Diane Spencer on China's five-star training for hotel work
A HUNDRED teenagers lined up in the huge playground, smartly dressed in dark blue uniforms and red ties, and exercised to music. You have to be fit to train for hotel work.
The Beijing Vocational School for Foreign Affairs Services has been producing staff for one of the capital's leading hotels for nearly 20 years.
The 3,000 students, aged 15 to 18, spend two years in the school and their final year at the 66-room two- star hotel owned by school and at the five-star massive state-owned Beijing Hotel before graduating.
Competition for places is fierce. Chi Ming, the head, said 1,000 are selected out of 7,000 applicants a year. Appearance and height (1.6 metres for women - political correctness has largely escaped China) are important, as well as attitude and academic ability.
Mr Chi said: "We think we are a successful example of how education and industry can work together. Our graduates have contributed to the development of Beijing and other cities in China."
Wang Yongcai, human resources department manager of the Beijing Hotel, was equally positive about the link. The vast majority of graduates get jobs at the hotel, he gets priority over other employers. But in the new market economy, he is aware that he will have more competition in the future as hotels are being run jointly with foreign companies who pay higher wages.
Students learn English as a priority at the school, along with the skills of the hotel trade. The practice hotel, housed in a former merchant's palace, one of the few to escape the bulldozers, even has the president of the China Tea Culture Academy on hand to teach them the ancient art.
The trainees are used to foreigners as both hotels are used by the government to house distinguished visitors.
The Beijing Hotel, founded 100 years ago on the approach to Tianamen Square, was rebuilt in the monolithic Stalinist style in the 1950s, and is undergoing extensive renovation in time for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the republic in October.
"When there's a big banquet we call up the school for extra waiting staff," said Mr Wang, who did his training on the job, "military-style", a few years before the vocational school opened.
Because of the expensive equipment and facilities, fees are higher than for other vocational schools - about pound;100 a year compared with pound;60. Scholarships are available in cases of hardship.
The attitude to vocational education is changing, said Mr Chi. "Not everyone can go to university, and training leads to better jobs."
Ministry of education statistics show that the sector is developing rapidly with more than half of the senior secondary students (equivalent to our post-16 level) going to vocational schools.
In the mid-1980s the government realised that technical and vocational education constituted the weakest link in China's education. The county needed millions of engineers and technicians to modernise. Some schools are run directly by factories or mines, others, by local education departments.
This school, funded by the government, also has ties with the training and management Bavarian International Hotel in Munich. Staff and students train there every winter. So far there are no exchanges with the UK.
Girls appear equally, if not more confident than boys in their work. One receptionist at the school's hotel when asked what job she wanted, replied: