Children of Chinese families are streets ahead of their classmates - and not only in Britain. David Newnham finds out why
A teacher in a Hong Kong school is showing a group of British colleagues around her classroom. Do her guests have any questions? Well yes, as it happens. One of the group has been doing a quick head count and is struck by the number of pupils crammed into the room. "Can you tell me," he asks, "why you have 54 children in your class?" "It's a question of space," the Chinese teacher replies. "We just couldn't fit any more in."
The story is told by Jim Donnelly, head of Litherland high school in Liverpool, and he uses it to illustrate one of the key differences between Chinese children and their British counterparts. "They have a serious attitude to education, and they work and work and work," he says. "They come from a fairly didactic tradition and have a lot of respect for the teacher. So you just go in and teach them."
Mr Donnelly has made several visits to schools in Hong Kong and China, and has set up a partnership between Litherland and Qiujing high school in Chongqing, China's fourth biggest city. With all this experience, he is perhaps well placed to explain why statistics show Chinese children coming top of the class in British schools.
Data from the Department for Education and Skills shows that pupils of Chinese origin were the best-performing minority ethnic group in all subjects at all levels last year, with 90 per cent achieving the expected level in maths at key stage 3, for example, and 74.8 per cent gaining five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, compared with the national average of just 50.7 per cent.
Nor is it only in British schools that Chinese children excel. According to an Australian study of more than 13,000 secondary students, Chinese pupils surpass all other ethnic groups in the country's classrooms, outperforming their counterparts in their final school exams and achieving 79 per cent university entrance, against an average of 68.8 per cent for students from English-speaking homes.
One Australian school principal said the figures reflected the importance Chinese parents accord to education, believing it "the greatest gift one generation can bestow on the next". Mr Donnelly agrees. "There's no secret to it," he says. "Chinese parents put a high value on education, and their children go to school expecting to work.
"In Hong Kong, they solve the problem of the rush hour by getting children to start school at 8am, before everybody goes to work. Parents and children respect the teacher, and they expect the teacher to know things."
Families from the Far East who settle abroad bring these attitudes with them, according to Li Wei, a professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University. "The high status of teachers in Chinese society and the value families place on education are key factors helping to drive up achievement among Chinese children living in Britain," he says.
Born in Beijing, Li Wei came to the UK in 1986, and has written about bilingualism and cross-cultural issues in education, working extensively with Chinese children living in Newcastle. "There is no single reason for any group of children to do better than others," he says. "All cultures consider education important, but the key for the Chinese is parental and family involvement.
"Children's education and schooling are at the top of the agenda for the whole family, and everybody contributes indirectly. To most Chinese, wherever they live, education does not stop at the school gate. It extends well into the family and the community, and parents get worried when, for example, they hear their children have no homework."
Li Wei points to the number of weekend schools in Chinese communities in the UK. These provide complementary education through the mother tongue, as well as English language enhancement for children who have recently arrived. "One of the key resources in these community schools is English language support for parents," he says. "Our work here in the north-east suggests that when parents and children come socially closer to each other, the children respond better to their parents. That requires the parents to have some knowledge of English, and the evidence suggests the better English parents have, the more involvement they can have with their children's schooling, which, in turn, will enhance their achievement in school."
Typical of the educational services run by and for the community is the Hillingdon Chinese school, a non-profit organisation that offers Saturday classes in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as Chinese arts and culture to children and adults in the north London borough. Cindy Tsang is the head, and she has no doubt that parental attitudes to education are key to Chinese children's performance at school. "Chinese parents work together with the teacher rather than confronting and challenging the school," she says.
"The community respect me as a headteacher more than they might respect a millionaire who owns 10 restaurants. It's been part of our culture for thousands of years. Confucius was a teacher, so we firmly believe teachers know what they are doing.
"Here, I see parents blame the teacher if a child's education is not going well. There is a breakdown of communication and trust, and children think, 'Why should I respect the teacher?' But Chinese parents will tell their children, 'Don't give me any nonsense. Do your homework and listen to your teacher'.
"There is no magic, no short cut. If you do what your teachers says, you pass your exams. If the teacher says do 10 pages of homework, we do 10, or even 11. Because if your children are not educated, no matter how rich you are, you lose standing with your relatives.
"In Hong Kong, China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, children do five to six hours of homework a day from primary school onwards. They don't argue.
They just spend less time on other things. So to come here and do three hours is nothing for them."
In the Chinese home, she says, children begin studying from an early age, formally with worksheets and multiplication tables, and informally in everyday situations. "There are five people at the table, so how many chopsticks will we need? How many pairs of chopsticks? How many fingers? This is nothing to do with homework - it's common sense. A lot of Chinese families have takeaway restaurants, so counting out change is important," says Ms Tsang. "Children should be able to do it in their heads, and not get a calculator out.
"And it's the same with learning English. Because it is not our first language, when we learn it, the parents are cautious, and keen that children learn the grammar and get the spelling right. Otherwise people might think a child just came here yesterday."
But Mrs Tsang emphasises that this work ethic does not translate into good results across the board. "Chinese children do well in academic subjects because, culturally, we follow instructions. In that respect the system works for us. But, unfortunately, in creative and artistic subjects and sport, we don't do that well.
"Chinese children tend to be shorter, and they often wear glasses, so in football they get pushed and bullied. When it comes to art, because they are taught to follow instructions, most of them do not use that much creativity. Chinese parents don't encourage them to be creative, because they don't want them to go off course or do something silly.
"A child might be artistic, but the parents will say, 'How much would you earn as an artist, and how much as a doctor?' In China 20 years ago, only the poorest children went to art school, and even now, all the Olympic medallists are poor, poor children."
But signs in recent years suggest these attitudes are changing as educationists in the Far East consider the benefits of western-style teaching, with its greater emphasis on questioning and creative thinking.
"Hong Kong," says Jim Donnelly, "has had a didactic tradition. But they are increasingly interested in looking at the sort of interactivity we have in education in Britain. To be honest, I think there's a case for both."