Let the games begin

21st December 2007 at 00:00
At the Smallfield School in Beijing, Mr Xan, the principal, had an important matter to deal with. A pupil's mobile phone had exploded and Mr Xan had to speak to the parents to let them know that, on the one hand, the girl was all right but, on the other, she had blatantly breached the rule banning phones in the classroom. In China, a principal's range of duties is as diverse as it is elsewhere.

Beijing is busy preparing to host next year's Olympic Games. At Mr Xan's school, near the Second Ring Road, I helped out with the English lessons that all the city's pupils are receiving alongside citizenship classes, which include useful lessons on the inappropriateness of traditional bad habits, such as jaywalking, dropping litter and spitting.

In the school's huge gym, more than 100 pupils were practising their karate moves. "Martial arts help to sharpen the mind as well as the body," says Mr Xan. "They are an ideal means of developing the sort of self-discipline and spirit of endurance that will aid our pupils in their future lives."

Dance is also on the curriculum, to provide less sport-minded pupils with much-needed exercise. In return for spectacular economic growth, China has had to endure a big increase in waistlines, as many of the increasingly affluent, and somewhat spoilt, children of one-child families have abandoned traditional diets based on rice, fish and vegetables for high-fat Western foods.

There are fears that materialistic capitalism may also result in moral backwardness. "Money, money, money is all young people seem to care about," one teacher said. Confucianism has been put back on to the curriculum to try and fill the moral vacuum left by the decline of Marxism. References to the teachings of China's greatest ever sage and teacher are everywhere in the school.

Confucianism, it must be said, provides an ideal code of conduct for schools. It stresses the importance of eight virtues, such as obedience, honesty, unity, hard work and public service, as well as eight disgraces, such as the pursuit of profit at the expense of others.

"Confucianism means unity, harmony and meritocracy," says Mr Xan. "All pupils, no matter their background, are given the same chances to succeed."

School principals, such as Mr Xan, are expected to set a moral example. "I come from a humble background," he says, "and I benefited from our meritocracy. I try hard to make sure my pupils have equal opportunities to rise to the top. My job is to create a fair and happy school."

Pupils work hard, particularly at maths and science. Chinese pupils recently won the Maths Olympiad for the 10th year in a row. Some 60 per cent of China's university students graduate with degrees in science and engineering.

Teaching methods are traditional. In one classroom I visited, youngsters were being made to write out a series of sentences 10 times to help memorise them. Study is arduous. It has to be. Just learning to read and write the Chinese language involves memorising, writing and understanding 2,500 different characters used in everyday writing. Most teachers stick to the textbook and pupils obediently regurgitate the knowledge they receive. Opportunities for creative and original thinking are more limited.

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