May 2018
Cultivating Britain’s young Chinese speakers

In this issue, we talk to Sam Swire about how the Swire Chinese Language Foundation is strengthening links between China and Britain by enabling British schools to teach Chinese across the United Kingdom.

In 2016, the Swire group celebrated its 200th anniversary. The Swire Chinese Language Foundation ("SCLF") was established to commemorate this remarkable achievement and to recognise the 150 years the group has been doing business in Greater China. Contributing to education has long been a part of Swire's legacy, and the establishment of the SCLF is a continuation of that proud heritage.

Sam Swire, Executive Director of John Swire & Sons Limited and Chairman of the SCLF, is clear about the purpose of the Foundation: "The aim is that we will improve the teaching of Chinese in the United Kingdom. This will be achieved by ensuring that there is a higher standard in the quality, the quantity and, perhaps most importantly, the reach of Chinese teaching into areas where people don't necessarily have the option to study the language at present."

As China's economy grows, relations between Britain and China become closer and more important than ever. "There has been a noticeable strengthening of the ties between Britain and China in the past few years, with a particular focus on economic and cultural relationships. It seems likely that the approach of Brexit will push Britain to forge greater connections with the world outside Europe, and China plays a large part in that. As a nation, we need to build our links with China as strongly as possible and that, inevitably, involves language learning," says Sam.

Building a network

Teddy Watson, Executive Trustee of the SCLF
Teddy Watson, Executive Trustee of the SCLF

Teddy Watson, Executive Trustee of the SCLF, explains how the programme works: "The Foundation selects schools in the United Kingdom to set up centres of excellence for teaching Chinese. Once the SCLF has chosen a school, or in some cases a group of schools, in a particular location, it is named a Swire Chinese Language Centre and receives funding so it can employ one or more Chinese language teachers. The school will act as hub for the district, and the teachers will also go and teach in other local schools, often ones in economicallydeprived areas. Schools are selected based on their ability to organise the outreach element of the initiative amongst other things."

Currently, the SCLF has 12 Centres, and these are located in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Gosforth, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Oxford and Sheffield. From these bases, the SCLF is able to reach a total of 93 schools across the United Kingdom and employ 22 qualified Chinese teachers.

An important aspect of the SCLF is that it is not prescriptive in any way, as Teddy Watson notes: "We are not educationalists saying, ‘This is how you should run your programme'. We set a range of basic parameters about what we expect the schools to do, but say ‘you are the experts, show us how you will run it and, if we like it, here's the money'."

Mike McGarry, Associate Principal at the Belvedere Academy in Liverpool, which is a Centre in that city, agrees: "Swire have been extremely supportive, but at no time have they tried to impose a certain model of delivery, nor have they been prescriptive in any way. Rather, they have encouraged us at the Swire Centre to adopt an approach which is most suitable and that will work in our context," he says.

Preparing for the future

The payoff from investing in language training is that children will have the opportunity to learn a language that is profoundly different from English or any other languages they are likely to encounter in school. This helps broaden their world view and, perhaps more crucially, develop skills in Chinese that will distinguish them in later life and could increase social mobility.

Rob Neal, coordinator of the Swire Chinese Language Centre Manchester
Rob Neal, coordinator of the Swire Chinese Language Centre Manchester

Rob Neal is coordinator of the Swire Chinese Language Centre Manchester; he has taught Chinese for a number of years in Britain, after spells abroad teaching in Japan and at Peking University in Beijing. Rob stresses the cultural benefits of learning Chinese: "I like to highlight the intellectual, cultural and educational reasons for learning Chinese. For example, students are fascinated to learn that there are separate words for older brother and younger brother in Chinese. Dig a little deeper and this soon leads into a fascinating discussion about the importance of age in Chinese culture. My hope is that in ten years' time, some of my current students will get in touch and tell me that they've got a plum job which involves using Chinese every day."

Creating opportunities

North of the border, the Swire Chinese Language Centre Edinburgh, in Scotland's capital, was established in 2016 and is a collaboration between three founding schools in the area: Boroughmuir High School, George Watson's College and James Gillespie's High School. With support from key partners like the Scotland China Education Network, the Centre is able to provide qualified, registered Chinese language teachers to teach in primary and secondary schools in and around the city. The Centre itself is 'virtual', and teaching takes place at the students' home schools. At present, 703 pupils from ten schools in the area receive regular, timetabled Chinese lessons, and both sets of figures are set to rise as more schools join the initiative.

Since becoming a founding member of the Swire Chinese Language Centre Edinburgh, Boroughmuir High School, which is a state school, has used the funding to embed Chinese into its curriculum. During the 2016-2017 academic year, pupils in S1 – the first year in secondary education in Scotland – were given the option to study Mandarin as their language to take through the school, while senior students could work towards National Qualifications in years S4, S5 and S6. "Prior to this programme, our school had never had the opportunity to offer Chinese," says David Dempster, the school's Head Teacher. "Now, our students can study Chinese in a variety of forms, from a short taster course, to a fuller form of study via a National Qualification in the subject," he says. "Year-on-year, we see the provision growing to meet pupil demand, alongside the excellent French and German language opportunities in the school." Boroughmuir High School has also established links with educational institutions in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Just a short drive from Boroughmuir, George Watson's College, an independent school, has used funding to benefit other schools in the community. Its Principal, Mervyn Roffe, feels the Foundation has planted the seeds that will influence future generations of students: "The funding from Swire has enabled us to share our best practice with other schools and has given extra enrichment opportunities for our students. There is an increased interest in China in all parts of education."

Donald Macdonald, Head Teacher at James Gillespie's High School, highlights how learning Chinese will help British pupils seize opportunities in the future: "There is enormous and growing interest in learning Chinese and connecting with China. Increasingly, educators are aware that we need to better equip and prepare young people for the emerging opportunities that link with China will offer," he says. Adds David Dempster: "I am sure this interest in and engagement with the Chinese language means our pupils will travel to, live and work in China at some point in their lives."

Sustaining momentum

Sam Swire sees sustainability as a vital element in ensuring the desired impact on British schools actually happens over the long-term. The programme is only in its second year, but the intention is that it runs for ten years, in order to give the schools sufficient time to become self-sustaining. Whilst it is difficult to measure success over its short period of existence to date, in the last year alone, just under 3,000 pupils in the UK learnt Chinese in some capacity. This year, that number rose to more than 7,500, and, within five years, is expected to go well past 20,000. However, the numbers can only continue to grow in the long-term if the schools themselves develop resources to support them: "We want to fund the programme in such a way that by the time we stop our funding, our schools are able to take Chinese on themselves as a mainstream subject in their curricula," says Sam.

Achieving a successful, sustainable future for Chinese teaching in British schools depends in large part on how parents and pupils react to the courses on offer. All three head teachers from the Swire Chinese Language Centre Edinburgh founding schools have reported that feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, in regards to both the language itself and the quality of the teaching staff.

But perhaps, in the end, the most important factor that will decide the programme's success is the enthusiasm of the students themselves. As Najeeha Khan, aged 11, from the Manchester Enterprise Academy, says: "I am interested in studying Chinese because the country is fascinating and it is a new language I want to learn." In our ever-more connected world, the ability to forge strong connections with new friends and old by sharing an understanding through language will be the true marker of success – for Britain, for China and for the Swire group.

Swire News May 2018 issue
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