A Graduate in China - End of Term Exams Miss the Point

14/08/2012 17:14 BST | Updated 13/10/2012 10:12 BST

Education systems vary the world over and it's easy to think that everybody does it better than we do. The grass somehow looks greener in a foreign classroom. In China, as the end of term approaches, the priorities skew towards classes getting the highest possible marks. Passing the exam is exaggerated beyond belief and the system doesn't look the least bit green.

Emphasis moves towards exam success and away from fun-type lessons. While my Chinese colleagues have been doing past papers for the last month, my class of six-year olds have been playing games. Language work underpinned with a fun game works better than reinforcing article agreements and irregular verbs. My approach has not been criticised, but when I don't work 'from the book' my colleagues purse their lips slightly. Their reservations are understandable because if class results are below expectations, a teacher could be docked wages and not offered a job the following year.

As is the case in other areas of Chinese society, there is an endless push towards perfection. The weakest students have questions specifically designed for them and the practice papers are so similar to reality that failure is virtually impossible. When everyone passes it's tempting to praise the teacher and the hard work they have put in. But I feel differently. When marking papers I feel sorry for the weakest students and am more lenient in my marks. I know other teachers do the same.

The drive for passing the test and showing parents how able their children are appears to be more important than the results. British education is criticised for being too exam focussed, but in China, particularly in the international sector, it is too business orientated. Results are more important than instilling language skills and values, the exam percentage is more important than understanding.

My principal did not want me to tell the students I was leaving because he thought that any negative feeling would lead them to fail their tests at the age of seven, and he thought that if they knew I was not returning, parents might withdraw their children.

I leave my teaching sojourn with a heavy heart. Seeing my 26 students develop and gain English skills was rewarding. When I had a bad day they were the ones who cheered me up. Lessons were made successful by the least confident raising their hands and having a go at a question. But bad as Britain is in terms of graduate employment at present, it acted on me as both a magnet and a challenge. Teaching as a vocation is not for me in the long term, so it is surely better to return to England to find what is.

Teaching might be one of the hardest things to do well, but as a foreigner working in China you don't have to do much at all. There was pressure on the Chinese teachers for my students to succeed, but not on me. My role in a class failure would not be questioned. I could teach absolute nonsense and my position not be affected. I was offered a vastly improved contract and a better role in the school, but I was not prepared to work in an environment where, despite the fact that parents want their children to be taught a higher level of English by foreign teachers, you are not consulted on methods of education or ways to help the students.

The point is not confined to one school, or even to education. I have spoken to other British people working in China and found that it is quite easy to coast along earning a good wage in a relatively cheap country while the native population is often overworked and underpaid. I have spoken to engineers who are stuck in an office supervising and factory managers who tick boxes and wait for their Chinese driver to take them home. There are many other examples.

Foreigners in China are seen as 'experts', but that expertise is not necessarily harnessed in the best way. The Russians, for instance, came in after the Peoples' Revolution of 1949 and helped with large engineering projects until the Chinese knew enough to complete bridges and build nuclear bombs by themselves. More recently, the Chinese high-speed train network used Japanese engineers. In next to no time China had its own high-speed trains (one Chinese company are bidding to supply the government's proposed London to Birmingham route). Not long afterwards there was a serious crash due to shoddy construction.

Education will not go the same way as high-speed trains as English speakers will always be in demand to teach the emerging middle classes. But I want to try something different. Challenging myself in a market saturated with graduates going for relatively lowly paid jobs or mindless internships appeals more than doing an easy job in the next world superpower.