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How to teach Chinese? Is England's autonomous school system limiting innovation?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 October 2015

Toby Greany.
During the early 1990s I lived in China for two years, where I taught English at JiangHan University in Wuhan. Not long before I left, a friend’s dad – a scary documentary film maker who had never given me the time of day before – gave me one piece of advice: ‘learn Chinese!’
In the event I was only partially successful in fulfilling his directive. Before going to China I had spent two years in Brazil, where I had become almost fluent in Portuguese. But Chinese didn’t come so easily; it required sustained and diligent study and I was surrounded by students who just wanted to practice their English. The truth is, it is a difficult language for English speakers to learn. The Foreign Service Institute in Washington estimates that a native English speaker takes approximately 2200 hours to become proficient in Chinese, compared to 600 hours in French.
So this presents an interesting challenge for teachers and schools in the UK that want to introduce Chinese to their curricula. The difficulty of the language is compounded by the fact that, culturally, the British are not diligent linguists. We may live in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, but we have relied too much on English being a global language. A recent European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC) survey placed England second from bottom out of 14 countries.
Chinese President Xi JinPing’s visit to England this week exemplifies why we can no longer rely on English as the global lingua franca (an interesting linguistic juxtaposition!). Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the government’s engagement with China, it is clear that Asia will be a significant influence across all aspects of life in the 21st Century – so we need more schools to teach Chinese.
But this presents an interesting conundrum. For a school leader to introduce Chinese into their curriculum they must: be able to recruit fluent speakers of the language who are also good teachers; make time for the teaching of a new subject which will require around 2200 hours over the course of a child’s school career; and work through all the associated questions such as how they will work with schools in other phases to ensure progression, which assessment and qualification model they will use and so on. This is no mean feat, particularly at a time when real terms budgets are reducing, staff are overworked, and schools are already focusing so much of their energy on responding to the new National Curriculum and assessment and accountability changes.
The good news is that there are schools that are managing to overcome these challenges. Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board’s 2014 report on The teaching of Chinese in the UK includes a range of case studies of schools across the UK that have introduced Chinese in fascinating and creative ways. Many of the schools in England work with the IOE Confucius Institute for Schools, which is also active in training new Chinese teachers. I was pleased to meet some of them at an event run by the Confucius Institute this week to coincide with President Xi JinPing’s visit.
The work of these leaders seems to exemplify the kinds of curriculum leadership that Robin Alexander sees as central for all leaders in England’s autonomous and ‘self-improving’ system. Writing particularly about primary schools he suggests that:

Evidence from research, inspection and shared experience, understanding of curriculum matters, rigour in curriculum discourse, preparedness to acknowledge that the generalist classteacher system isn’t sacrosanct, a flexible approach to school staffing, a desire to share intellectual capital between schools as well as within them… all informed by an unshakeable commitment to ‘a curriculum which is consistently well-taught regardless of the perceived significance of its various elements or the amount of time devoted to them’: these are the name of the new curriculum leadership game, and the shift from centralised direction to school self-improvement gives our latest generation of school leaders the chance to break the mould.

The key question seems to be whether enough school leaders in England feel they have the time and capacity to innovate in the rigorous ways that Alexander argues for? And even if they are doing so in terms of how they are addressing the government’s existing curriculum and assessment changes, do they have the capacity and risk appetite to also introduce entirely new provision in an area such as Chinese?
The current evidence on this is not good: Tinsley and Board’s research identified just 95 primary schools in England that are teaching Chinese – which equates to around 1 in 160. By contrast, in Scotland they identified 119 such primary schools, which equates to around 1 in 16.
Tinsley and Board conclude that:

In common with previous research, this study has identified a number of obstacles which are hindering the growth of Chinese. The principal one is the lack of strategic thinking which would translate high level political support into action on the ground.

They note a stark difference here between England and Scotland. England’s policy approach since 2010 has been to create autonomous and accountable schools and academies whilst removing what Schools Minister Nick Gibb calls Labour’s “bloated panoply of quangos and ancillary bodies”. In the area of teacher training – a key issue for developing a home-grown cadre of Chinese teachers – the expansion of School Direct and near removal of a planned supply model for allocating teacher training places has neutered policy makers’ ability to develop strategic supply. By contrast, Scotland has a clear strategic plan for addressing issues such as teacher training and supports implementation in schools through Local Authority hubs, an approach that the Chinese Hanban organisation has applauded.
Part of the argument for school autonomy is that it will make schools more responsive – for example to parents, employers and the needs of children – untrammeled by the bureaucrats in the quangos and Local Authorities. Yet if that were the case then surely you would expect England’s autonomous schools to be thrusting ahead of Scotland’s Local Authority maintained ones in the teaching of Chinese. Instead, Finch et al’s 2014 research found that almost two thirds of academies continue to follow the National Curriculum and have no plans to move away from it.
This is not an argument to say that we should recreate heavy bureaucracies or limit the ability of schools to shape their own curricula. Like Alexander, I do believe that leaders and teachers in schools must be equipped to shape and deliver a coherent curriculum that meets the needs of their context. But I worry that some innovations, such as the introduction of Chinese, are too great for schools to solve on their own – they require a strategic, national and local response which gives school leaders the support and resources they need. In the rush for an autonomous and accountable self-improving school system, England may have gone too far in removing its capacity for systemic innovation.
Photo by NoRMaN TsAi 蔡英颉 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

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One Response to “How to teach Chinese? Is England's autonomous school system limiting innovation?”

  • 1
    educationstate wrote on 24 October 2015:

    Isn’t the point of a system that it isn’t innovative? Weber describes this in great detail. Bureaucrats (‘system leaders’) are supposed to keep things running on the same rails and to stifle change in other words and so ‘systemic innovation’ is a contradiction in terms.
    Anyway, aren’t we only talking about this because the Tories want to deflect blame for the effects of welfare cuts onto innovators, schools etc. that don’t make proper use of their ‘freedoms’?
    The problem if there is one is not freedom from the system, but a system that we believe in. Gaining such support for a system requires oversight and democracy. The Scottish Chinese language teaching/training system you describe therefore seems better, but not becuase it is innovative, but because it can be more properly monitored (via LAs).
    One more thing: wasn’t there the same drive to learn Japanese in the 80s? Perhaps what happened with that is an important lesson to learn.