BBC 2’s new show Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese schools is a bizarre form of reality TV parading as a ‘social-experiment documentary.’ Arguably, it’s entertaining but also misleading and dangerous too. The programme glorifies an education system that proselytizes children. It seems to me like a very irresponsible move by our public service broadcaster.
All in the name of education?
The premise of the show is that five teachers from elite Chinese schools go to an outstanding comprehensive in a sleepy Hampshire village. Their plan: to inflict Chinese discipline on rowdy British 13-14-year-olds. Half of the class are taught ‘the British way,’ and half ‘the Chinese way’. At the end of the month, and series, their test scores will be compared in an attempt to see who comes out top. Firstly, it’s full of clichés. The Chinese teachers saying ‘make an effort and you will achieve,’ was juxtaposed with attention-seeking students. At least they were honest. We all know that the stricter the teacher, the more you want to misbehave.
My teaching diary
While this is far from a fair experiment to begin with, the basis of the show is that Chinese education is superior, and that Chinese kids are so disciplined it hurts poor British teachers to think about it. This certainly isn’t the case.
Just a few months after I stopped being a rowdy A-level student I took the 7,000 mile journey from London to Beijing. I worked as an English teacher for 6 months in 3 cities and 7 schools, teaching kids from 2-18-years-old. The reality is that Chinese children are just as boisterous and badly behaved as their British counterparts. It wasn’t just me that experienced this; dozens of my western and Chinese colleagues were faced with poor behaviour from children. The only noticeable difference in discipline is that it’s socially acceptable, and completely legal, for teachers in Chinese schools to hit children.
A poor representation of the truth
The show is full of sound bites. British teachers lamenting the fact that the children already feel ‘pressure to pass’ and are ‘scared of failing’. The students obnoxiously question why they need to know trigonometry and why they aren’t being taught to pay their taxes instead. For their part, the authoritarian Chinese teachers are caught dictating that in China you ‘survive or you die’ and they don’t have tailored syllabi.
Before we get into the perils of Chinese education, let’s just talk about the alleged OECD assessment that ‘evaluates’ schools across the world. In 2015, China ranked top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which ranks 15-year-olds in Maths, Reading and Science.
But did China really do so well? The results only covered Shanghai, the richest, most Western, and most cosmopolitan city in Mainland China. In Shanghai, spending on education is much higher than average, and the results of the children of migrant workers – who are often treated as second class citizens in substandard schools – don’t count towards the evaluation. In fact, a third of Chinese parents aspire to send their kids abroad for schooling – which doesn’t paint their education system in quite the same light. If British education was only measured on elite schools in the richest cities, perhaps our education would stand a chance at being top of the world table too.
Don’t broadcast misleading information
I do know that we shouldn’t believe what we see on TV. I’m also not saying that I don’t think Nicky Morgan is going to see a couple of hours of reality TV and suddenly revamp the British education system. But the rhetoric of the show is dangerous. It glorifies the teachings of a nation that brainwashes children with the undeniable teachings of the biggest murderer of all time. Perhaps Mao doesn’t impact the social lives of young children in China, but his regime is certainly embedded into their education and culture. It’s unfortunate, but true, that in British society thousands of people believe what they see on TV. Those who cry about ‘the kids of today’ are likely to use the BBC 2 programme to support their views.
Make children into humans, not robots
This show sadly falls in line with the PISA rankings, in that they only look at education alone, and not the social we implicitly learn in British schools to make us real, employable human beings. Looking back on my own time in China, I remember a lesson teaching 14-year-olds. I thought I’d play a fun game and place the class in pairs – the class burst out laughing when I placed a boy and girl together and refuse to work together of their different sexes. How can we praise a system whose social development of young adults is decades behind our own? Never mind the fact that they permit smoking and the drinking of baijiu (rice wine) in the school canteen at breakfast. At least we don’t allow our students to do that.
There are a lot of things to praise about the Chinese education system. Their focus on sport is admirable and one that we should consider following. I loved my time in China. It is a beautiful country and I learned a lot in my brief time teaching there. And sure, Britain’s education system is far from perfect, Gove made sure of that. But, if we want to learn from another country, we should be looking at Scandinavia, who consistently top league tables legitimately. A 1940s style Chinese regime is not the answer.
This was originally published in Kettle Mag.