A look at whether the Chinese Education system would work in the UK

Xian, and I can still taste the pollution

Xian, and I can still taste the pollution

It’s been a while since I left China. It’s become a mostly negative memory, a bit like looking back on a bad relationship and thinking yes it had it’s moments but, seriously, why did I stay that long?

There’s an interesting series just started on BBC (still on BBC iplayer if you’re in UK or have VPN) called Are Our KidsTough Enough, where British high school students are taught by Chinese teachers using Chinese methodology, to see what works best.

Chinese students are years ahead of British ones in maths and science, although it is also true that the Chinese study these subjects for many more hours than the British, usually to the detriment of arts and humanities. They also devote much less time to reading for pleasure or any other activity that could be called ‘leisure’.


In Chinese schools, the emphasis is on rote learning. As a Chinese student once told me, ‘the teacher gives us the knowledge and we write it down’. (However interesting to note in the programme that there were a few British students for whom rote learning worked better).


School hours in China are long, and when students are not at school they are taking extra tuition in maths, English or whatever else parents feel is needed, or they are doing homework or some kind of self-study.


Pressure is immense. It’s no coincidence that the suicide rate among teenagers is so high in China. Parents tell their offspring that if they fail their exams their life is effectively over anyway. In a society where there is no old-age pension and usually only one child to keep you in your old age, you need your son or daughter to earn a good salary.


Students rarely develop any viewpoints other than the one given to them by their parents or their teachers. They lack any ability in creative thinking. The Chinese system does not encourage critical thought. If you want your workforce highly educated but unable to think for themselves, then the Chinese system succeeds at that.


As to whether that will work with British kids, God I certainly hope not. I’d rather our schools were churning out emotionally intelligent adults (not that I think our schools succeed in doing that, but that’s a whole other article).

4 replies »

  1. Hi Sarah I saw this programme advertised and thought no, I am not even going there. For what it is worth I believe that not all education should be provided in the school setting and agree totally with you that children are being programmed and not living. But then again I have always had a cautious view of China’s culture in general. I shall leave it there! x

    • Yes I”m not a big fan and the more I saw of the Chinese system the more disillusioned I got with the whole thing. I was just trying not to say ‘Chinese bad, Western good’ because really i’m not a big believer in the UK system either.
      In a way the whole Chinese thing reminds me of a UK state education in the 60s. Lots of reciting multiplication tables, sitting up straight and not questioning what the teacher told us.

  2. I guess your comment on how the rote system did seem to work for some british students is most telling. From my experience, some Chinese students respond better to Western styles of teaching than others, it seems that it just isnt easy to find a way to teach the masses without potentially not being super-effective for each individual. And yes on the critical thinking part. If I ever go back to teaching in China, I’ll be sure to make that my main (maybe only?) subject. Keep up the writing!

    • Yes I think the programme is going to show (final episode is next week) that it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ thing.
      You should look out for the show if you see it anywhere on youtube or something; I think you’d find it funny. British kids being made to rally around the flag on a morning like China.
      I once taught a course for kids planning to go to school in US. We did some sample essay questions where they had to write an opinion and they couldn’t do it; instead they diligently copied down my sample answer despite my yelling ;’no this is my opinion, you write yours’.

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