We must focus on China before it sprints into a global lead

30th May 2008 at 01:00
When China wins more medals at the Olympics than the United States, the world will further wake up to the tilting balance of power
When China wins more medals at the Olympics than the United States, the world will further wake up to the tilting balance of power. But unlike mainland Britain, which is tilting imperceptibly southwards as it sinks into the sea, this east-west transition is moving at lightning speed. The next 25 years will witness the passing of economic, political and military power from the US to China. US schools have long been poor, but its excellent universities will see their intellectual muscle leech eastwards. India too will rival the US, but the focus of this article is China.

The West can respond in two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, and blame President Bush, hoping that his successor, Obama, Clinton or McCain, will sort it out. They won't. Or we can embrace the change. Schools in Britain should do the latter, as many are already beginning to do.

The past five years have seen a dramatic surge in awareness of China and in the teaching of Mandarin. According to the report of the National Centre for Languages last year, between 7 and 8 per cent of all state schools are offering some Mandarin teaching, and between a quarter and a third of all independent schools. While A-level entries have increased by 81 per cent since 2001, numbers taking GCSE have declined by 14 per cent.

I suspect that a large percentage of those taking Mandarin at A-level, as in my own school, are native Mandarin speakers, for whom acquiring an A grade is comparatively straightforward. (The exam boards do not record which candidates are native speakers.)

The take-up at primary school level is lower. Of 112 primary schools in 2007 with a partner school in China, less than a quarter are teaching Mandarin, and then mostly outside the timetable. At university level, applicants for Chinese Studies tripled between 2000 and 2006. But still only 392 students were participating in Chinese courses, a mockingly small number when contrasted to the numbers in Chinese universities studying English.

Large numbers of schools indicate that they want to become more "China conscious". Some offer trips to China, taking advantage of sponsorship opportunities available, while still more are forging bonds with partner schools.

In July 2007, a further boost to Mandarin was given with the launch of the Confucius Institute Classrooms, opened by five schools, to act as hubs to support teaching and learning of Chinese language and culture across the UK. These are officially supported by the Office of Chinese Language Council (Hanban) and by the Specialist Schools and Academy Trusts (SSAT).

Last month, Ed Balls opened the Confucius Classroom at Brighton College, the first independent school to make Mandarin compulsory for all. For further information about all China matters, schools should contact SSAT, which is committed to getting more UK students learning more about the country.

Three problems prevent Mandarin teaching taking off still further. It is fiendishly difficult, and until recently the exam boards were unwilling to consider offering an easier exam for non-native speakers. Second, pressure on curriculum time, with 40 per cent of secondary schools offering Mandarin out of hours. Third, lack of trained teachers, which SSAT among others is trying hard to address.

The message is clear. Our Olympics are a sprint, not a marathon, and the schools which do best will be those that welcome China rather than turn their backs. Anthony Seldon was previously head of Brighton College.

Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, Berkshire.

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