They are the envy of the world with their seemingly high standards and top ranking in international league tables. Indeed, our own education ministers have been quick to single out Chinese schools as models for teaching and learning, to the extent that maths teachers from Shanghai have been invited to the UK to show our teachers how it is done.
However in China itself a small but growing number of schools are looking towards a skills-based curriculum, which will turn out rounded and balanced young people ready for the workplace. These schools are rejecting the rote-learning, collective thinking and a rigid academic curriculum upon which their academic success has so far been based, in favour of teaching children how to solve problems, use their initiative and work in a team.
Roger White has been working with around 60 Chinese schools on implementing ASDAN’s Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) qualification and many more are showing an interest in the qualification.
"There is a great deal of concern, particularly in the major cities in China, that the education system there is not producing young people equipped to compete in a global economy,” Roger said.
"By this we mean business leaders and employees who can not only make, but design things. ‘Made in China’ is stamped on almost everything we buy in the West, but there are very few global Chinese companies, and virtually none in the creative industries.
"Increasingly, Chinese teachers are realising that the young people they turn out may be very knowledgeable, but they lack that creative edge. Problem-solving skills, initiative, leadership, and the ability to work co-operatively are in short supply. This is a symptom of the way they are taught in school within a system that is entirely results-based.”
Prestigious British universities, such as the Russell Group institutions, are a major draw for Chinese students because of their excellent international reputation and opportunities for networking and securing employment with top companies worldwide. But gaining places has often proved difficult for prospective applicants from China because of the way in which they have been taught in school. Roger said: "At interview they need to show they are going to cope with the demands of a British degree course, which involves a lot of independent study and co-operative learning. This is new to many Chinese students.
"Those who have undertaken the CoPE qualification tell me their eyes have been opened, and that they have never done anything like this before. They do an intensive two-week course in the first instance – known in China as a mini-MBA – which teaches them aspects like leadership skills and problem-solving and they relish the challenge.”
In independent research undertaken by the University of the West of England in Bristol, CoPE has been shown to improve students’ overall skills set and lead to better results across all subjects. Researchers found that CoPE, which concentrates on personal development and employability, could increase the likelihood of students achieving A*–C grades in English and maths GCSEs by up to 10%. There was also an estimated 5% increase in the likelihood of students achieving five or more GCSEs at A*–C, compared with students who did not undertake the course. Students who took CoPE were also found to have enhanced study skills in areas such as research, reflection and presentation.
Currently, the schools ASDAN works with are private, fee-charging institutions whose curriculum tends to be pro-Western. Roger said it would require "considerable commitment” at a national and regional level for government-controlled public sector schools to change their teaching methods, but creative possibilities are being explored with the Chinese government’s review of the Gaokao system, which is the country’s high-stakes university entrance examination.
Maggie Walker, ASDAN CEO, said: "We are delighted to be working so closely with a growing number of schools in China, where teachers recognise the value of our CoPE qualification. It is always interesting to gain perspectives from other countries that are deemed to be doing something well, so it is particularly gratifying to know that so many Chinese schools have recognised – as we do at ASDAN – that personal and workplace skills are vital if we are to produce young people who able to find their place in the world and contribute to society.
"UK business leaders also repeatedly tell us that these skills should be taught and recognised. Neil Carberry, the CBI’s Director for employment and skills, said that businesses want teaching and qualifications ‘that have real currency in the labour market and equip young people with the knowledge, skills and behaviours that match business needs’. We hope that policy-makers in this country take this on board.”