Why are schools in China looking west for lessons in creativity?

Imogen West-Knights

In the auditorium of Beijing Bayi School, on a cold morning thick with smog, props are broken, lines unlearnt and the mechanical curtain has blown a fuse. In four hours, my cast of 22 Chinese 14-year-olds, who have never acted before, will perform Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to an audience of 1,500 — in English. All their education has told them that drama is an irrelevance. As I race around the theatre, trying to track down an absent Grandpa Joe and a missing Golden Ticket I ask myself, not for the first time: what am I doing here?

Chinese education has increasingly been hailed as “superior” to the way we teach in the west in recent years. Its success in global tests for 15-year-olds reinforced this sense of a world tilting to the east: in the 2012 round of the Programme for International Student Assessment tests (Pisa), Shanghai, representing China, came first in science, reading and mathematics. Fretful western governments took note, amid mounting concern that China’s educational success would inevitably pave the way for economic and cultural dominance. Or, as the former UK government minister Michael Gove baldly stated when he was secretary of state for education, the UK can either “start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese”.

For many, the solution is simple: whatever they are doing, we need to do it too. In July last year, it was announced that 8,000 primary schools in the UK would be given funding to adopt the “mastery” maths teaching technique, the method used in China, in which students are always taught, unstreamed, as a whole class, with stronger students helping weaker ones to keep up. A BBC documentary, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, followed an academy in Hampshire as it turned over some of its students to a cohort of Chinese teachers, to see if they could boost results. This autumn, the first dual language English-Chinese private prep school is to open in London.