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TV series reignites debate over school system

By Chris Peterson | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2015-08-09 12:59

BBc shows Chinese teachers taking on UK's state institutions, but private academies may be best of both worlds

It is becoming compulsory viewing - highly motivated Chinese teachers taking on an unruly class of English teenagers at a state school in Hampshire, aiming to subject them to Chinese-style education techniques for four weeks.

It was a bit like watching car crash television - you just knew that Sophie, a sassy, frizzy-haired 13-year-old given to chatting in class, would prove to be a problem, as would an equally fidgety 13-year-old boy called Luca, who freely admitted that when he lost interest in the subject being taught, he started distracting fellow pupils.

What the three-part series is doing is highlighting the differences between China's education system and those of the state system in the UK. It has also reignited a debate over the merits of the UK approach compared to China.

Chinese teachers, it seems, rely on discipline, absolute obedience, respect, and a desire to learn. Looking at scenes of Chinese pupils sitting attentively in class, or carrying out well-choreographed calisthenics before starting their 12-hour day, you get a pretty good idea of how education goes down in China. Their English colleagues, by contrast, preside over a more free-form style of teaching, expecting pupils to interact and discuss a problem, in which the teacher is part of the group.

The Chinese teachers featured are all determined professionals, fluent in English and obviously not used to being defied or challenged.

But hold on a minute - I am of an age when grammar schools were all the rage, back in the 1950s, and without resorting to a good old days mentality I can safely say the Chinese system rang some bells.

As a 13-year-old, I was by no means a model pupil, and yes, my attention wandered during maths and physics. But I would never have dared to cheek a teacher or made comments in class. You simply didn't do that.

As a father of two daughters, now aged 31 and 25, I can testify to the excellence of the private school system in this country, which manages to blend old-style grammar school values with the more pupil-involved approach as seen at Bohunt School in Liphook, the comprehensive state school featured in the BBC programs.

Both my daughters went on to successful careers via good universities, picking up a discipline and desire to learn along the way.

And there, I think, lies a clue as to why so many Chinese parents opt to either send their children to private schools in this country or enroll them in schools such as London's Dulwich College, which runs two highly successful campuses in Beijing and Shanghai.

Fresh from the disciplines in the Chinese system, with its learning by rote and respect for the teachers, Chinese pupils seem to revel in the relative free-expression, combined with values they have already learned that are on offer in private schools. They have, deservedly, a reputation as high achievers and hard workers. And all the reports I hear say they aren't troublemakers. They're here to learn.

Imagine the BBC had decided to conduct this experiment in a private school in the UK - not Eton, or Harrow, but one such as James Allen's Girls' School in south London or Dulwich College for boys nearby.

I'll bet you a pound to a penny that you would have gotten a much closer result.

But then, it wouldn't have made such good television, would it?

The author is managing editor of China Daily Europe, based in London. Contact the writer at

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