Lord of the rings

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Confucius is back on the curriculum and the country's education system is credited with helping China fight its way out of mass poverty to become a world beater. As the Olympics reach the half-way stage, John Greenlees's blog gives us an insight

Beijing is trying hard to impress. As the Olympic Games continue, an array of spectacular new building and transport projects is helping China's ancient capital to become an international metropolis.

Schools are contributing too. Every pupil in Beijing is timetabled for English and citizenship classes which include lessons on western etiquette and the inappropriate- ness of traditional bad habits, such as jaywalking, dropping litter and spitting.

But schools in Beijing and other parts of China have already done much to impress. The country's education system is credited with helping China fight its way out of mass poverty to become an economic superpower and a world beater in many different areas. Standards in maths and science are particularly high and Chinese pupils score well for these disciplines in international comparisons of academic attainment. Chinese pupils recently won the Maths Olympiad for the 10th year in a row.

Pupils in Beijing are learning English with growing numbers of American and British students flocking to the city to work as language assistants. Nineteen-year-old Greg Anderson, from Elgin, is one of 50 or more Scottish students in Beijing teaching English and working as interpreters and helpers at the Olympic Games.

Teaching methods in Chinese schools are largely traditional. In one classroom I visited, pupils were writing out a series of sentences 10 times to help them memorise them. Study is arduous.

Just learning to read and write the Chinese language involves remembering, 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.

Now that Marxism is no longer the guiding ideology, Confucianism has been put back on the curriculum. This involves lessons on the Confucian classics and the adoption of new textbooks which contain numerous references to the teachings of Confucius, China's wise sage and teacher, who lived between 551 and 479 BC. More universities are offering courses in Confucian studies.

Confucianism provides an ideal code of conduct for schools. It stresses the importance of eight virtues which include 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, the principal of the secondary school I visit. "My job is to create a fair and happy school. All pupils, no matter what their background, are given the same opportunities to succeed."

School principals such as Mr Xan are expected to set a moral example. "I come from a humble farming background," he says, "and I benefited from our meritocracy. I try hard to make sure all the pupils in my school become fine citizens with positive moral values."

Exams have a key role in deciding the future lives of young Chinese. Although a growing number of parents are concerned about the negative effects of the country's "examination hells", there is little agreement on a suitable substitute for identifying academic achievement and career advancement.

Physical activities are important too and, in many schools, centre on the martial arts. Economic progress has meant the decline of traditional meals based on rice, fish and vegetables and an increasing fondness for high-fat western meals. By 2010, one in five Chinese children is expected to be overweight. "There has been an alarming increase in obesity," Mr Xan says. "In this school, we use the martial arts to keep pupils in good mental and physical shape."

Thousands of specialist sports schools, meanwhile, are providing additional training for six million young Chinese athletes who are hoping to achieve honour, and wealth, for themselves, their families and their nation. The training regimes are rigorous and have been criticised for pushing young athletes too hard.

To promote fitness among the less sport-minded, the Ministry of Education has added dance to the school curriculum. "A series of dance steps has been devised for pupils of different ages to enjoy" says Mr Xan. "For many schools, there has been too much focus on academic subjects, which meant pupils spent too much time on homework and not enough on play and exercise."

As well as ideas on learning and teaching, school ethos and athlete development, Chinese schools offer one other useful lesson for Scottish schools. Greg Anderson believes China's practice of starting the school day with a physical warm-up is something schools in Scotland should consider doing.

"It's a great way to start the school day," he says. "It wakes you up and prepares you for learning. Back in Scotland, I was always half asleep during the first hour of the school day!"

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