Status anxiety

Even the Chinese can’t teach British teenagers

Chinese education is based on authority, discipline and ruthless competition. Ours is progressive and child-friendly

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

Watching a group of unruly children make mincemeat out of a well-meaning teacher has become a television staple and Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, a factual entertainment series that debuted on BBC2 on Tuesday, is a case in point. We look on aghast as five teachers from China struggle to manage a class of ordinary 14-year-olds in England. They quickly discover that the techniques that have made Chinese schoolchildren the envy of the world don’t work with Kevin the Teenager.

On the face of it, the Chinese educational model has much to recommend it. Shanghai is at the top of the Pisa international education league tables in maths, while the UK is in 26th place. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are two and a half years ahead of their British equivalents and outperform the children of British professionals. It seems we could learn a great deal from Chinese teachers, particularly in boosting the performance of our lowest achievers.

So why does it all go pear-shaped when they try to ply their trade at Bohunt School, a comprehensive in Hampshire? Bohunt is a pretty good school by English standards. Last year, 87 per cent of pupils got five GCSEs with grades A* to C, including maths and English, way above the national average of 52 per cent. Yet when Yang Jun, a teacher from Xian in central China, tried to teach his class some basic science, they seemed incapable of paying attention. While Chinese children would be sitting quietly in rows, hanging on his every word, their English equivalents preferred to chat about One Direction and what they saw on TV last night.

‘In China, we don’t need classroom management skills because everyone is disciplined by nature, by families, by society,’ he said. ‘Whereas here it is the most challenging part of teaching.’ Part of the problem is that nearly all Chinese pupils place a high value on education, seeing it as their ticket to a better life, while a significant minority of English teenagers don’t. This leads to a great deal of low-level disruption, which was singled out as a problem by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw last year.

One Chinese teacher at Bohunt School blamed our over-generous welfare system. ‘Even if they don’t work, they can get money, they don’t worry about it,’ said Wei Zhao. ‘But in China they can’t get these things so they know, “I need to study hard, I need to work hard to get money to support my family.” If the British government really cut benefits down to force people to go to work they might see things in a different way.’

Another difficulty is that, in the words of the programme’s narrator, ‘Chinese education is based on authority, discipline and ruthless competition’, whereas our system is more progressive and child-friendly. Few English schoolteachers expect teenagers to give them their undivided attention if they engage in the traditional, teacher-led approach that is still the norm in China. They are trained to keep children permanently stimulated with quizzes, role-play games and ‘key word bingo’. Even at an above-average school such as Bohunt, children don’t receive what the Chinese would recognise as an education. It’s a hybrid of education and entertainment — edutainment. It’s the difference between an old-fashioned public information film and Horrible Histories. Even the headteacher of Bohunt dismissed the Chinese teaching style as ‘mind-numbingly boring’.

In fairness to English teenagers, there’s little proof that this approach works for all Chinese schoolchildren beyond anecdotal evidence provided by these teachers. Yes, the data from Shanghai is impressive, but teenagers in the rest of mainland China don’t sit the Pisa tests and there are good reasons for treating the Shanghai data with a pinch of salt.

Until recently, the children of migrants from less developed areas weren’t allowed to attend the best schools in Shanghai, which were reserved for the city’s elite. The ban was lifted in 2008, but only for primary and middle schools, i.e. for pupils aged 14 and under. The Pisa tests are taken by 15-year-olds. The children tested in Shanghai are the equivalent of grammar-school kids in England, so it’s not surprising that they’re several years ahead of English children as a whole. If you compare like with like, the gap is much smaller.

If there’s an enduring lesson here, it’s that child-centred teaching methods aren’t as effective as the traditional, chalk-and-talk approach favoured in China. But we don’t need a factual entertainment series to tell us that.

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  • Ed Clarke

    It is very unfortunate that the programme isn’t a fair experiment, in weighing traditional and progressive teaching against each other – the children have no proper authority from the school’s senior management, and of course there is an element of playing to the cameras. If the school had high expectations regarding discipline and enforced good behaviour at all times, the Chinese methods would indubitably prove more effective than the child-centred bumbling that passes for teaching in so many British schools.

    It is interesting, however, to consider the students’ genuinely shocking attitudes towards their own education. The most damning remark, in my view, came from Rosie – “They’ve got this discipline that probably works in China, ‘cos everyone does what the teacher say, but it doesn’t work here, because no-one really cares, everyone just finds it hilarious.”

    • Lindum

      It is interesting, that despite these issues that you point out – the traditional method still beat the progressive by a considerable margin.

      The shock is not only the attitudes of the pupils (sorry “young learners”), but also the terrible attitudes of the parents. There was another documentary recently comparing a private school to a state school, and the headmaster (sorry “head teacher”, even though he was a man), stated that one of the main difference he sees is that both parents and teachers are singing from the same hymn-sheet in the in the private sector – and the hymn says that education is important.

      • Ed Clarke

        I was delighted to see that! I teach in a very traditional fashion, and it has yielded great success – as it did throughout my own old-fashioned education (which I was very lucky to have, given that it was at some of the last properly traditional schools still operating in the late 1990s and through the 2000s).
        I agree, the parents’ attitudes were dreadful, but as somebody now working in the private sector I’d caution that such approaches to parenting now seem to be endemic across the board, in both state and public schools. If parents back their children against their teachers, there is only so much you can do in the classroom, even if you’re competent and driven.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    The ‘old-fashioned public information film’ wasn’t just giving information. The GPO Film Unit, which produced many of them, was bold and experimental. It used top notch directors, innovative sound and vision, cutting-edge animation and up-to-date technology as this history reveals: The films were never mind-numbingly boring but engaging – just like the best teaching.

    ‘Horrid Histories’ is great fun. I visited the Horrid Histories First World War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. In between zapping the rats the child I was with learnt a lot about life in the trenches. It’s just one way of tackling history.

    • PaD

      Horrible Histories(trademark) might be one way of tackling history..but it’s a franchise and lets have a way that just teaches history using a good teacher.

      • bravesirhornet

        I don’t know quite where to start with this excuse for an article but I’ll list its faults in no particular order:

        1) This was a TV programme set in one particular school. No contrived situation can be used as a generalisation about a system as diverse as England’s.

        2) It would be very interesting to see what would happen if english teachers went to China. Only then could a meaningful comparison start to be made. Imagine Toby’s embarrassment if Chinese youngsters actually enjoyed more interactive lessons.

        3) As usual UK based commentators fail to realise that schooling in different parts of China is as variable as in the UK.

        4) In the 1970’s & 1980’s we used to taunt the left in the UK by saying things like “If you think communism is so good why don’t you go and live in the USSR?” I would suggest that those who espouse the sinophilic sycophancy for the Chinese education system take a moment to think that it springs from a society that has no democracy, no freedom of speech or religion and huge inequality. But they get good marks on the (flawed) PISA tests so that’s OK.

        • Tamerlane

          I’ll tell you exactly what happens when English (sic British) teachers go to China – they stay for many, many years.

          • Suzanne Rojek

            No they don’t. Who the hell wants to live in China?

          • Tamerlane

            British teachers. British bankers. British investors. British manufacturers.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    Toby – your conclusion about child-centred education being less effective than chalk and talk seems at odds with the Ofsted report for your West London Free School. Inspectors judged it Outstanding and wrote such things as:

    1 ‘The curriculum is designed to develop pupils’ skills, knowledge and understanding across a wide range of subjects. It promotes pupils’ enjoyment, confidence and ability to think for themselves’. (But above you equate enjoyment with ‘edutainment’).
    2 ‘Adults accurately check children’s understanding and plan activities that are carefully pitched at the right level of difficulty’ (in other words teaching follows from where the children are).
    3 ‘Every minute is used to maximise children’s learning through direct teaching and incidentally’ (in other words, opportunities to teach are seized upon as well as teaching directly).
    4 ‘…children are encouraged to rehearse their thinking by talking about their work and to speak in ‘scholar sentences’.’ (Your teachers have recognised the importance of talking. Experience alone isn’t enough, it has to be articulated. But schools minister Nick Gibb thinks class discussion is mere ‘chat’. You appear to have proved him wrong as has the Outstanding School 21 which puts oracy at the heart of what it does).

    Doesn’t sound much like chalk-and-talk to me. It sounds like child-centred education at its best.

    • Linguistician

      “It sounds like child-centred education at its best.” …which is exactly what MUST be done to pass an Ofsted inspection by any chance?

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief HMI, has made it clear there is no preferred teaching style. However, if you don’t believe him, you seem to be suggesting that Toby’s school deliberately deceived inspectors in order to get Outstanding. Surely if the school was committed to chalk-and-talk it should have the courage of its convictions and continue with this method when Ofsted is calling?

  • Schoolswot

    This, from Tom Bennett, is a far better review and points to the artifice of it all.

    “This programme is no more about discerning comparative pedagogies than it is about cake baking”

    Well quite..

    • Leon Wolfeson

      I do like his point about real socialism and conformism in China – we’re all such individualists over here compared!

