The future is Mandarin
The highlight of 15-year-old Rebecca Luxmore's first week in China was "a visit to Pizza Hut". But two weeks later when the pupil from Prince Henry's school in Otley, West Yorkshire, reflects on her three weeks at an intensive Mandarin summer camp in Beijing, she says she doesn't want to go home. She likes the food, the Great Wall is out of this world, the decoration on the temples beautiful, the whole country amazing - and her Mandarin has improved enormously.
A school trip to China is not for the faint-hearted. Nothing can describe the wall of heat that greets you. It's the kind of humidity that makes even your shins sweat. All your senses are jostled: the smell of food (and waft of drains); the immense numbers of people, all on the move; the brash cacophony of Chinese chatter; the roar of the traffic and the swarming bicycles and taxis looming towards you as you try to cross the road.
"It's difficult at first," says Chris Williams, head of Lincoln Christ's Hospital school. "You feel overwhelmed with fatigue from the heat and jet leg, and find yourself thrown into a world you can't understand because you don't know the language and can't read the signs. The food and everything else are unfamiliar. You are forced to rely on your wits, just to get about. But, in the end, the language begins to make some sense and everybody's got used to the food and can pick up a peanut with their chopsticks."
Richard Booth, a 15-year-old pupil at Lincoln Christ's and one of 155 pupils from 12 schools who this year joined a summer camp in China with help from the British Council, has been overawed. "Everything is so different to anything I've ever experienced. It's great to be able to learn the language and then go and try it out bargaining at the street markets. The markets are very exciting; so many people competing to sell you things.
"I knew the population was more than a billion, but I had no idea what that would look like. And I had no idea they would all be so loud. I'd love to come back to see what it's like in 2008 when they hold the Olympics. I've promised myself I'll return."
He admits it was hard going at first: non-potable tap water, alarming electrical wiring, strange food and awful lavatories. And, like everyone else, he's been struck by the great contrasts in wealth. "I was shocked by the poverty and poor sanitation. You can walk down the street and see huge, modern skyscrapers next to people living in squalor."
China throws up these juxtapositions at every step. Not far from the swankiest hotel or smartest store will be a mean alleyway with an old man, resting on his haunches, wearing a dirty vest rolled above his nipples. At the foot of a gleaming landmark skyscraper on Shanghai's Renmin Square (the equivalent of Trafalgar Square) is a small market selling kittens from cages, terrapins, crickets in tiny wicker baskets and all manner of birds and fish. Just minutes from the monolithic austerity of Tiananmen Square is a lively myriad of streets with dozens of greasy chopstick cafes, and stalls selling clothes, silk and medical potions. And while the coolie hat may still feature in rural China, the faux designer clothes favoured by urbanites surprise many pupils.
It's an image that can work the other way: many Chinese still envisage us blundering around in pea-soupers wearing bowler hats - a view the British government is determined to change. Ian Richards, of the British embassy in Beijing, says: "We need to do a lot of work to dispel our old-fashioned image." To that end a series of commercial exhibitions and arts events will take place in 2003, but Mr Richards hopes that the school links programme and the summer camps will also play an important role in raising the UK's profile in China.
Three years ago David Blunkett, then education secretary, visited Beijing and subsequently allocated £308,000, over three years, to foster school links between China and the UK. The summer camps, held for the first time in Beijing this year, are part of this drive.
A three-week course includes an intensive grounding in Mandarin, sessions on traditional arts such as calligraphy, kung fu and Chinese medicine, and excursions to the main sights as well as a chance to sample China's markets, nightclubs and temples. Pupils on university campuses in Shanghai and Hangzhou follow a similar programme.
The British Council's Central Bureau sets up the courses and provides a grant of £600 per pupil (the amount each pupil pays varies from school to school but is between £200 and £300, plus pocket money). Hongkong and Shanghai Bank has added £90,000, over three years, to the scheme.
Pupils' knowledge of Mandarin varies and many start from scratch. But despite its difficulty - the various tones are fiendishly difficult to master and the characters complex - many make great strides. Caroline Le Breton, 18, who studied French and German at Ashcombe school in Dorking, Surrey, says she has had to forget everything connected with learning a European language. "But eventually it starts to make sense. It's fun having some basic phrases to use to bargain in the markets."
Graham Burford, a former biology teacher and now network manager at the Royal grammar school in High Wycombe, admits he failed languages at school. But he enjoyed his Mandarin lessons and intends to keep them up on his return. "The method of teaching here is old-fashioned, very much by rote, but that suits me. I hadn't expected to take to Chinese, but I'm loving the lessons."
Some of the pupils will further their studies when the British Council sponsors 11 teachers from Shanghai and Beijing to work in British schools this term. And with China's thirst to learn English and the forthcoming Olympics, a grounding in Mandarin will have a currency well beyond university entrance forms.
Victoria Folkard, who was with students from Tavistock college in Devon, is a pioneer in Oriental language learning. She taught Chinese at the college for three years and is now head of Oriental studies at Katharine Lady Berkeley's school in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire.
