There was a time when classrooms were dominated by the ‘3 Rs’, reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Now, the focus is on Mandarin. And it’s not just the privileged kids in boaters learning this Chinese language – the subject is being taught to state school children from the poorest areas.
This is a smart move as all eyes are on China. Gone are the days when English was the global language and we only needed to learn a smattering of French to help us on our holidays.
Mandarin is the world’s most widely spoken language and as more of us work globally, from the comfort of our laptop, a knowledge of other languages and cultures, especially one as dominant as China’s, makes complete sense.
Five years ago, the then prime minister David Cameron said that by the time the babies of 2013 grew up, China would be the world’s largest economy and we need to be prepared for that.
This is why in 2015, the Government pledged £10 million to help increase the number of children learning Mandarin. But that’s not enough. Now, private businesses are ploughing money into Mandarin lessons.
When Castlebrae Community High School in a deprived area of Edinburgh lost its only modern language teacher last year, they struggled to replace her until they received investment to teach Mandarin. It is now the only language on offer and the teacher is shared around many other state schools in the city. Not only are they picking up the language but last autumn the pupils – most of whom had never left their city, let alone been on a plane – were funded to visit Beijing to meet the people and experience the culture there.
In Castlebrae's case, the money has come from the Swire Group, a British company that oversees business operations in the Far East. They are investing in their future workforce and targeting areas where money is the barrier that will prevent them from being prepared for the rigours of a global 21st century life.
Castlebrae's Headteacher Norma Prentice said: "When I arrived at the school there were lots of vocational courses on offer. There's nothing wrong with vocational courses but…you limit opportunity by pigeonholing them into certain subjects.”
It also helps create more of a level playing field with children at private schools, many of whom already learn Mandarin in class, or whose parents pay for private lessons. “If we can get some of our pupils a Mandarin Higher you're really talking about starting to close the attainment gap,” says Ms Prentice.
The independent sector has long been focused on China. Last autumn, The Telegraph reported that Kensington Wade, a brand new primary prep school in affluent west London was dual English and Chinese offering a bilingual education and promising parents that their children will be fluent in Mandarin by the time they reach senior school. To parents, many of whom work in international business, this is a huge selling point.
China is the fastest growing country in the world and anyone who wants to do business cannot ignore the Far East. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a man who is good at predicting our future needs, speaks Mandarin and four-year-old Prince George is learning it at school. Even the royal family knows the future is Chinese.
Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education
State schools in England can apply to join the Mandarin Excellence Programme from 2018 with funding available to support successful delivery. As part of the programme, some pupils will have the chance to go to China from summer 2018.
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