Teaching Abroad: How China's Schools Compare To The UK
Alex Wilkins spent a year teaching 12 to 16-year-olds English and culture in Eastern China, a placement he secured through the British Council.
In this interview, the first in a series of Huffington Post articles looking at the experiences of English teachers overseas, Alex gives an insight into the Chinese education system.
School is compulsory in China only until the age of 14, after which children's future largely depends on family wealth.
"China is a very competitive country, but the one-child policy leads to lots of parents putting pressure on their children to work hard and succeed", Alex explains.
"For lots of young Chinese people their route through education is completely mapped out by their parents who have chosen by a very early age what career their child is going to go into."
During 2008-9, Alex worked in Hangzhou Foreign Language School (HFLS), which he says "would be classed as a private school". One of the top three institutions in the Zhejiang province, the institution is partially funded by the government, while the rest of the revenue is provided by fee-paying parents.
"School classes in China can have upwards of 70 students, although my classes were more around the more manageable 25 figure", Alex explains. "HFLS was different to state schools in lots of ways - the most obvious being the amount of control the government had over the school."
Describing the curriculum as "very strict", he says most schools leave "very little room for imagination or opinion".
"The syllabus is designed by the Communist government and very similar across the country, basically creating 1.3bn people who are very similar to one another."
"I was given complete freedom so took liberties and taught Spanish, French, cricket and rugby in my lessons," he added.
The school's sports ceremony, which lasts for more than two hours.
"Nonetheless, every school in China, even my 'private' school, are effectively controlled by the Communist Party. There were even rumours among some of the teachers some of the students were Communist Party 'spies' who had to report back to their parents what they had learned in their lessons.
"Officers even oversee the running of the school and observe classes. Fortunately not mine though - they may not have taken my joke about China stealing Hong Kong from the British too well", he muses. "The kids just about got my humour, although they did shout at me to 'get out' while I stood there smiling..."
Although Alex says his school was considerably more liberal than "99% of other schools", it is still subject to restrictions.
"There's one moment which typifies what I feel is China's biggest problem: the lack of freedom of speech.
"Towards the end of every year the school has an English language festival where every child gets the chance to get involved. I was asked to judge a group of 15-year-olds who spoke on the theme of 'need'.
"For me there was one clear winner. A boy called Humphrey did the bravest thing I had seen the whole time I was in China; he gave a speech to a crowd of 600 in flawless English arguing why he thought China needed democracy."
Explaining why he "could not believe" the teenager was speaking out about a subject which would be considered fairly tame in the Western world, Alex said it was one of the six topics he had been instructed upon arrival in the country "never to address except with good friends".
Alex recounted how the child told his school China could never properly grow, its people could never respect themselves, or indeed command respect from others until they had democracy.
"It was amazing", he says simply.
And so he won, then?
"No. He did not win. He was the best but he did not win", Alex says, as if in still disbelief over the result.
"I do not know if he was close but I assume not from the chat I had with one of the teachers afterwards."
Nectarine, as he was named, agreed Humphrey was "the best" but explained he was never going to win by effectively criticising the state.
"Oh I forgot to mention", Alex adds, "there was a party representative on the judging panel for every event.
"This kid was brilliant but he suffered for being honest. I love China and had an amazing year but I cannot deal with the oppression of free opinion.
"I tried my best to encourage the children to be individual and develop their personality; they live in such a censored world."
So if you could bring one thing back to the UK from the Chinese education system what would it be?
"The discipline, although commendable, was a bit scary. I would say to bring obesity levels down British schools should introduce morning exercise", he concludes.
"Oh," Alex adds, "and chopsticks. It's hard to eat burgers with chopsticks."