Post-16 - A cultural exchange - but for principals
The school foreign exchange, with its inevitable dramas prompted by unidentified foodstuffs and cultural confusions, has long been a rite of passage for teenagers. But now British and Chinese college principals are trading places in a project designed to foster closer cooperation on vocational education.
The programme is part of a wider move to help British colleges exploit commercial opportunities in the fast-growing Chinese economy, and in turn to assist the Chinese government in developing a workforce with the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.
The British system of apprenticeships, in particular, has caught the eye of visiting Chinese principals keen to establish a similar scheme of work- based learning.
"They are very interested," said John Mountford, international director of the Association of Colleges. Last week, the organisation welcomed more than 40 Chinese government and college officials to its annual conference in Birmingham as part of the project, which is being run by the cross- government UK-China Partners In Education initiative.
"The Chinese have some concerns that there's a disconnect between their training and industry," Mr Mountford added. "They see the apprenticeship as one of the models they could embed to improve that."
Wang Chuang, vice-principal of Shanxi Railway Engineering Vocational Technology College, said that last week's event had helped to "broaden perspectives, generate new ideas and establish concrete ways for China and Britain to work together in management training, teacher training and student exchanges".
"I see a new horizon for our two countries in the field of cooperation in vocational education," he added.
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the programme is Anthony Bravo, principal of Basingstoke College of Technology - or, as he has dubbed it, "Beijingstoke". He is among 20 British college principals due to visit Chinese colleges this year.
Mr Bravo has already travelled to Xingtai College twice, after being forced to curtail his initial trip by an unexpected visit from education inspectorate Ofsted. "[The Chinese] didn't understand," he said. "They were so insulted. I had to say, `I promise you, I will be back in two weeks.' "
Basingstoke College has big plans to capitalise on the Chinese market. "It's no secret: my agenda is I want to recruit Chinese students," Mr Bravo told TES. The college is looking to entice them with Higher National Diploma qualifications, which could then be topped up to full degrees at a partner university as a low-cost alternative to the traditional higher education route.
Other Chinese ventures being explored by the college include a school of European catering and a group of English language schools.
"It's all about the quality of the personal relationships in that country," Mr Bravo added. And he has certainly gone the extra mile to cultivate a strong friendship with Linbau Guan, his counterpart at Xingtai.
During his visit to China, Mr Bravo earned the respect of locals by signing a memorandum of understanding between the colleges after being plied with copious quantities of Chinese rice wine. On the return visit to Basingstoke, Mr Guan ended up in chef's whites cooking locally reared buffalo.
Dudley College principal Lowell Williams visited his partner organisation, Yangzhou Industry Vocational and Technical College, last month. He was struck by how the atmosphere in the Chinese college differed from his own.
"It's got impressive buildings, but the environment is much more utilitarian," he said. "They don't celebrate the work of their students; you don't see lots of displays of creativity and colour. It looks more like the inside of a factory.
"They do much bigger group sizes: you have classes of 40-50 with the teacher standing at the front with a microphone."
Mr Williams also managed to sample local culture, not least when he was served a banquet replicating one eaten by 16th-century emperors, which included delicacies such as puffer fish and pickled black garlic.
But this is nothing compared with the delights in store for the Chinese delegates on their return visit next week: as well as a trip to see ballet The Nutcracker in nearby Birmingham, the officials will be taken to the local football derby between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa.