As the UK’s only national Chinese Speaking Competition for secondary pupils celebrates its 10th anniversary, the British Council is warning that the ability of the UK’s next generation to compete in the global economy is at risk because the number of schools teaching Mandarin Chinese is still too small.
In a recent YouGov poll of UK teachers commissioned by the British Council and HSBC, only 3 per cent of primary and 9 per cent of secondary teachers said their schools offer Mandarin Chinese lessons – despite China becoming the world’s second biggest economy in 2011 and being vital to the UK’s future prosperity. 2 per cent said their schools have stopped teaching Mandarin, with only 1 per cent planning to start.
According to official statistics, only 2,541 students took a GCSE in Mandarin in 2012, compared with 3,650 in 2010. By contrast, a record 72,606 students took a GCSE in Spanish last year.
Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council and fluent Chinese speaker, said: “The UK’s future prosperity depends in no small part on our ability to communicate and build relationships with people from around the world, and there are few more important partners for us than China. But, despite perceptions that more and more UK schools are teaching Mandarin, all the evidence suggests that the real number is stagnant at best and far too small. Without a workforce that can understand and communicate effectively with one of the world’s biggest economies, there’s a real risk that the UK will struggle to compete and fall behind as a result.”
Reasons for the low level of Mandarin teaching in the UK include a continued focus on traditional European languages in many schools - and a lack of qualified Mandarin teachers.
The British Council has been working closely with HSBC to promote the study of Chinese language and culture in the UK since 2000. Monday 4 February sees the 10th anniversary of the HSBC/British Council Mandarin Chinese Speaking Competition final for secondary pupils, which rewards students who have made the effort to master Mandarin from scratch.
Over the past decade, the competition has helped to inspire hundreds of young people to further their Mandarin studies, including Nishat Ali from Newham in London, who was the first competitor to walk on stage at the inaugural competition in 2003. Her former school – Kingsford Community School – has been teaching Mandarin since 2001.
Nishat said: “My life would be radically different if I hadn’t participated in the competition and it's very difficult to imagine what I’d be doing now. My interest in the language turned into a great passion and I’m currently a fourth year student of Chinese at SOAS in London. I spent a year studying abroad in Beijing and it was undoubtedly the best time of my life. China’s economy has grown rapidly over the past few decades and it’s now one of the most important nations in the world. Therefore I would encourage anyone to take up the language, as not only can it be a gateway to an amazing culture and thousands of years of history, but it can also bring with it many exciting opportunities as it has done for me.”
The British Council and HSBC also support Mandarin teaching in the UK through their Chinese Language Assistants programme – native speakers who have been coming to work in UK classrooms for the past 11 years – and the two organisations run annual Chinese summer schools for primary school pupils at two UK locations. This year the British Council has distributed Chinese New Year education packs to nearly 10,000 UK Primary Schools, to help teachers bring Chinese language and culture into the classroom.
Recent research by the British Council and Think Global showed that UK employers value international skills more highly than exam results – but three-quarters feel that young people entering the workforce lack these skills.