Yojana Sharma on the country that is fast becoming UK schools' top choice for partnerships outside Europe
A record number of heads, teachers and education authority officials visited China this half term, intent on tapping in to China's growing economic importance and interest in projecting itself on the world stage.
During just one week, three large groups from Norfolk, Essex and Southend were visiting Shanghai alone, representing some 52 English schools.
"Shanghai has a long history of contacts with the outside world compared with other parts of China," said Du Jian, deputy director of the district education board of Xuhui, which has set up a partnership with 18 schools in Norfolk.
The visits mark the start of a predicted explosion in links between Chinese and English schools over the next few years.
The British Council, which helps set up the links with cash from the Government and HSBC Bank, said there was more interest in school partnerships with China than any other non-European country. Some 120 primary and secondary schools were linked with China this year, compared wit 80 a year ago. Paul Gwilliam, head of Hamstel junior in Southend, said he was impressed by the commitment of Chinese schools to form links with the UK. "The Chinese know English is essential for international development. They can't wait to form links with our schools," he said.
For Shanghai, the partnerships will help modernise teacher training. The city has just spent five-years updating computer equipment in schools and is now investing in teachers' development, including English-language skills.
"Chinese teacher-training is very theoretical," said Mr Du, who is also head of Xuhui institute of education. "We were impressed by the way teachers in England put things into practice."
Although China is far stronger in maths teaching than England, the Xuhui authorities want to know how to use ICT in maths lessons. The Chinese are moving away from chalk and talk and want to learn from the best in the world.
Many Shanghai schools teach subjects such as the sciences and geography in English, and linking with an English school enables subject specialists to get teaching materials in the language, said Jane Henry, of the British Council in Shanghai.
The English teachers also learned from the Chinese. "We were astonished at the standard of language teaching," said Sandra Roberts, director of Southend's excellence cluster, "and not just English, but French, German, Japanese and Korean as well."
The group from Southend was also surprised at the self-confidence of Chinese pupils, who were willing to talk to adults or large groups without fear.
The Norfolk-Xuhui partnership is likely to see pupil exchanges from next year. Mr Du said his country did not just want to learn from the West, but to showcase a newly confident China.