"It has been a difficult subject to teach, mainly because of poor resources and the paucity of teachers," she says. "Some schools have used native speakers but this has made curriculum development and continuity difficult. This trip has been a fantastic opportunity for the pupils and teachers and I'm sure it will spur many on with their interest in China and the language."
Ms Folkard has been working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on a GCSE in Mandarin, to begin in 2003, and is in contact with Kathy Wickstead of the Technology Colleges Trust, who is working on textbooks. The interest in the summer camps has largely been from language colleges, eager to increase the number of subjects they teach, or from schools seeking specialist language status. But some technology specialists have become involved in Hangzhou, under the umbrella of Djanogly technology college. And it is through ICT that joint projects between British and Chinese schools can flourish. The Central Bureau helps to link schools - and pays a £2,000 grant per link. Joint curriculum projects are also eligible for grants of between £1,000 and £7,000 a year, which can include visits as well as electronic communication.
For example, Dixie grammar school in Leicester, and Baxian school in Chongqing, Sichuan province, have collaborated on a project evaluating water quality in the Yangtze River. And students at Changzheng middle school (equivalent to secondary) in Shanghai have taken part in a video conference with pupils at Ashcombe, and were able to control a robot at the Dorking school.
Some schools on the camps included visits to their link schools. The Ashcombe pupils had a sleepover with their counterparts at Changzheng, a 1,100-pupil school with a mission statement respecting Deng Xiaoping's exhortation "to foster students to be new Changzhengees, well behaved, hard-working, healthy, strong and to seek beauty and truth".
Seventeen-year-old Kate Evans stayed with a family "in a grotty building, but the flat was very clean. The breakfast dumplings were a bit of a struggle, but I made myself eat them. They were all very kind and the girl was interested to hear if I had a boyfriend. They seem very sheltered and don't seem to mix with boys. And they work so hard - much harder than we do - at school work."
While China may be more demanding for teachers than a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, it is essentially a safe country. As long as the pupils have their address on a card in Chinese characters, they can easily get a cheap taxi-ride back if they become lost. Learning to get around and coping with the culture shock (apart from seeing their headteacher in shorts) have been the most memorable experiences for many of the teenagers.
James Ogam, 16, of George Spencer school in Nottingham, says he has come to appreciate his own life. "It's shocking seeing the skyscrapers and high-tech businesses next to huts and slums, and I've found some of the begging quite distressing. The zoo shocked everybody. The Chinese have a very different view of animal rights from us. I'd never had Chinese food, so when I knew I was coming on the trip I had a couple of takeaways, but they were nothing like the food here. All of us have ended up at McDonald's at some point.
"Having to mix with people from other schools has been difficult. At first there were tensions, but we've all ended up as quite a close unit. I thought it would be a lifetime's opportunity and it has been."
Glen Starling, 18, of Launceston college in Cornwall, had never flown before - or spoken a word of Mandarin. But now he's hooked. He loves the temples, finds the country's quest for modernity fascinating and has made several Chinese friends. "I plan to come back to study," he says.
Qussum Hussain, 18, of Djanogly, has no intention of pursuing Mandarin and admits he lived for three weeks on McDonald's fishburgers. But the t'ai chi is "fantastic". The programme in Hangzhou started each morning with the Chinese system of exercise based on self-defence moves. "It was great. I have learned 24 new forms."
Evaluating the trip on her return, Sarah Atherley, science teacher and technology status co-ordinator at George Spencer, says her pupils are still buzzing about the trip. Apart from the experience of the sights and the grounding in the language, they all recognise the personal development the trip has brought: greater confidence and a realisation that they have all faced a challenge, coping with jet lag, homesickness, an alien world, pupils from other schools from all over the UK, dodgy stomachs, horrendous lavatories, three-hour mornings of MandarinI and had a brilliant time.
The Central Bureau has several schemes to promote links between schools in England and China.
Mandarin immersion courses Three-week intensive study courses in China. Grant available, £600 per participant.
Special interest projects Grants of up to £700 per pupil to allow sports teams, bands and orchestras or other arts activities to collaborate electronically and visit.
Joint curriculum projects, such as the one between Dixie grammar in Leicester and Baxian school in Chongqing, are eligible for grants of £1,000-£7,000. These can include student and teacher visits as well as electronic links.
E-curriculum links The Central Bureau can help schools make links with schools in China to create e-partnerships (£2,000 per link).
Headteacher study visits Headteachers and deputies can visit their partner schools for one week to share best practice. Fifteen teachers will be funded per year (grant available up to £1,700 per participant).
School linking study tours Teachers can apply for financial support to visit their link school.
Chinese language assistant programme The Central Bureau will select Mandarin teachers from schools in China and will cover the costs of flights and administration.Host schools will be expected to pay the living allowance for 10 months (£692 per month.
For more information about the summer schools or other bureau schemes, contact Dilbahar Tawakkul, tel: 020 7389 4431. Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgThe British Council website is at: www.britishcouncil.org/cbiet