Training drive could tame Chinese threat

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
In search of work experience in journalism, James, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired son of a friend, asked me if I could help him secure an internship on a newspaper in India during his gap year.

As it happened, I could, and the teenager has happily departed for New Delhi on a three-month stint, to the envy of his friends back home. The newspaper was happy to have him - English "chaps" write good headlines, explain slang words and bring new ideas, the deputy editor said.

As for James, the teenager's eyes were opened up to what globalisation really means. Every day he writes about new outsourcing deals - and not just call centres and IT either. Among the articles he has written for the business pages this month are Kodak setting up a creative and marketing hub in India, and a German company outsourcing animation work.

He is amazed at how self-confident, focused and ambitious young Indians are. The "world-is-your-oyster" feeling is pervasive. But they are also thorough in acquiring skills.

"Back home people don't realise what's coming," James said in an email. "My friends all want fantastically well-paid jobs, but they don't want to have to learn anything or work hard to get there. They want everything now."

Two weeks into his stint, the story of Brighton college making Mandarin compulsory for one period a week found its way into the newspaper. In India, it was seen as yet another example of China pulling ahead in the economic race, overtaking Britain as the fourth largest economy.

James emailed me: "In England they don't need to learn Chinese to prepare for globalisation; they need to learn to spell.

"How much Chinese is an English kid going to learn over five years? About as much French as I learned over the same period, which is bugger-all.

Hardly enough to take Paris by storm, let alone export to China, and what have we got to export to them anyway?" he wrote.

Long before English children have gained a smattering of Chinese, Indian graduates will take over jobs which require English, he suggested. Even in China, 110 million pupils are learning English for at least one period a day.

Richard Cairns, the youthful head of Brighton college, says it is not about getting pupils fluent in Mandarin but preparing for "global reality" and breaking down cultural barriers so that pupils see globalisation not as a threat, "but something important and exciting, and full of opportunities".

It will open their eyes, Mr Cairns said, just as James's stint in New Delhi has opened his. Pupils at Brighton college will be able to face the future with confidence, sharing some of that world-is-your-oyster feeling that James detects in India.

Some of them will surely be trailblazing the British presence in Shanghai in a decade or two. But James has a point about the school system in general.

His email landed in my inbox the same day that newspapers screamed that 12 million adults in this country have the reading and writing skills of an 11- year-old. Dr Henry Overman at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance, says that despite the panic about white-collar offshoring, it is the lowest-skilled that have the most to lose from globalisation.

"If people with lower skills want jobs, it is going to be difficult to pay them," he says. "We should use our resources as a rich nation not to prop up companies which employ the low-skilled, but to better educate them."

Making GCSEs easier to pass, or removing difficult concepts from maths GCSE to boost pass rates, will not serve British youngsters well. Employers know what they are getting.

The growing China "fetish" seems to gloss over that. In America, the Senate foreign relations commitee is considering allocating $1.3 billion (pound;750 million) to schools to teach Chinese language and culture. US business leaders want 5 per cent of high-school students to study Chinese by 2015.

But there are dissenting voices. Would it not be better to invest that $1.3bn in better maths and science teaching in American schools? China may be the world's fourth largest economy but the US accounts for 40 per cent of the world's research and development expenditure, and those opportunities are likely to grow.

Learn Chinese by all means, but to compete with China and India we have to be much better at everything else we do.

Yojana Sharma is a TES correspondent, formerly based in Hong Hong

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