China and the West: more similar than different

By Nelson Lo, Director of Athena Tuition  – A UK-China based Tutor agency and education consultancy

China and the West: more similar than we are led to believe

Last week, the BBC aired a programme called ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough?’, in which Chinese teachers were brought in to teach at an English school in Hampshire. As was widely reported in the UK’s newspapers, the teachers found the English pupils “rude, disruptive and demotivated”, saying “In China we don’t need classroom management skills because everyone is disciplined… Whereas in the West that is the most challenging part of teaching.”

This is hardly a new idea – in fact, it is a well-known stereotype that Chinese society is more “disciplined” than Western liberal society. The idea is found in coverage of the Chinese economy, culture and of course the education system.

Some stereotypes, of course, are based on fact. We know from first-hand experience that many Chinese schools favour a more teacher-centric style of learning, with less pupil interactivity, and larger class sizes. The arts tend to receive less attention, and STEM subjects receive more.

Chinese parents moving into the UK education system have varying attitudes toward the less rigid, more arts-focused education they find here. To some, it is a desirable experience they are willing to pay high fees to secure for their children. As Wellington College Head Master Anthony Seldon told the Financial Times, “There is massive interest in all top independent schools. We could fill the school several times over with international students” – and students from Hong Kong and mainland Chinese now form easily the largest cohort.

In its 2015 census, the Independent Schools Council reported that, together, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students now hold 11,241 places in British private schools, followed distantly by Russia (3,611), the USA (2,802), and Germany (2,695). The UK’s education system clearly attracts Chinese interest. 

And yet, for all their differences, the two systems are in some ways similar. In the UK, just as in China, money helps to improve academic success – school fees exist in both systems, in China’s international schools as in the UK’s private schools. Both systems are gripped by perpetual performance anxiety, each eyeing the other with competitive suspicion, and asking what lessons can be learned from Western and Eastern methods.

There are many similarities, indeed, but perhaps the most significant is a failing that affects both systems. To an extent, this failing is inevitable in all but the most selective educational systems, and highlights the fact that both China and the West operate mass education systems. The failing is this: that in even the most prestigious fee-paying institutions in China and the West, rarely does a child ever receive sustained one-to-one attention.

This one-to-one teacher-pupil relationship, in place of classes, was what distinguished the ancient Greek system of learning, most famously realised in the relationship between Alexander the Great and his own personal tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. There is no private school in England or China that can currently provide this level of attention.

But this approach to education is not dead. It has simply migrated. Now it takes place in the private tuition market. In both China and Hong Kong and in the West, private tutors supplement pupils’ school learning – and increasingly, companies like ours are also providing full-time, one-to-one tuition programmes to take students out of schools completely, granting them a completely tailored education. Rising interest in this approach comes from both East and West, wherever parents feel that school classes of thirty, fifteen or even five cannot meet the child’s specific needs in terms of pace, knowledge, interests and abilities.

To many parents, this similarity matters more than the differences that set the Chinese and Western systems apart. Both systems have, for their own reasons, accepted that prolonged one-to-one attention for students – whatever their academic ability or background – need not have a place in the national education system. However, the rising Chinese and global economies, and their increasing educational attainment, mean ever greater competition between students for places at top private schools such as Eton College, St Pauls and Wellington College or in higher education establishments such as Oxford and Cambridge. With competition for places on an inexorable rise, the real potential for more effective learning through one to one tutoring has never been higher.

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