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Education you can count on

Abacus E

In his termly report from Beijing, Tim Andrew reports on the similarities and differences in China's back-to-school rituals, and the downside to a vocational education system.

The start of the new academic year in Beijing Tyear is much the same as in England: examination results post-mortems, welcoming and inducting new staff and students, and looking at progress on all the big projects to develop the facilities.

There are differences, of course. I can't see any pupils I taught in England sitting through a one hour opening ceremony without getting distinctly restless, given that it consists mainly of a series of speeches by old busters like me exhorting them to work hard, the proceeding only leavened by a trio of former star students who tell their successors how coming to the school was the best thing they ever did...

I tell my Chinese colleagues that I shall know I have been successful when this school stops looking and feeling like a Chinese high school that happens to be teaching A level in English and resembles the best of British pre-university programmes, with students functioning as independent, confident, self-reliant learners.

It's going to be a long haul. The momentum of a centuries-old pedagogical tradition and the preferred learning style of the Chinese students - one in which they, their teachers and often their parents have been successful - is very powerful. And for all its incredible economic development, China is a deeply and structurally conservative place.

When a principal retires, he may continue to be the school's party secretary, with an office next to his successor's - your average British head's worst nightmare, I suspect. Experience often seems to be valued more highly than new talent.

In school, one person takes all the decisions, even petty ones that most UK heads would be irritated even to be consulted on. No one has a budget: they ask for things and are told if they can have them. The local authority has the power to tell us how long our lessons should be, when the school day should start and other matters that I would have told my authority were none of their damned business.

One of the most refreshing aspects of my work in China is that nationally and individually education is seen as the route to self-improvement; there is huge commitment. The downside is that all education is vocational: the notion of a liberal arts programme is alien. This has some interesting consequences when counselling students about subject choice, as in:

Me: Why do you want to do business studies at A level?

Student: I want to be a successful business man.

Me: But you want to go to the London School of Economics.

Student: Yes.

Me: But if you do business studies the LSE won't even look at your application. You may feel, as I do, that this shows the LSE to be so far up themselves in their academic self-importance that they will shortly turn inside-out. But it's the reality you have to deal with. (Or words to that effect.) Also, if you want to be a business man, business studies is probably the last subject you should be choosing now.

Student: But the LSE is a top school, and I want to be a business man.

Me: Yes, but...

And so the long day rolls on. But as always the start of a school year gives me a boost: there is something about the sense of a fresh start, a renewal, and all those new hopes and aspirations. And I love China and its people and find them fascinating. I'm not sure why: like all love it's probably completely irrational, but I think it has something to do with the otherness of the place. What I do know is that it's great to be back.

Tim Andrew is the academic principal at an international centre teaching A levels in Beijing.

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