to hear infant classes singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" in Chinese. There are few teaching resources for primaries, so we have published our first book, called MaoMao and the Bamboo.

Q: Was it difficult to link up with a Chinese school?

A: Our early steps into China were helped by the British Council, but we quickly established a link with Hangzhou Foreign Language School in south- east China. It helped that our head of Chinese, Lisa Wang, is from Hangzhou. A native speaker on the staff is invaluable, especially when dealing with visa problems and inducting visiting Chinese teachers into the school. We currently have two funded by Hanban and an exchange teacher from Hangzhou.

Q: Exchanges are an important part of being a Confucius classroom. How have staff benefited?

A: Hangzhou Foreign Language School sends a teacher for 10 weeks and we send out two for five weeks - it seems a fair deal.

Our staff have obviously learned a lot about Chinese culture and have brought that back to school to enrich our curriculum. My staff's main worry seems to be whether they will like the food. They teach Chinese children, who are fascinated by British history. The teachers who come here teach Chinese culture and help with the language. At the moment, I have three Chinese teachers, my own two teachers of Mandarin and an assistant. The modern languages department is a "league of nations".

Q: Are there problems for visiting Chinese teachers adapting to the way languages are taught here?

A: Our Chinese teachers have a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for karaoke. The early days were not easy for them. In China, lessons are often delivered to 80 or more students sitting in rows. Our teachers could not understand why English pupils wanted to walk about, or even ask questions. That said, the pupils know they have signed up to something different and that can involve being taught in the Chinese way.

Q: What have you learned from visiting Chinese schools, and what do you think they have learned from us?

A: The Chinese want to learn about creative education, which we can offer in bucketloads. What we are learning from them is about standards in subjects such as mathematics. We are also getting into their psyche. We have built mutual trust, which has survived a change of heads, so I believe it is sustainable. In time, I hope all schools will include some element of Chinese language or culture in the curriculum.

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Andrew Hall

Age: 44

Job: Headteacher, Calday Grange Grammar in Liverpool, since 2002. It is a selective technology and language college with a large sixth form (500 pupils).

Education: BSc in physics from Lancaster University, where he specialised in low-temperature physics. PGCE from Liverpool University, where he won the Henry Larwood prize for best science teacher.

Career: Started teaching science at Wirral Grammar School for Boys in Merseyside. He rose to become deputy head before leaving to be head of Calday Grange. Years in teaching: 22.

Interests: Liverpool FC season-ticket holder and avid Elvis Costello fan.

Married to Jo, who is also a headteacher. They have three children.

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