Scaling the Great Wall

22nd November 2013 at 00:00

It's not just China's demand for fine salmon and whisky that is safe in Scottish hands; it's the country's teachers, too, judging by a report in the South China Morning Post. While on a five-day trade mission to Beijing and Hong Kong earlier this month, first minister Alex Salmond assured his hosts that however ridiculous the UK government's refusal to grant work visas to two Chinese teachers was, an independent Scotland would be "encouraging and welcoming".

The row with the Home Office in London concerned teachers sent by China to work at the Confucius Institute for Scotland's Schools at the University of Strathclyde, one of four academic establishments set up to build business and research links between the two countries. A fifth (at Heriot-Watt University) was announced during Salmond's tour.

The Scottish government - and, indeed, a cross-party parliamentary group on China - has been working tirelessly to develop close ties with the People's Republic at university and school levels, to secure a foothold for Scotland's young people in what will be one of the largest markets in the world. The timing of Westminster's faux pas could not have been worse (or better, from Mr Salmond's point of view).

The second China Youth Summit to be hosted by the Scotland-China Education Network (SCEN) will take place next Wednesday at Gleneagles Hotel. The Chinese and Scottish dignitaries in attendance - not least Judith McClure, convener of SCEN - will no doubt be relieved that the visa issue was promptly resolved.

Since an international letter of agreement was signed in 2007, 10 Confucius Classrooms have been set up in schools across the country. Via these local hubs, children have been introduced to Chinese languages and arts, partnerships have been set up with Chinese schools, and students and teachers have travelled to the Far East. About 35 Scottish schools offer the opportunity to learn Chinese languages, and more than 300 students sat Scottish Qualifications Authority exams in them last year.

Enthusiasm was high among young people and teachers at a conference organised by SCEN at the University of Edinburgh in June. James Bellshaw, headteacher of Queen Anne High in Fife, said that opening a Confucius Classroom was one of the best things his school had ever done. Two classes were studying Chinese, and they had even considered starting a third class, but decided it would be too difficult for the teacher.

A shortage of registered teachers of Chinese is hampering progress nationally. We need ring-fenced funding for such teachers, according to McClure, who recognises the financial constraints on government but wants to see Mandarin made part of the 1+2 languages agenda in schools. In the meantime, we should encourage more teachers from China and welcome the fact that the great wall is gradually coming down.

Gillian Macdonald is a former editor of TESS.

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