Pupils to dig their teeth into Mandarin at Tiger school
With around 3,000 characters needed just to read a news-paper, many view Mandarin Chinese as one of the hardest languages to learn.
But Chris Gerry, who is opening a free school with a very Chinese approach to pedagogy, begs to differ. All pupils at the Tiger Primary in Maidstone, Kent, will use Chinese abacuses to master numeracy and will learn Mandarin from Reception class.
"It is an easy language to learn because there is only a present tense and because the structure is quite simple," said Dr Gerry, strategic director of the Future Schools Trust, which is setting up the school. "It is a tonal language and you have to be able to hear the difference in tones. But children are not bad at that because their hearing is more acute, and once you have done that you are away."
A few primaries have taught Mandarin before, but often as an additional offer outside the normal curriculum and usually through staff who are shared with other schools and tend not to be qualified teachers. But Tiger Primary will make the language an integral part of its curriculum and is considering hiring its own Mandarin teacher.
Just as unusual will be the school's approach to numeracy, which will involve using the traditional abacuses - actually Japanese in origin - used in China. The technique is supposed to make pupils more adept at mental arithmetic.
"It embeds numeracy in children's minds," Dr Gerry said. "Eventually, when you take the abacuses away, they can still visualise them."
He has already introduced the approach for Years 7 and 8 pupils at the two secondary academies that the Future Schools Trust runs in Maidstone. And those schools - Cornwallis and New Line Learning academies - also offer Mandarin, with 92 pupils at the latter academy expected to sit GCSEs in the subject this year.
Children are introduced to the language at the trust's existing nursery, with Saturday classes run for people of all ages. Dr Gerry said the new primary's lessons would fill a gap and give pupils who progress through the trust's schools more time to memorise the thousands of Chinese characters.
The primary is not expected to receive the official go-ahead until next month, but is on course to open in September. The school said the Department for Education asked it to double its Reception intake from 30 to 60 pupils.
Dr Gerry said the school's name was partly inspired by Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which outlined a controversial Chinese approach to child rearing last year.
But it was not chiefly the Chinese angle that had made the free school so popular with local parents, he argued. It was the "whole offer", which also includes 7.30am-6pm hours - effectively free childcare - and the chance for all pupils to learn a musical instrument.
Ministers from both this government and the last have encouraged more schools to offer Mandarin, arguing that it will help the future UK economy. But Dr Gerry said: "We are not introducing this because we think that all business in the future will be conducted in Mandarin, although some will and we do need to encourage people to learn it. But we hope it will open up a new area of interest for all pupils."
Xiaoming Zhu supports 34 English secondaries teaching Mandarin as The Schools Network's coordinator for the Confucius Classroom programme - an international scheme to promote the language, backed by the Chinese government.
"Many primary schools do teach Chinese, but for Tiger Primary it is going to be embedded across the whole school and will be one of its main elements," she said. "Research suggests Mandarin supports the development of both sides of the brain and learning the characters definitely makes a contribution to that."
MARCH OF MANDARIN
- In a CBI survey in 2010, UK employers mentioned Mandarin and Cantonese as second only to French in the language skills they would be looking for in future employees.
- Mandarin GCSE entries were increasing rapidly, with a 40 per cent rise between 2002 and 2010.
- However, much of that was accounted for by native Chinese speakers. And last year there was a 35 per cent drop in entries, as a change in the way the exam was assessed led to a big switch to IGCSE.
- In November 2010, the government announced a partnership with China to train 1,000 more Mandarin teachers for secondaries in England.
- Before the scheme, which began last July, there were approximately 100 qualified Mandarin teachers in the UK.