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Blackboard jungle

14 August 2015

by Sarah Meyrick


I AM not sure whom I felt most sorry for: the Year-9 students at Bohunt School, in Liphook, Hampshire, who were selected for Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School (BBC2, Tuesday of last week), or the three Chinese teachers who were parachuted in to teach them.

The premise is that British schoolchildren lag behind their Chinese counterparts in academic achievement by three years. Could Chinese teaching methods — strict discipline, 12-hour schooldays — raise standards?

The school was chosen because it is one of the most successful comprehensives in the UK (OFSTED rates it “Outstanding” in all categories). It all started cheerfully enough. On day one, the students demonstrated surprisingly good humour in the face of having to wear Chinese-style tracksuits, and take part in morning Music and Movement on the school playing field.

But the happy mood did not last. The classrooms were rearranged so that all 50 students sat in rows. The teaching involves the teachers’ lecturing the students and requiring them to take notes. There is little, if any, interaction, and certainly no evidence of self-discovery. In science, for example, the students do not do their own experiments. Rather, they are supposed to read what the teacher writes on the board, write it all down, and go over it again in the evenings as part of their personal study.

That is the theory, anyway. It did not work out very well. To the visible distress of the teachers, the children soon lost interest, and made no effort to hide the fact. These students are used to asking questions and challenging authority, and the class rapidly deteriorated into chaos. The teachers told them off. But, as one girl pointed out: “That probably works in China, because everyone does what the teachers say; but it doesn’t work here, because no one really cares. Everyone just finds it hilarious.”

The teachers were shocked that the students would waste time and showed so little respect to those in authority. “In China, there’s no need for classroom management,” Mr Zou, the charming maths teacher, said.

Most teachers will tell you that teaching Year 9 is no picnic. And, from the evidence of the first episode, at least, it feels as if the experiment is doomed to failure. When they are not playing up to the cameras, the children look bored and miserable. The teachers seem distressed by the students’ poor behaviour, and their apparent carelessness about their education. The cultural gap in expectations is too wide, surely, to be bridged in a mere four weeks. There probably was an interesting idea here, but the execution was disappointing.

I wonder what the Chinese teachers make of The Great British Bake Off (BBC1, Wednesdays). Ten million people in Britain apparently tuned in to watch the first episode. Already there is a scandal: last year, it was “Freezergate”, where a contestant was accused of ruining a rival’s chances by taking a Baked Alaska out of a freezer too early; this year, there have been allegations of a betting scandal. Who knew baking could be so cut-throat? Marvellous.

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