By Sam Beatson.

This week, I interviewed the deputy head academic of one of Britain’s leading independent co-educational schools, historian Jo-anne Riley, of Brighton College, East Sussex. Brighton College was a recent winner of the Times Independent School of the Year (2011/12) and educates children from pre-school (nursery) right the way through to sixth form (A levels) and university entrance. It was the first independent school in the U.K. to introduce compulsory Mandarin teaching for its pupils, beginning at age 11 and I wanted to find out why they had done this, how the courses have progressed and whether or not the ambitions of pupils have changed as a result.

Mindful of China being the world’s third largest economy at the relevant time, the school introduced Mandarin to its curricula of study in 2006 with the objective of preparing pupils for the future. Rationale for the decision included that at some point, future generations of alumni would be likely to come into contact with China in their subsequent careers. Introducing a Chinese program was congruent with the school’s outwardly looking ethos, enshrined at the local, national and international levels.

For example, pupils must establish links and perform duties with local charities or community services. In so doing, they contribute to local area communities in Brighton and Hove, a relatively prosperous city on the England’s South coast, in the county of East Sussex. On a national scale, pupils develop confidence in entrepreneurial skills by way of business competitions and its Mandarin teachers carry out teaching in outside schools. Internationally, the school has an intake of Chinese nationals in addition to it having developed ties with Tsinghua School, based in the Haidian district of Beijing.

Pupils at the school report that they love Chinese. The study of Chinese as part of academic life in the school was described as having become “normalized”, with the latest GCSE choices reflecting the popularity of Chinese- forty of the school’s pupils entering their GCSE year have opted to take Edexcel GCSE Chinese. Meanwhile, A level Chinese is becoming increasingly popular. What this means is that “Modern Languages” are no longer confined to French, German and Spanish, rather it is wholly acceptable to take a Chinese GCSE as the sole language option in some instances.

The Chinese Studies aspect of the Modern Languages block at the school has a significant part to play in the life of the pupils and is affiliated with HanBan, effectively a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education’s governance parentage. HanBan plays an important role in providing support and guidance to the School with respect to the Mandarin programmes.

Importantly though, Hanban do not control what the school do. For example, positive and negative reports in the media are openly discussed, whilst Taiwan and Hong Kong are by no means taboo or treated one-sidedly. According to the deputy head of academics, Chinese students at the school are treated respectfully, but issues with political charge are treated in a sensible and balanced way, much in the manner any academic institution would manage such matters. While the school doesn’t formally teach Cantonese at this juncture, for example, students with links to Hong Kong are able to sit respective exams related to their culture if they wish.

Chinese is taken seriously as a subject. Interestingly, the Chinese teaching and teaching assistant staff in the school interviewed now outnumber their respective counterparts in French and Spanish departments and pupils studying Mandarin at Key Stage 3 equivalent receive three Mandarin lessons per week, compared with only two of French. Students are eager to find out more about what is on offer at university level and some pupils specifically attend this school in order to progress to the undergraduate level in the same field.

Sam Beatson is a PhD Candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. This is a very interesting piece indeed. It would be good to know how well these Brighton College pupils have done at their GCSE Chinese exams.

  2. A positive story about what could almost be seen as a “cultural shift” in the approach to language teaching in the UK, a shift away from French and German. It would indeed be interesting to see how well they perform and also in future years to see to what extent this early exposure carries through into university-level studies and to employment outcomes. An obvious issue with teaching Mandarin – and in fact any language in a largely monoglot culture that is the UK (white UK, at least) – is the extent to which students obtain enough practical exposure to the language for it to become useable. Teaching French and German has been a steady in modern languages at school, yet I do not think many people come out of the experience with sufficient language capability to use it, whereas Europeans often end high school with a reasonable grasp of more than one language other than their native tongue.

  3. French remains possibly the sole subject taught at schools for no other reason than inertia. It will be a niche language 20 yars from now, handy for business and holidays to…France. UK needs languages to be focused on needs from now on. Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russia, Bahasa Indonesian. We still dont teach Japanese!! If we didnt teach French now in the UK it would be impossible to justify it’s introduction…perfect reason to ditch it and diversify. Colleges teaching the above languages, even one or two specialising in Nordic languages, would be far more useful compared to the blanket policy of French First. Well done Sam.

  4. Colleges teaching the above languages, even one or two specialising in Nordic languages, would be far more useful compared to the blanket policy of French First.

    Is it a special feeling of the British against the French?

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