Might it assist social mobility?


At an event last  week in the Barbican, to mark the official opening of 22 new ‘Confucius Classrooms’ in England, the keynote speaker  Michael Gove, the  Education Secretary, spoke admiringly of Chinese culture and the Chinese language.

He praised for good measure  the efforts of the SSAT Confucius Institute to widen teaching of Mandarin in English schools.(the SSAT were sponsoring to conference).

Brighton College the leading private school made Mandarin compulsory in 2006 but although over 300 schools teach Mandarin none have followed Brighton’s lead so far, in making it compulsory. One blogger attending the conference wondered whether languages and Mandarin in particular   could  perhaps improve  social mobility in this country, and  indeed  should we  be doing more to encourage schools in deprived areas in particular  to focus more on languages?  Mandarin is, after all, highly rated by both private and public sector employers here in the UK (and around the world). In  fact Mandarin is the 2nd most in-demand language to employers according to the CBI.  So, asked the blogger wouldn’t it make sense to promote Mandarin, not just for its aesthetic appeal , but as a tool to equip young people from difficult backgrounds and areas to enter the workplace on a stronger footing? Indeed, shouldn’t we be  teaching  our children  the things which the job market finds most valuable.  Maybe. But  it is a tough language to learn for Westerners. There are two main reason for this, according  Dr Frances Weightman, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds. Firstly, the script poses problems. There is no alphabet, just thousands of characters. There are so many that no one can give a definitive total, but it is believed to be around 60,000.  Secondly, the tonal system is hard for Westerners. While the meaning of English words does not change with tone, the same is not true for Mandarin . Four-and-a-half tones are used, meaning a single word can have many meanings. (though Mandarin is not as hard as Cantonese which has nine tones.)And the  grammar is not nearly as complicated as many European languages. For example there are no verb tenses, no relative clauses, no singular or plural.  The Languages Trends survey 2010 published by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, in January2011, showed that the proportion of maintained secondary schools teaching Chinese  language in curriculum time at KS3 and KS4 respectively was 3% -this compares to  98% teaching  French at KS3 and 96% at KS4.  Figures for how many students study Mandarin Chinese  at University  are not available, But if you look at  Chinese Studies/Chinese Language Studies in  the 2008/09 academic year, there were 590 UK domiciled first degree enrolments studying either Chinese Studies or Chinese Language Studies at English Higher Education Institutions.

Certainly the  SSAT grant -funded   quango, which has Charity status, like the British Council, seems to have spotted a gap in the market-and new sources of income- exploiting its  closeness to the government and  its charity status,  it has moved into the Chinese market  and is  busy pushing Mandarin, already having  published a Chinese GCSE  textbook in partnership with Pearson (one as it happens  in a series of three) . In October 2006, the SSAT Confucius Institute became, it is claimed,  the first schools-based Confucius Institute in the world. The SSAT Confucius Institute and Confucius Classrooms  are,  says the SSAT, facilitating the development of the teaching and learning of Mandarin Chinese and the study of China across the curriculum in a large number of schools across the country. The SSAT Confucius Institute works in partnership with the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) and Peking University to achieve these goals. At the end of summer term 2009-2010, the SSAT Confucius Institute designated 22 new Confucius Classrooms in addition to the 12 advanced Confucius Classrooms already in the  network. According to the SSAT “ These 22 aspiring Confucius Classrooms will focus on developing Chinese within their own schools and we are looking forward to working closely with each of them during the course of this academic year and beyond.”

Clearly this is early days for Mandarin, but given its difficulty it is unlikely to compete any time soon directly with French, Spanish or German for the attentions of our youth. Schools taking up Mandarin tend to be independents, grammar and other  high performing state schools. The idea that Mandarin might help social mobility for the disadvantaged sounds good but does not take into account the fact that our most disadvantaged pupils tend to be in the lowest performing schools, and seldom have access to the best teachers,.let alone Mandarin teachers, although there may be scope here for Independent/ Maintained school partnerships  to help deliver specialist teaching to at least some state pupils.

Note: The Government affords the SSAT a privileged status and it is often awarded contracts  that are not put out to open tender so other providers, in the private and not for profit sectors,  can compete openly  for these contracts  on price and quality. It is hard to see how this fits in with the Governments commitment to secure  value for money in public services provision and in  public contracts.

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