Melvyn Roffe: Scotland must get '˜China ready' by teaching Mandarin

About 1.1 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese. As the economic, political and cultural power of China grows, the prominence of Chinese is also growing.

Nicola Sturgeon visits Beijing's Forbidden City during her trip to China earlier this year (Picture: Scottish Government)

Many cities, including Edinburgh, are training guides and providing signage in Chinese in order to be ‘China ready’. British business is also starting to realise that being ready to trade overseas will in future mean being ready to speak Chinese to China.

But, given the average Brit’s unwillingness to learn any foreign language, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are few confident non-heritage Chinese speakers in Britain and opportunities to learn Chinese in school are limited.

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In Scotland, students were first able to sit Chinese exams in 2009, yet in 2017 only 144 did so. We must do better than that.

In Edinburgh, we are doing our bit. In partnership between my school and two state schools and with generous funding from the Swire Chinese Language Foundation, we’ve established the Swire Chinese Language Centre Edinburgh (SCLCE) to extend opportunities for pupils to study Mandarin Chinese from primary school to Higher exams.
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In the past, too many Chinese learning schemes have struggled on account of a lack of long-term commitment. You can’t expect pupils to commit to learning Chinese unless their school can guarantee that they will be able to take at least a Higher in Chinese and that their path through to the examinations will be well resourced and supported by high-quality teachers. That is exactly what the Swire Centre does – and it also provides a rigorous system of leadership and quality-assurance, something that can be difficult to achieve where Chinese teachers are working in isolation and often in part-time roles. In all, the SCLCE can call on five Scottish trained and fully registered teachers and at any one time at least three of those will be teaching in state schools in Edinburgh. In the last academic session, more than 600 pupils across 12 different state schools have benefited from this approach.

We’re proud that our latest recruit to SCLCE, Brooke Walker, was recognised by the General Teaching Council for Scotland last month as one of their National Probationers of the Year. Brooke is employed by George Watson’s College but she spent her time during her probationary year in five state schools – two primary and three secondary – where her enthusiasm and passion helped to spread opportunities to learn Chinese where they did not previously exist.

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Amongst those to benefit most have been pupils facing some huge challenges in their lives and who have previously found foreign language learning unrewarding. Chinese is different and pupils engage with it differently, helped by opportunities to experience elements of Chinese literature, music, dance and cuisine. And soon a fully-funded visit to Beijing that Brooke is helping to lead will expand pupils’ horizons in new and exciting ways.

Whatever the future holds it is difficult to imagine that China will not have an influential voice in shaping it. We must do all we can to understand that voice and, what is more, to grasp this opportunity to place a non-European culture at the centre of young people’s educational experience for the first time in our educational history. There’s no excuse for our schools not to be “China ready”.

Melvyn Roffe is principal of George Watson’s College, one of the three schools to establish a collaboration to secure funding and set up The Swire Chinese Language Centre Edinburgh