      • marklu

        I’m not.

    • Lindum

      Absolutely not true. What you are seeing in that programme is a true reflection of Chinese education, except perhaps the side where the teachers really do care for the most part, about their pupils.

  • Schoolswot

    By the way Tobes – I notice that you’ve been trying to wind Andy Burnham up by asking him whether he wants successful free schools – one effectively 1 6th form grammar – to be placed under LA control.

    Odd that you never – not once – have ever discussed failing free schools.

    Would being under LA oversight – not control, no-one believes that old rubbish now – have made a difference to Al Madinah, Discovery, Kings Science, Durham, the 2 CET in London?

    I wonder whether a local authority would have let one of their schools operate, as happened at Kings Science, without a governing body chair for a year?

    You know why there is a healthy dislike of free schools?

    It’s you. It’s always been you.

    Cheerleading for a Tory programme without the guts to admit that maybe there might have been a mistake made in some cases. A refusal to admit errors.

    • marklu

      I think Toby has been used very successfully as an outrider for the wholesale sell -off of public assets to large privately run academy chains.

      By simply having him bang on about the insignificant proportion of “free schools” lots of folk look over there and therefore are diverted from the large number of state (secondary usually) being quietly passed to carpet dealers, car dealers and Lord Nash and his chums.

      Having a noisy, unpleasant little chap bang on about that 1 % of schools at most that are “free” means less attention is paid to the non-inspection of bloated academy chains whilst their owner sit on the DFE board.

      If I wanted to get a policy through on the quiet A Toby figure or a Princess Birbalbollocks with a toy to play with (WLFS/Michaela) banging the drum about a tiny proportion of schools would suit me fine. The toys can be supported politically and financially, and quietly hoovered up by the chains if things go pear shaped, probably before OFSTED comes a calling; Heads and paid CEOs can be quietly eased out.

      And if I were to read an opponent saying it was more about the Toby figure than the issues I’d wet myself laughing and pour the champagne. He is a tool in more than one sense, don’t forget it.

  • Angeles

    I was educated in dictatorship in one of the best and toughest secondary schools in my country. I used to be grateful for it and appreciate how much better prepared for university than other students I was. I have a 7 year old daughter who has just finished year 2 in a estate school that is outstanding. She’s been top of the class in year 1 and 2. She did great in her SATs and all other tests, yet 1.her self-confidence declined as the year passed; 2.she thought she was “stupid” even if she was aware that she was one of those always sitting in the “top table” – a system that splits 30 children into 5 groups based on performance (or prejudice) since year 1 and of which children are very aware; 3.she ended up the year biting herself in the extra Maths lessons she was put into for being so good and in the playground. I refuse to think this method is child-centered, it’s on the contrary an approach in which children are used as the means to achieve the precious “outstanding” badges, never mind how disengaged they become after a few early years of learning that 1.they must avoid mistakes at all costs (the adults punish for that even if they lie mistakes are good), 2.they are inadequate (they are told by others what’s worth knowing and they are told off a lot), 3.there’s not much point in effort, they’ve been already cast as top, second, middle, second to last, dumb “table”. I took a curious, willing-to-please, eager to learn girl to reception, her plans were being like Da Vinci (in her own words): an artist and a scientist, she loved Maths. By the end of year 2 I had a girl that was sick of Maths, stopped abandoning herself to a drawing and instead rushed to do anything and just wanted to “watch something”. I used to believe in discipline and academic excellence. This year I sat down I thought again: I looked at myself with my tough education: It made me only obedient and not a breakthrough entrepreneur. I decided that I’d rather my daughter didn’t compete, because that’s putting your value in the hands of others. I want her to slow down and be somewhere she learns what’s coming from inside her is the most precious and unique thing she can offer the world, I want for her self-confidence over knowledge, and the calm trust that she’ll learn whatever she need to learn when she needs or want to do it. The era of factories and disciplined workers is over, we either get geeky and creative or we won’t make it as a species and our children need to learn for that world, the Chinese aren’t preparing their own for post-capitalism and climate change. I’ve taken my daughter out of estate education and into a Waldorf school, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll change again, but I learned the tough way she’s at the centre of her education and I need to protect her curiosity and willing to take risks. In fact, I’m re-educating myself from now on.

    • Lindum

      What is “estate” education?

  • Leon Wolfeson

    “authority, discipline and ruthless competition”

    Kids sitting there, glaze eyed, trying to memorise for memorisation competitions.

    China’s system creates people who have a problem with doing the most basic teamwork and who have never been taught to think and learn, their problem solving is rudimentary.

