The problem identified is the lack of British citizens who speak Chinese – referred to here as such, putting aside distinctions between Putonghua, Cantonese, Taiwanese Mandarin, etc. No solution can credibly be proposed without a brief description of the current state of Chinese language education in the UK.
The last comprehensive report specific to Chinese, commissioned by the British Council, was published in 2014 as the UK government began its “golden era” policies. No such survey has been conducted since. The survey concluded with three key recommendations. First, to “adopt a strategic and collaborative approach to the development of Chinese and ensure that investment and resources are focused on achieving shared aims. Establish a coordinating group to guide and develop the strategy.” Second, to “provide an increasing number of teacher training places for teachers of Chinese, with incentives to schools and other providers if necessary.” Third, to “develop a body of expertise and shared professional understanding in the teaching of Chinese language and culture in a UK context”
Since then, the British Council’s annual ‘Language Trends’ survey has not consistently contained analysis of Chinese learning. Besides, it only relates to teaching at primary and secondary schools. The 2020 iteration of this survey states that Chinese was taught “in less than 3% of the schools in our sample,” whilst the number of pupils that took a Chinese GCSE decreased from 2018 to 2019. The Council’s ‘Languages for the Future’ report is another useful resource, which contains much more Chinese-specific information. However, its most recent iteration was in 2017. Furthermore, this report lacks data, admitting, for example, that “it is difficult to find reliable data on how many students” learn Chinese at university.
The 2014 report’s recommendations have mainly been carried out via a secondary-school Chinese teaching initiative, the Mandarin Excellence Programme. This is a partnership between the DfE, the British Council, and the UCL Institute of Education, whose Confucius Institute for Schools delivers the programme. The MEP produces an independently evaluated annual report, according to which 5000 pupils are “on track to fluency.” This represents the MEP hitting the target it set in 2016. The MEP is hoping to double this number by 2023. That would be excellent. The MEP is clearly part of the solution to the problem of a dearth of Mandarin speakers; it should be scaled up.
The MEP’s annual reports highlight the main barrier to Chinese teaching: the lack of teachers. This demands further government intervention beyond any scaling up of the MEP. Such intervention would also enable more independence from the China International Chinese Language Education Foundation (CICLEF), a PRC agency that runs the Confucius Institutes upon which much Chinese teaching, including the MEP, relies. Language teaching is key, however, it must be and is inevitably accompanied by historical and cultural education. Regarding the role of CICLEF in this aspect of ‘China literacy’, credible concerns have been raised worldwide by serious commentators. It is essential, therefore, that the MEP’s expansion be balanced with efforts to reduce the UK’s overall dependence on CICLEF. The government should consider working further with Taiwan and the British Chinese community (see below) in order to build up teaching capacity.
More independent teaching capacity would empower the government more effectively to introduce additional initiatives. These should bring together business, academia, and the Civil Service, enabling a “strategic and collaborative approach to the development of Chinese”, in line with the 2014 report. Regarding business, the government might offer China-facing enterprises grants for employees or apprentices to learn Chinese. Regarding the Civil Service, it might broaden language programmes for civil servants. Were new or expanded programmes to contain additional elements of historic, economic or political teaching, this could provide the benefit of supporting a more coordinated and consistent ‘approach to China’ across government departments, in line with the UK’s strategic aims. Regarding academia, the government might offer learning grants and resources to university and think-tank academics whose work already relates to China, or could benefit from being made to. In order to conduct these initiatives, the government might appoint a ‘China education tsar’ who would be expressly responsible for their coordination, transparency and success.
In this scenario, the government should also take into account the situation of UK citizens of Chinese descent. According to the 2011 Census, there are well over 400,000 people of Chinese ancestry living in the UK. This community accounted for most of the UK’s 140,000 or so Chinese speakers. Research suggests that there is considerable demand from British citizens of Chinese descent – often younger people encouraged by parents – for Chinese language teaching. The British Chinese community is, unsurprisingly, a key source of Chinese language teachers. Finally, and critically, in the past year or so, UK citizens of Chinese descent have faced growing racist abuse, including despicable physical assaults in public. The holistic approach to China education advocated here calls for the British government to build trust with the British Chinese community, to work with it and civil society organisations to combat Sinophobia through education, including language teaching, and to incentivise members of the community to become language teachers in order to respond both to the community’s own and society’s general demand for the provision of Chinese language teaching.
The Covid-19 crisis has put China in the spotlight. There is a burgeoning interest in the culture and the country, whose rise presents an array of risks and opportunities for Britain and its citizens. There has long been a consensus that we need more Chinese teachers, more Chinese speakers, and more engagement with the British Chinese community. This consensus has never been broader. Now is the time for an ambitious, government-backed programme of China education, focussed on language teaching. Such a programme would support the UK’s long-term strategic aims. It would provide substantial benefits to British business, British academics and researchers, the Civil Service and government, the British Chinese community, and society at large.