No rest for the ambitious;Summer diary

30th July 1999 at 01:00
ESCAPE TO... BEIJING

Picture the scene: Sunday morning at an hour when your correspondent is normally listening to The Archers from a prone position, she is instead standing before a class of some 30 eight- to 10-year-olds who are learning English in downtown Beijing.

Their parents spend hard-earned cash on extra lessons because they think it's important to learn the language. The kids have spent two years doing this, and they were enjoying it - even without the added cabaret of an itinerant journalist.

The first question was easy: "What is your name?" The second, from a small boy: "What is your telephone number?" was a bit cheeky. Even worse was:

"How old are you?" Then they got into their stride as their teacher was doing an exercise on what is your favourite hobby: food, music, sport ...

Apart from two hours of English, the centre runs extra sessions for older pupils who are keen to beef up their science, maths and computer skills.

Some were taking part in an astronomy project, supported by the British Council. British winners of a competition organised by the project visited Beijing at the time of the Leonids meteor shower last year and Chinese students are competing to see the eclipse from Cornwall on August 11.

Let's hope that David Blunkett doesn't get to hear about this. Summer schools are one thing, but Sunday mornings...

English is catching on in a big way throughout this vast country as the government sees it as a major part of its modernisation plans along with literacy and information technology.

In Shanghai, where they tend to be trailblazers - Mao's Cultural Revolution and the infamous Gang of Four started out here - English is being introduced in many primaries. At the First Central primary school of Jingan District, serried rows of 40 six- to seven-year-olds are learning the names of animals. With the help of cut-out pictures pinned to the blackboard, their teacher pronounces pig, cat, dog, tiger. The children, in perfect rhythm, repeat the words with appropriate gestures: pressing their noses down for "pig", stroking imaginary whiskers for "cat". Delightful.

As part of a huge reform to liberate the system from its fixation with exams, schools are now expected to help develop a child's personality. But it's hard to tell the difference. A chess class, for example, is taught formally from the blackboard. When the children aren't holding up their hands to answer questions, they place them behind their backs and wait for the next instruction. A class that Chris Woodhead would die for.

As for discipline, a distinguished head of a renowned secondary school in Shanghai looked nonplussed when asked if any pupils disrupted lessons. "That is not permitted," he replied.

English is a controversial issue in Hong Kong. Should it or Chinese be used as the teaching medium? The standard of English is surprisingly poor considering it was a British colony for 99 years. Hotel-reception staff frequently offer to write directions in Cantonese to give to taxi drivers.

The Chinese people are wonderfully hospitable to visiting foreigners. Meetings are accompanied by endless cups of green tea and often end in a splendid lunch. At a huge primary on the outskirts of Beijing I was videoed and photographed on my tour, then wined and dined at a teachers' centre. As usual, the hosts were amazed foreigners are familiar with Chinese food and chopsticks, never believing these are commonplace in Britain.

It's comforting to know that some things never change: at the Confucian Academy in Beijing, where civil servants' exam results were posted on stele - literally tablets of stone - there's a library where the Emperor used to give an annual lecture. It contains some display cabinets. One featured two silk shirts covered in lettering, dating from around the 15th century. The label read: "cheating exam robes".

China is gearing up for the 50th anniversary - in October - of the founding of the republic. Tiananmen Square is boarded up for a facelift, though cynics say this was to keep it safely out of bounds for last month's 10th anniversary of the massacre. The road to democracy is long.

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