Why our Schools Should look East

August 1, 2008 9:00 AM

Last autumn South West MEP Graham Watson piloted a scheme to bring chinese teaching assistants from Taiwan to five secondary schools in the region. As schools across the South West break up for summer and the Olympic Games take place in Beijing, Graham Watson talks about the expansion of his scheme this autumn and argues why learning chinese should be given top priority in our schools.

This August the world's attention will be focussed firmly on China as athletes, officials and media from around globe descend on Beijing for the 29th Olympic Games. As our budding athletes and young sports fans settle down during summer holidays to tune in to 24-7 media coverage of the event, they will see images of a country growing in importance and growing in influence. When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s, China may have been the 'sleeping giant', but for our children in 2008 the giant has woken up and its influence will become ever more apparent during their lifetimes.

With over 1.3 billion people speaking chinese - roughly three times as many native speakers as English - it has always been an anomaly for me why learning chinese has not been given greater prominence by our government. Indeed current provisions for language teaching in our secondary schools still places its focus on traditional European languages, German and French, albeit with more schools now offering the world's second most widely spoken language, Spanish, as a core option.

As a qualified interpreter in French and German and as a current MEP in Brussels and Strasbourg I know that these languages still have a role to play - not least in the EU. But with rapid growth in population and in trade, we simply cannot ignore the fact that next superpower will come from the East. We need to shake up our education system to better reflect this.

That's why last year I set up a scheme to allow schools in the South West to have a Mandarin-speaking assistant from Taiwan to introduce basic Mandarin and to help sow the seeds for increased engagement and cultural ties which look further afield than in the past.

Building on the successes of 'Broadening Horizons 2007' - which last year was taken up by Hayle Community School (Cornwall), Pilton Community College (Devon), The Sir John Colfox (Dorset), Huish Episcopi School (Somerset) and The Sir Bernard Lovell School (Oldham Common, Bristol) - this autumn my scheme will almost double in size, with four more schools taking up the offer of a chinese-speaking teaching assistant. With the introduction of teaching assistants at Penrice Community College (Cornwall), Kingsmead Community School (Somerset), The John Bentley School (Wiltshire) and The Cotswold School (Gloucestershire), more of our children will have the opportunity to experience chinese and learn something of a completely different culture. We are currently recruiting nine young and enthusiastic teachers and I am confident that their passion to teach will be infectious for staff and students alike.

As a current student of Mandarin chinese with my sixteen year-old daughter, I know that chinese is a challenging language to grasp. Its characters alone are still the most difficult aspect facing new learners since full literacy requires knowledge of between three and four thousand of them! But its grammar is considerably easier than many languages and with the development of 'Pinyin' - where chinese is written in the simplified Roman alphabet - it has become much more easily accessible.

As with any language though, the easiest way to learn is to be motivated, to listen to a native speaker and to be immersed in its culture. That's where I see the 'Broadening Horizons 2008' scheme as a forerunner to improved and expanded provision for chinese in our schools; and that's where I hope our chinese assistants' enthusiasm will rub off on children, teachers and parents who will see the benefits of having their very own link to the East.

Indeed the scheme is about broadening horizons for all involved. For up to ten hours every week the assistants deliver basic chinese lessons to pupils, as directed by their host school. This might involve simple sentences or role plays during a lunch-time or after-school club, or it might be time built into the school's timetable. Last year, assistants also participated in subjects like art, music, geography and history, drawing upon their talents to build a real cultural exchange. With outreach work, assistants were able to visit feeder primary schools to talk about their life and their country and in one school at least, the assistant started to deliver adult evening classes, allowing the wider community an opportunity to get involved too. In return, the schools provide accommodation and food for the assistant, offering them a real taste of life in the South West.

Many people might ask why an MEP should involve himself in something like this. It's because I believe passionately in the importance of equal access to opportunity and because I am convinced of the fact that children in my constituency should not be put at a disadvantage in the future as a result of our government's failure to move with the times on Mandarin teaching. Whilst certain provisions may already exist, by-and-large this remains a preserve for private schools or those state schools that can stretch budgets to afford a chinese teacher. What's more, when I established this scheme I realised that very few of these schools were in the South West. With this scheme I hope more and more schools will take up the initiative.

In conjunction with the arrival of the eight teaching assistants I am currently arranging a conference which will focus on the importance of Mandarin chinese and other world languages, to take place in Exeter, on Friday 17th October. To find details of this and other of my activities, simply visit my website www.grahamwatsonmep.org .