Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Fortune favours the brave

Fortune cookies

Upon 'retiring' in 2006, Tim Andrew took up a post with a school in Beijing. Once a term he will send a report to Leader on the wonders of living and working in China.

Another 'blue sky day' and the traffic will be running freely as we drive into downtown Beijing to the immigration office to collect my residence permit. What a contrast with a year ago, when I started work at a Chinese state school the suburb of Tongzhou, 17km due east of Tian'anmen Square. Thank God for the Olympics!

Of course, those changes are temporary and cosmetic: in a month's time we'll be back to pollution and gridlock. On the other hand, the new airport terminal - on schedule, on budget and worked first time - the new subway lines and other structural changes will remain.

It will be interesting too to see how much of the new 'openness' stays on as well: three months before the Olympics I magically found myself able to access Wikipedia and BBC news websites, although that notorious hotbed of sedition and anarchy, the website of the UK PG Wodehouse Society, continues to be blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

I've been coming regularly to China since 2001, linked to a school that has an impressive international programme. When in 2006 I told the principal that, having reached 60 and 20 years of headship without being found out, I had decided to retire, he immediately said: "Good! Now we will talk about you coming to work here."

I did not want to give up work completely and I love China, so I leapt at the chance. And here I am: I travel to Beijing six times per year for three or four weeks at a time leading the development of an A level programme taught in the english language to Chinese students who want to go to university in the UK or the USA.

There is no doubt that life in a Chinese school is very different from that in the UK. For a start, we don't have bells to signify the start and end of lessons; we have music broadcast through the PA system. The end of a lesson is signified by some twiddly arty 'Smooth Classics' stuff involving flutes: definitely a pastoral, peaceful winding down. To wind the students up at the start of the next lesson, we have...the Can-Can!

And why has it taken 36 years in teaching to find youngsters like these to work with? The way they worry obsessively about their UCAS personal statements says a lot about them: they want it to be perfect and will put in hours making it so. Little 'Nancy' is typical. She has lost her heart and soul to finance and accountancy.

Double-entry bookkeeping is one of the purest expressions of the human spirit. Her statement is 20 per cent above the allowed length, but once you've taken all the qualifiers and linking phrases and words (who DID teach the Chinese the word 'moreover'?), it's comfortably within its limit. I'm not sure the Warwick Business School is recruiting missionaries, but if they are, Nancy is their 'man'.

It's the gratitude, the politeness, the determination to succeed, the acceptance of the importance of education as the vehicle of self-improvement that are so striking. All so different from the UK, where somehow, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown once said, education has become part of the 'the problem'.

The biggest professional challenge here is to make the students independent learners, confident in facing situations that require creativity or originality of thought.

We don't exactly enjoy the freedoms of LMS. On the Sunday before the first Monday of this academic year, I received this email:

Dear all,
We were given notice from Beijing Education Committee yesterday that all the primary and middle schools in Beijing should start the first period no early than 8:00am. We have changed our timetable according to the document yesterday urgently.

The first period is postponed from 7:30 to 8:00 in the morning; the sixth period starts from 1:00 to 1:30 in the afternoon and each period is shortened from 45 minutes to 40 minutes. We are sorry for the inconvenience. Please pay attention to these changes and adjust your schedule. See you tomorrow on time.

Somebody had been in school most of Saturday and Sunday rescheduling the whole timetable. That's what I call the smack of firm local government. Local authorities in Britain can eat their heart out.

Tim Andrew was ASCL president in 2004-05 and a head in Buckinghamshire until 2006.

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