    This is commentary from teaching them at University level – we get bright kids, and they learn fast, they’ve simply never been exposed to those things before!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    UK Trash Culture and a basket case state education system: Assuming Internet correspondents are the cream of the crop, you have to assume the rest of the Muppets are borderline illiterate. It’s Game Over Britisher pals, third-world country status beckons.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Suzanne Rojek

      Why do you have to comment on EVERY article about Britain? What the fuck is “Trash culture” and why is it just a British thing you twat? Does it not exist in other countries? Yes, it does. I’ve lived in 6 where it does.
      Why do you take EVERY opportunity to put this coun try down if youre not even in it? Have you ever been to a REAL third world country? How the fuck is Britain even REMOTELY 3rd world? I wonder how the Japanese take to your very British moaning? Cut it out, you pessimistic git. And who the hell wants to live in Japan? You speak for no-one!

      • Labour Mole Catcher

        And also what the fuck are “Britisher pals” anyway?!

    • Labour Mole Catcher

      It is “trashy”, not “trash”, you faux-British fool!

  • marklu

    Just checked into Any Questions Tobes, see you were up to your usual nonsense of presenting education as a binary choice between teaching few life skills and teaching the best that man has produced, surprised you didn’t throw in your famous porky about a GCSE in benefit claiming. Good that a private school head was there to counterbalance.

  • Linguistician

    I don’t know why we just can’t be honest with ourselves and acknowledge a superior aspect of Chinese culture (respect for elders, respect for authority). We’re quick enough to try and export and impose superior aspects of our culture around the world. Time to realize we could do with importing a few aspects from elsewhere.

  • Curnonsky

    The photo seems to show a young Tibetan monk learning to write in Mandarin, the language of his people’s conquerors. There is a downside to Chinese education too.

    • Lindum

      And would you feel the same about an Indian, Nigerian, Jamaican or Singapore child writing in English?

  • UriahOlathaire

    Gen X, you SUCK at parenting.

    That is all.

    • Suzanne Rojek

      And you “suck” at English if you use Americanisms like “suck” and you’re over 16!

      • Labour Mole Catcher

        Probably speak more about this “Jack, Japan Alps Brit Bandit’s” (@jackthesmilingblack:disqus) own personal “preferences”, from a life of watching rude videos as a lonely bachelor!

  • Bodkinn

    Having recently watched a programme where Chinese teachers
    were brought here for a trial to establish if their teaching methods were
    superior to ours and the disgraceful, bad mannered, pig ignorant behaviour of
    our teenagers I see no prospect of our surviving if we rely on our own
    progeny. I was deeply ashamed of my
    fellow countrymen/women and that we had allowed ourselves to become such an ill
    disciplined society: I had to switch off feeing physically sick. Judging by this programme so long as they
    bring skills and a proper attitude to life with them immigrants may really be
    essential to our survival. If this was
    indicative of all our young then we have bred an irresponsible monster that
    will be incapable of self-sufficiency.

    • marklu

      I think the biggest danger is that so many of our fellow country men can form snap judgements about the young of this country based on a skilfully edited entertainment programme that they do not even watch all the way through.

      • joydot


  • Gilbert White

    All MP’s should be made to do this for a month in camera before they take a seat and for homework they should be made to walk the hell they have created in Southwark late at night alone.

  • Bodkinn

    One of the troubles with comprehensive education is that
    unless you get the streaming exactly right talented children are not able to
    produce their potential because the others ensure they don’t. If the less talented find themselves put into
    a position where they have to compete knowing they will be humiliated their
    only option is to disrupt the class so that no one’s learns. If a race is not run there are no winners and
    no losers. In the recent programme ‘Are
    our children tough enough’ this could be seen happening right from the
    beginning. The slower kids could easily
    be recognised from the start by their bad attitude and surly facial expressions
    before the teacher had said a word. One
    girl in particular was plainly on the defensive from the first moment and if
    there was one lesson she plainly had learned it was how to be offended by any
    spare remark from the teacher which could be manipulated to be used as detrimental. If it is true that Chinese kids of the same
    age are in fact three years ahead of ours we have a problem and patting ourselves
    on the back for developing exams which gives credibility to our backward system
    won’t serve as a cure. It might be very
    nice if our kids are more self-sufficient but unfortunately international
    employers might just be looking for more traditional qualifications. It is no wonder to me that even Labour
    politicians send their kids to private schools.

    • joydot

      eiei. is this why my clever kid is starting to shut down at school? because the majority rule and the majority are dumb? maybe its time to rethink streaming.