Growing Mandarin GCSE in British schools. What are the challenges?
After the recent trade deals and discussions between the British and Chinese governments in 2015, including the noted visit of Xi Jinping to the UK, the government announced a greater push of the Mandarin GCSE offering in British schools. There are some interesting trends happening with this course at the moment, including a greater uptake from more business-like academies who focus a curriculum around future international employability, compared to more traditional schools that centre their language provision around the classic French, German and Spanish courses.
The availability of teachers
Schools in the UK have found it tough to provide a wide ranging Modern Foreign Language curriculum for a number of years in recent times. Part of this is down to the well-documented gap between supply and demand with teaching in the UK, and MFL teachers are one of the particular groups in short supply. The number of UK born Mandarin speakers is very small (indeed, the teaching of the GCSE will aim to increase this number tenfold), and there are issues with visas, training, qualifications and suitability of Chinese born Mandarin teachers – it is not a simple process of the right salary and school attracting overseas Mandarin language teachers. Schools need to find teachers with an open mind, language experts certainly, but those that are ready to take on a new challenge of teaching a language of characters and tones to an audience of students that have grown up in a UK classroom with phonics, before English grammar structures.
A large part of learning languages in the British classroom involves experiential learning, as languages can be learnt with pace and precision by speaking in the language, and cultural immersion, rather than just reading and writing. You can see this with language classrooms often decorated with posters and items from the language’s native country, and lively language games and cultural context a big part of the lessons.
To a greater extent, exchange programmes are utilised to provide cultural immersion and continue to provide excellent opportunities to progress with learning a language. Being part of the European Union, and located close to the UK, it is relatively easy to organise cultural exchanges to France, Spain or Germany, with schools in those countries also geared up to facilitate these trips and use the UK exchange to benefit their own language programmes too. However, with China being thousands of miles from the UK, as well as issues with visa availability, border controls, and differing school set-up and school cultures, Chinese exchange programmes and experiential learning are that much more difficult to organise, and there is a great opportunity here to think about how these challenges can be overcome to support the learning of Mandarin in British schools.
Opportunity China and Opportunity Education are currently working with UK and Chinese schools to partner and share educational resources and planning. Part of this involves working to facilitate school exchanges, as well as learning experiences through technology such as: students exchanging emails and conversing over Skype within the classroom to provide experiential language learning in the contemporary classroom.