BBC’s Chinese School: Chinese schooling vs British schooling

Cat, Word Swag app
Cat, Word Swag app

*Warning! Here be spoilers!*

If you also tuned in to BBC Two last night at 9pm, you will have caught the newest social experiement/fly-on-the-wall/documentary/reality show in the form of Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School. No doubt, you will have also joined in the collective national blushing, foot-shuffling and self-discovery as a result of the reprimanding the UK education system received. The program’s premise involved five teachers from prestigious schools in China transferring to a Hampshire high school, in the hope to shake the foundations of British schooling as we know it and challenge the Ofsted-enshrined techniques.

Firstly, I need to clarify that I am not going to criticise any of the children (and remember, Twitter, they are children) featured in the program. Had I been videoed as a 14 year-old the resulting footage would have been awkward, reticent, and littered with X-Men fan-art. One thing I have been concerned about is the media exposure some of the students have been subjected to, but that’s another blog post, and hopefully most of the public maintains foresight and self-control.

That being said, what new lessons (both literal and figurative), could highly-respected Chinese teachers such as Zou Hailian teach us? As the program surmised, the Chinese school system varies widely from its British counterpart. 7am starts, mandatory group exercises, and cleaning the classroom certainly never appeared on my timetable. The core principles of Chinese education, such as rote-learning, note-taking and silent classrooms struck right at the heart of Britain’s child-centred, active learning. At the crack of dawn the unsuspecting students were already in their baggy, functional tracksuits, which fortunately unlike many of their Chinese peers, aren’t white and no doubt keep stains at bay.

Right from the klaxon’s blare that set off this ultimate clash of cultures, problems began to arise. Fidgeting students, almost certainly perked up by the overhaul of their routine, could not maintain the pin-drop silence expected in Chinese classrooms. The Chinese teachers, almost with a flash of uncertain surprise across their faces, sternly and swiftly punished small offences such as turning around and chatting, without even so much as a warning, as one outraged student pointed out. Clearly, the teacher’s were not fans of the famous traffic-light system of green, amber, and red cautions.

As the school day ticked by, the British students and their teachers soon became aware of the fastidious expectations of the students. The teacher is commander-in-chief of the classroom, back-chat is unthinkable, and behaviour must be stellar from start to finish. No paper planes here. Was this, one teacher questioned, the reason for the shocking disparity in test results between UK and Chinese schools?

Yes and no. In one way, the program delivers the notion that simply changing a system of schooling will alter test results and revolutionise children’s attitudes to learning. But as was briefly touched upon in a conversation between British head-teacher Mr Strowger and teacher Yang Jun, there is so much more to education than the amount of activity in a classroom. For example, Yang Jun highlighted the overpowering motivation for success harboured by students in China. The national examination systems, the zhongkao 中考 and the gaokao 高考, provide the lifeline out of a sink-or-swim system, absent of the welfare that support millions of families and individuals in the United Kingdom. Evidence of this pressure to support parents and grandparents can be seen in a previous documentary by BBC Four (also named Chinese School) that shadowed several teenagers during their final years in high school.

China’s political systems, in the form of the former One Child Policy, also come into play here. With a huge amount of single-child families, pressure is mounting on the young generation to succeed and support not only parents but both sets of grandparents. The issue is known as the 四二一家庭 (four-two-one family structure).

Aside from politics, Chinese culture itself envelops Confucian and communist hierarchies unlike that of the UK. Attitudes towards teachers, elders, and learning are cemented in thousands of years of history, and it would be a tall order to change centuries of social processes in a matter of hours. On the flip-side, BBC Two’s Chinese School also touched upon the critical thinking and creativity that the British school system encourages, something that can cause issues for students used to rote-learning when entering university and submitting analytical papers and projects. It seems that the program presented the conundrum of discipline and learning information versus critical thinking.

If we examine recent OECD research into school league tables from May 2015 ( we can see that Asia firmly dominates the top-spots in Maths and Science results. Perhaps Confucian values and social structures could be responsible for reverent attitudes towards learning. But what about Finland, which occupies 6th place, and Estonia, occupying 7th?

According to Richard Garner’s article in The Independent this year (, Finland’s education system appears to move quickly with the times, adapting the syllabus to cover multiple topics and practical skills in line with the rigorous demands of work and life in the 21st century. In a further article by Professor Pasi Sahlberg in The Guardian newspaper (, he explains that Finland also applies this flexible approach to recruiting its teachers, employing a calculated technique designed to pluck both academically and vocationally talented students from university, before guiding them through an intensive process to hone their skills as a teacher over several years. Perhaps the worldwide answer is not always rigid discipline, but increased flexibility.

To conclude the first episode of Chinese School, it became apparent that some students thrived on the lecture-style dictations of the Chinese teachers, appreciating the opportunity to make their own notes and get on with work quietly. Other lively students expressed a frustration of learning concepts they didn’t deem applicable for modern living. It is here that perhaps the Finnish system might be of benefit. All in all, the case might not be Chinese schooling versus British schooling, and instead, a case of what does the student want to get out of their education.

Episode 1 of Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School was screened on BBC Two at 9pm, 5th August 2015.

Links to articles mentioned:
The Independent article:
The Guardian article:


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