SCEN Members Come Together For Network Meeting

21 April 2014

Judith_McClureOn the 7th March 2014, members of the Scotland China Education Network convened for a well attended and informative network meeting. The meeting was hosted by Lasswade High School in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian: a wonderful location and a truly inspiring school that is currently celebrating its tenth year of partnership with Tianlin No. 3 Middle School in Shanghai.

Members in attendance included SCEN President The Rt. Hon Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, SCEN Convener and founder Judith McClure, the SCEN Youth Committee and representatives from the Scottish Government, the Confucius Hubs, partner Universities and several member schools. Over 50 individuals attended in total.

e-3367.jpgThe meeting started with a very interesting presentation by Jim Scott, a member of the SCEN Executive Committee and Board and former head teacher at Perth High School. Jim established the Perth and Kinross Confucius Classroom, one of the first two in Scotland, and has been from the first one of the leaders in those keen to develop links with China and the teaching and learning of Chinese. He is now completing his doctoral thesis concerning the governance of modern languages in Scottish schools. Jim kindly took time to share his findings about the teaching, learning and assessment of Chinese with SCEN Members. These findings certainly proved very interesting.

Jim started by outlining the ways that modern languages have been dealt with over the last fifty years, as well as analysing the current challenges facing language teaching in Scotland. Some studies have looked at aspects of the modern foreign language department in that time, but Jim's is the first to look at the governance of MFLs as a whole, so it was a great opportunity to get a preview of his findings.

Jim's research showed that modern language uptake and attainment has declined in Scotland over the last 40 years despite ten separate waves of reform and development and 18 separate government initiatives, six of which were specific to Modern Foreign Languages and 12 of which were co curricular programmes. He pointed out that there have been a huge number of education ministers in recent years, all with different aims and priorities. For example, between 1996 and 2001 alone there were six separate ministers, making it hard to form a cohesive approach.

Jim guided members through some of the outcomes of these initiatives, as well as looking at historic negative attitudes towards language learning in Scotland, including the fact that MFLs were excluded from the core curriculum in 1959, not to mention the long held idea that language learning was 'something for the elite'.  He also examined the way in which the six column approach is currently threatening modern language uptake. If pupils have to study two social subjects, a science, maths and English, all other subjects are left fighting for the last position. Jim stated that it is 'startlingly clear' that amongst six column schools modern languages are suffering.

Jim's research also showed that despite the overall downward trend in modern languages, Mandarin is still growing, albeit slowly. Jim stated that Chinese is the language that will best survive the 'six columns' because it is future proofed in a way that French, Spanish, German and Italian are not. However, Jim did note that S4 access to Chinese seemed to have peaked in 2011 and has been dropping since. Higher access has shot up, but could drop next year, showing that it is important not to become complacent and to continue to push the message of SCEN at all levels.

The next speaker was Peter Billington, depute headteacher at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline, host of the Fife Confucius Hub. Queen Anne High has over 100 pupils studying Mandarin within the school this year, and has just appointed a full time, permanent Chinese teacher to build in sustainability. Peter spoke about their decision to offer the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi exam (HSK) to their pupils. The HSK is the official test of Mandarin proficiency in mainland China, consisting of reading, writing, listening and comprehension. Judith McClure said that she was very glad to have a discussion of the use of the HSK in schools as it raised serious questions for the nature of language learning. She hoped that the day's presentations would stimulate future debate.

The exam is administered and assessed in China and usually associated with adult learners. Queen Anne High have been offering the test since 2011. Megan-HammellThe exam doesn't count towards learners' UCAS scores, but it is a great way for pupils to test their progress and push themselves to improve their language comprehension. Pupils aren't required to take it: it's an option open to them and they study in their spare time. 26 Queen Anne pupils decided to take the HSK in 2014. To pass HSK level one, a learner has to know 150 words. For level two, this rises to 300. By level six, students have to know 5000!   SCEN photographer Megan Hammell chose to take the HSK and explained:

"It was really fun and I was really surprised at the range of people who arrived with me to take the exam. There were older people, people who had worked in China in the past, business people: it was really interesting to meet them all and find out why they decided to take the HSK. I studied for the test at the Confucius Institute in Edinburgh. I needed 1000 words for my Mandarin Higher exam so studying for the HSK really helped push me towards that. After I finish University, I'm planning to go back and study for the next level. You can do practice exams online which really helps!"

Other attendees shared their experiences of offering the HSK. Billy Prior, teacher of Chinese at Dollar Academy, stated: "I offer HSK to our pupils as well. It's great as it gives them an interesting and widely internationally recognised qualification."

