FIRST DAY BACK
As the new school year gets underway in China, over 200 million school students returned to their desks, an approximate 8 million metric tonnes of flesh and bones crashing into plastic seats. In fact Chinese students rarely crash into their chairs, as we are used to observing in the British classroom, they will remain attentive and avoid slouching for the majority of the year. Opening day ceremonies up and down the land saw students giving their seats a rest in their salute to the flag and the new academic year.
The students’ respect for their country, the institutions they are taught in and their own educational achievements are obvious to all observers; a stark difference to the opening days of schools in the U.K. (which stagger in from mid-August in Scotland to the second week in September in some English Local Education Authorities).
In China many students study for twelve hours a day and seven days a week and will conclude each school year with a very tough examination period in June. Many of these students will be actively searching for foreign university placements by the time they leave the Chinese education system, others may wish to find jobs with international links, and thus are often involved in additional English language lessons. It is the willingness of parents and students to cope with the harsher aspects of school life which indicates their determination for a better tomorrow; for both the individual and the country.
There are important issues here, which cannot be isolated to the educational sphere. China has regularly stated its commitment to economic growth and to quadruple its average wealth per person between 2007 and 2020, and sees this as a more important target than specific care for the individual. The Chinese state “respects and protects the human rights of its citizens” but realpolitik means that whilst the state might respect the universal principles of human rights, it has to give greater priority to the mass of its people’s rights to subsistence and development.
To say that Chinese economic development is working is an understatement of such proportions it is palpable. The rise of the Chinese middle classes since the 1980s has seen the greatest economic change to the greatest number of people this world has ever witnessed. We can be critical of its less desirous spin offs, and environmental degradation is certainly foremost amongst these, but the fact that the state has had such success in its prime objectives is certainly making the almost invisible, short term targets of western nations appear risible.
These twinned aspects of collective over individual rights and further massive economic expansion fuels the individual’s attitude toward education. As with developing countries the world over, education, if accessible and affordable, proves an irresistible draw; seventy-two hours of study a week becomes a mere inconvenience. Success brings income, income generates spending and domestic spending, particularly as the rest of the world saves itself into a sustained depression, is a key plank to the government’s economic objective.
As Britain relies more and more on foreign students to achieve their income targets and, it has to be suspected, some of their best degrees and postgraduate researchers, there is little in Britain to attract highly skilled workers to remain in the longer term. Many British students studying in a wealthier country for their first or secondary degrees may well choose to stay there; in this way the USA regularly poaches are best talent.
China has been producing twice as many university graduates as the USA for several years now and has over 23 million in its tertiary education systems. Although over 190,000 overseas students attend Chinese universities, China alone accounts for over one in seven of all international students throughout the world, making up the largest single national group, numbering over half a million at overseas universities. As development continues more and more of the overseas Chinese students are returning home, opening businesses, contributing acquired skills to government, both Chinese and overseas companies, and further fuelling the economic bonanza.
China’s education system is not static; it picks and chooses examples from the western sphere of influence to enhance student learning. Whereas there has always been some criticism of the traditional rote learning in some Chinese schools it would be wrong to believe that this is either uniform or unchanging. Class sizes come in for some criticism as well, but the average teacher/student ratio in secondary schools of 1:15 compares relatively well with that of the UK at 1:13 (both figures from 2007 and rounded). Some Chinese schools have experimented with the International Baccalaureate programme, many have well advanced ICT programmes and all are concerned about results. It is this last factor that sees many Chinese teachers being as critical of western education systems as we are of theirs.
There is clear difference in attitudes toward education in China and Britain. It is equally clear that China has clear economic and national objectives; Britain does not. Could not the hypothesis be drawn that these two are more directly linked than has been supposed and that until we have clear objectives for our future, be that part of European or international aim or not, that Britain’s education will continue to fail to motivate a very large minority of our student body.