Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Wise men from the east?

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Christmas carols that may or may not be Christmas music and education processes dominated by organisations interested only in making a healthy profit. Just two more of the paradoxes of modern life in China, reports Tim Andrew.

A few years ago I spent New Year in Istanbul. It was slightly spooky: everywhere there were images of Father Christmas and Christmas trees and street decorations. People were buying each other presents and on New Year's Eve we sat down to a dinner that consisted of roast turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings, including Brussels sprouts. 'We' had somehow exported - or the Turks had willingly imported - all the commercial aspects of Christmas but absolutely none of the religious significance and grafted the whole shebang on to New Year. Quite a feat, but the retailers were no doubt happy.

In China we do things differently. In December, my colleague who sings in the international choir told me that after not being allowed to sing Messiah last year - on account of it being a religious work and permission being required for its performance in a public venue - they had moved it to an international school because it looked as though they wouldn't get permission from the authorities once again.

This is in spite of the fact that it had become a more or less annual event - until it bumped into that religious festival of even greater significance, the Olympics. 'They' are presumably terrified that a few hundred foreigners and even fewer Chinese nationals hearing the Hallelujah Chorus sung by amateurs is going to lead to mass conversions to Christianity and demands for the creation of an established church.

Meanwhile, out in Tongzhou on the same day, I could barely hear myself think in my local Carrefour supermarket where Silent Night - which some would allege is a hymn and, therefore, a religious work - was booming over the PA, sung in English by what sounded like the Chipmunks on a heady mixture of Valium and acid.

China's love/hate relationship with Christmas is symbolic of the paradoxes that abound in this country. Another paradox is the extent to which some aspects of education are in the hands of organisations that are nakedly for-profit, often, in my view, exploiting aspiration, anxiety and ignorance to make unethically large sums.

One such is application to overseas universities: nearly all the students have used outside agencies to process their applications. I now realise that these agencies stand outside school leafleting parents when they are here, promising all kinds of influence, preying on fears about obtaining visas and so on, and getting parents to sign on the dotted line months before it is necessary.

They charge stupendous fees - about 1,000 in a country where 5,000 is a good income - and, in some cases, charge extra if the student applies to a 'top' university. This is a bit rich, to say the least, since on a UCAS form one application goes to five universities and it makes no difference whether the universities are Imperial College and the LSE or Derby and Bucks New.

What is worse is that the guidance students get is often duff - wrong deadline date for Oxford applications this year - or their applications aren't supervised properly, so applications are sent off with AS results entered as full A levels, an easy mistake for the students to make but an equally easy one to spot for someone helping to check their applications. Also, when the school isn't used, we can't track the progress of our students' applications and advise them.

So, this year we've been getting our retaliation in early. We held our first university application information evening for parents in early January of the AS year. My wife keeps advising me not to walk down any dark hutongs...

Tim Andrew is the academic principal at an international centre teaching A levels in Beijing and a former head in Buckinghamshire.

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