Chinese schools get a lesson from Britain
Published 12th January 2015
Written by: Richard Green
While China has excellent academic results, the British curriculum has the upper hand with design – it's a shame our Government doesn't recognise this, says Richard Green
The transformation of China in our lifetime has been nothing short of extraordinary. The speed of China’s resurgence – from the economic and human catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward to today’s superpower economy – has been so swift that it has mesmerised many in the West.
Napoleon was right: China was a sleeping giant, but when she awoke she moved the world.
The modern fascination with China is often expressed in terms of inferiority, whether it is her leapfrog up the table of world economies, the surrender of Britain’s last colony, or the apparent superiority of China’s schools and education system.
While it’s fashionable to point to China’s admittedly excellent academic results, especially in such economically important subjects as science and maths, it is facile to claim that Western education is fundamentally outdated and in decline.
In fact many of the ‘Tiger Economy’ nations, including China, are turning to the UK for advice on how to teach their younger generation to be more innovative and better equipped to succeed in the knowledge economy of the future.
This month, the Design and Technology Association was invited to China to demonstrate the UK’s approach to design and technology education in primary and secondary schools. It was a fascinating experience – but also a deeply troubling one, as I shall explain.
The reason behind our invitation should be an eye-opener for those who are quick to claim the inferiority of British education.
Yes, the Chinese education system is superb at developing knowledge and producing scholars, but, by their own admission, they often lack the vital skills to apply it.
This is strikingly illustrated by China’s supposed leadership in hi-tech manufacturing: although tens of thousands of Chinese citizens are employed in making iPhones, the country enjoys less than a fiftieth of the profits from the finished device.
Although the phrase ‘Made in China’ has long shaken off connotations of cheap, substandard goods, China no longer wants the reputation of being a mere manufacturer. They don’t want the back of an iPhone to say “Made in China, Designed in California”, but “Designed and Made in China”. And who can blame them?
The obstacle for China is a culture where fear of failure and risk aversion stands in the way of innovation and creativity. To their credit, the Chinese authorities recognise the need to change their approach if they are to remain competitive throughout this century. That’s why they’ve turned to the world experts in design and technology – the British.
Britain developed design and technology as an academic discipline, and our curriculum is widely seen as the best in the world. That may come as a surprise to those whose sole memories of D&T lessons consist of hacking away at various materials with a fretsaw.
In fact, students today are more likely to be designing and making wearable technology, sports drinks or cycling safety aids – like the winners of our national Great British Make Off competition for Key Stage 3 pupils.
China has grasped that continuing to turn out cohorts of maths and science prodigies is not enough, unless these students can actually apply their theoretical knowledge to the real world.
That’s only possible with modern D&T, which also teaches invaluable generic skills such as problem solving, teamwork and communication – not to mention early exposure to the same tools, techniques and software that they will encounter in the world of work.
But perhaps the most striking impression that the visit had on me was not the Chinese commitment to addressing shortcomings in their (generally admirable) education system, but the way that they are linking their educational policy to a wider economic strategy.
This is what left me most troubled: as China recognises the benefits of design and technology, British policy neglects the subject.
The government talks about promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers, but D&T doesn’t merit a mention in its plans.
In the same week that we left for China, the Prime Minister gave a speech about the importance of ‘technology’, yet it was quickly apparent that he was actually talking about computing – a very narrow and unhelpful definition of technology.
The truth is that D&T teaching in the UK is facing a crisis. It remains a popular subject at GCSE, but over the last decade the number of students taking D&T has almost halved. Today, less than a third of each annual cohort takes the subject.
In fact, during the national curriculum review, there was uncertainty about whether D&T would even remain on the national curriculum. Perhaps this is not surprising in light of the fashion for sidelining creative and technical subjects in favour of ‘academic’ disciplines.
Don’t misunderstand me: it’s vital that UK students are taught science and maths to an exacting standard. But a blind obsession with the PISA tables, and a failure to teach applied skills, will see the UK sprinting towards China’s past, while the new economies of the East forge further into the future.
Richard Green, CEO of Design and Technology Association
Photo by ALAMY (appeared in The Telegraph on Monday 12 January 2015)comments powered by Disqus Back to Blog