After that, it was the turn of Julia Preston and pupils from Doon Academy to share their experiences of eTwinning and Chinese language learning. Julia explained that in her previous school Loudoun Academy, she had instigated a project whereby the pupils (with help from SCEN) adopted Edinburgh Zoo's giant pandas, and used this as a basis for language learning.

To mark the adoption the children learnt about China and got to use chopsticks, make Chinese lanterns, study Chinese calligraphy and taste fortune cookies. Mrs Yang, the Chinese language teacher from Grange Academy's Confucius Hub, visited the school to teach the children some Mandarin. On the back of that successful project, Julia was asked by the British Council to become a UK Ambassador for eTwinning- a British Council run initiative enabling schools across Europe to link online and engage in ICT based partnerships.

As part of her ambassadorial role Julia was asked to present her panda project at a workshop in Izmir, Turkey. The presentation was well received by Turkish delegates and she was asked to collaborate on another project themed around kites in partnership with a Turkish school. Of course, research soon showed participants that kites were invented in China and were initially made of bamboo, meaning that before long pandas - and China- became part of the new project too.

Julia suggested that the Turkish school adopt the pandas, as Loudoun had done previously. When the Zoo heard about this, they offered to come to Doon Academy and teach Julia's new pupils more about the pandas, meaning that the project had effectively come full circle! 81 schools in Turkey are all aware of the project and Julia stated that it was 'great to have the opportunity to get Chinese into more schools in Europe. Two pupils from Doon Academy then stood up to explain more about how the project had personally benefitted them. Lauren Shaw spoke eloquently about the importance of language learning in schools and praised the work of SCEN.

Pupil Annabel McTaggart said: "I was brought up in Gerona where they speak Catalan, so coming to Scotland was hard as I had to learn English. I really struggled to communicate at first, but I realised that if you try hard you can really achieve your goals. I believe that languages are the key to understanding other cultures but we do face difficulties if we want to access them. For example, our school is in a rural area, but thanks to Mrs Preston we have been able to access opportunities and projects about China through the British Council. I now want to join SCEN to help me broaden my horizons. I want to inspire people and I think that being involved in SCEN will help me further that ambition."

After SCEN members had warmly welcomed Annabel and Lauren to SCEN, Annabel continued:

"Living in a rural area does have its challenges, but trips abroad have really helped me to progress. I now want to study business and languages: only Spanish was originally available in my school but after a year of 'kicking and screaming(!)' we are now getting a French higher taught by Mrs Preston. We are also studying for an Open University qualification in Italian."

After Julia and the pupils' inspiring talk, the other SCEN members shared their updates.

Liz Gray from Edinburgh City Council updated on their 'Mandarin in Schools' project, which is currently underway and involves native Mandarin speaking students from Edinburgh University visiting local primary schools to introduce aspects of Chinese language and culture to pupils. They are working directly with teachers who have some experience of Chinese or who have been through the immersion course offered by the Confucius Hub. Since starting the project, two students have had to drop out due to course commitments, but on the whole the initiative is going very well and schools are using their Chinese volunteers in a variety of creative ways. St Thomas of Aquinas Primary are doing work around health and wellbeing, including Tai Chi sessions, while Sighthill Primary are focussing on religion and festivals.

Feedback from pupils has been very positive so far, with one pupil stating "It's cool to learn new words in Mandarin and draw the symbols," while teachers have also given their feedback, including "the benefits of having a native speaker in the classroom are huge: you can't get that anywhere else."

Liz hopes that the project will prove sustainable and continue in future. She will provide a further update at the next meeting.

Jie Chen, Business Development Manager at the Confucius Institute for Scotland at the University of Edinburgh followed Liz with an update about a recent trip to Hanban in China, in which funding was secured for three new Confucius Hubs in Scotland. Funding has also been offered to develop eBook resources to support the early learning of Chinese. There is additional information on these and other developments on the Confucius Institute website.

Kate Walker, head of the British Council's work in Scotland, then informed SCEN members of a new British Council initiative that is matching Hong Kong schools with Scottish head teachers to explore and enhance leadership.  The project isn't currently language specific, but she hopes that more projects will spin off from the initial pairing in future. Also, with support from the First Minister the council has made a push to encourage more applications from Chinese Language Assistants.

The meeting was then brought to a close by Judith McClure, who ended by thanking all speakers for their thought-provoking contributions, and also Lasswade High School for generously hosting the event and providing delicious refreshments.

See the SCEN website,, for details of our next exciting SCEN events in May, June and September!

By Hilary Wardle, SCEN Correspondent.