BBC’s Chinese School: The Final Showdown


*Warning: Spoilers, of course!*

At last, I have caught up with the final results of the BBC’s hotly anticipated Chinese School: Are Our Kids Tough Enough finale! As a short aside, I have always wondered whether the program’s title was entirely descriptive of the project at hand. Often the experiment has ranged from Chinese School: Are the Teachers Tough Enough? to Chinese School: Should British School be Tougher? 

As it happens, the British students were tough enough, in the end at least. And the result? A *SPOILERS* resounding victory for the Chinese teachers! In fact, across the board, the average grades of the students taught in the Chinese school surpassed those of the Bohunt students taught in the high school’s usual routine. So what does this mean? Should Ofsted scrap everything they have carefully honed over the past decades and begin the group flag-raises at dawn?

What I told myself to remember here is that a loss for Bohunt does not mean a failure of the British system as a whole. In fact, I reprimanded myself, I would not be even writing this blog were it not for my high school history lessons introducing me to Modern Chinese history, and, though it may be dramatic, changing the entire course of my life.

With that being said, what was it about the Chinese School that may have influenced these results? According to the rather damning verdicts of the Bohunt teachers, the ‘Chinese’ (this term can be a little generalising) system of schooling was “tedious”, and a historic relic of the “dark ages.” Indeed, the rebellion of bored, distracted students that dominated Episode 2 cast a dark shadow on the Chinese teachers’ hopeful expectations. Tears were shed, exasperation was sighed and nerves were frayed. But fortunately, after a stern talking to by Bohunt teachers, the students had settled into the 7am-7pm routine by Episode 3, set during the final week of the experiment. Once the overarching issue of discipline had been dealt with, it seemed the Chinese system had a free reign to fully impact the students’ learning.

I myself am no expert in China or international variations of education, but as a prospective ESL teacher, there were two main themes that I took away from the documentary.

Firstly, one of the Chinese school’s perceived weaknesses actually revealed a strength in the students. Frequently throughout the experiment, and particularly in Physical Education (PE) lessons, the expectation of sporting prowess to be hand-in-hand with academic achievement was a harsh blow for many upset students. Competition between students pervaded the classroom, and suddenly the difference between obtaining a place at a good high school and a good future was being placed on running, sit ups, and throwing a 2kg medicine ball. After a lifetime of being told that their effort was the most important thing, devastated yet bright children felt that their “best isn’t good enough.”

I sympathised with this. Had I been subject to a physical fitness exam aged 14, I would have failed miserably. I could barely run 100m, and a sit up was a mammoth and I daresay impossible task. Working late into the night to achieve high grades, I would have no doubt that I’d be wailing a bit if my PE grades had truly affected my academic progression, and that my best wasn’t good enough. But now later in life and able to do several sit ups, I ask, was that really my best?

The frustrations on the AstroTurf and the frustrations in the classroom revealed something that many Twitter and online commenters had doubted: British teenagers do care about their own achievement.

Being exposed to a more aggressive strength of competition initially seemed harsh and unforgiving. Bohunt’s own headmaster even questioned the length to which nurturing is sacrificed for this intense motivation, and Bohunt’s own PE teacher was frequently on-hand to support those who felt it was too much – a nice tribute to British schooling methods. Despite this, I believe the teachers in the Chinese school were still able to strike a fundamental balance, allowing students to recognise that they don’t have to accept their own perceived place in the academic rankings – that their frustration at “not getting it” was actually a desire to learn, not to disrupt.

This brings me onto my second observation: the Chinese teachers did an excellent job at fuelling the students’ actually firey desire to achieve. This appeared to stem from both the schooling methods in China and the teachers themselves. One feature that stood out was the student participation in motivating the class to work hard, from class presidents to sweeping the floors. One student, microphone in hand, reminded his fellow pupils of their own responsibility to work hard and pass exams. Hearing encouragement from a peer rather than an authority figure could become a key addition to increase motivation in the classroom.

Furthermore, maths teacher Zou Hailian highlighted that no student would be left behind, and again, all students were expected to work towards the same ultimate academic goal, rather than sectioning students based on ability. The downside of this is that students can feel lost, but if we follow Zou Hailian’s example, if teachers take the time to follow this competition with personal encouragement, belief and expectations, students can recognise their own potential. And as the test results illustrated, they did.

Perhaps this experiment was not really about China vs Britain. Really, how can the gigantic nation of China and the smaller but still sizeable United Kingdom be represented by a handful of teachers in one school? And again, the experiment in no way diminished the valuable contribution the British teachers made to disciplining the Chinese school, and assisting the Chinese teachers with teary and shaken students. It may be better to take the experiment as a learning experience on what truly motivates teenagers in school. No doubt, the increased hours of Chinese school played its part in restricting distractions at home, but extra hours don’t immediately equal hard study and personal progress.

For my own future ESL experience, I will take the lessons of individual encouragement and nurturing, and see what a sprinkle of competition and peer-to-peer motivation can do. We will have to see if the powers that be will also choose to do the same.



  1. I like your blog very much. A lot of insights. I agree that there isn’t a generalized “Chinese” way of teaching. And I don’t think these teachers, except the math teacher, adopted the best teaching methods even in Chinese standards, at least in my opinion as one who received education in China. It’s reasonable to conjecture that those teachers who have better teaching skills were not selected in this program because the selection standards may be biased. For example, teachers without satisfactory English level were excluded. Also, teachers who didn’t want to join the program were also excluded. Another bias in screening, though I have no evidence, could be that “media serve politics.” If the British government intended to adjust the education system, then the results of this experiment might just serve the political purposes. This conjecture can be supported by the possible following adjustments in education policies that support stricter school education. Just my opinion.

    Btw, I think chunking is good way of learning. I also tried chunking when I was learning English. I believe it’d be helpful for your Chinese too.

    Best regards and keep up your blogging!


  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog! I really value your comments and insights, and I hadn’t thought about some of the points you raised until now, especially about the extent to which the ‘Chinese’ way of schooling was simplified. I agree, we really don’t know much about the selection process for the teachers, the program or the setting!

    I am really enjoying chunking too, I’m surprised at how well I’m retaining the vocabulary! I’m going to start applying it to learning Korean as well. I will also be updating my blog soon with a few new articles, so I would love to hear your thoughts again if you have time in future!


    1. Sure thing! I like reading your blog 🙂

      Btw, may I ask you for a favor? Since I’m translating a lot of Chinese into English for my Instagram page, I need to verify the translations. Although in most cases I can handle it, there are still a few words that I’m not sure how to translate properly. So I would like some help from you as a native English speaker and a Chinese learner at the same time, if it doesn’t bother you.


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