Elizabeth Truss on increasing the number of pupils studying Mandarin

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss speaks about increasing the number of children studying Mandarin.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

I am absolutely delighted to be here at the Confucius Institute to open today’s conference and see Minister Counsellor Shen Yang and colleagues from Peking University supporting the conference.

It’s fair to say that the Confucius Institute has made very strong progress, and I’d like to congratulate Chris Husbands and Katharine Carruthers for their work in getting this off the ground.

After all that is in the very spirit of Confucius himself - born in 551 BC - who believed in persistence and hard work, in the importance of education and self improvement. Even though it was important then, it’s even more important now - in the age of technology - where we know that education is becoming vital to our future society and economy. It is important that the belief in the power of education is widespread and applied to every child.

Earlier this year I visited China for the first time - Wuhan, Shanghai and Beijing. Some decide to visit the Great Wall. Others go to see the Bund. I decided to visit maths classes.

Amazingly, maths classes are not on TripAdvisor’s list of attractions. I and the delegation of teachers and experts that I brought from England found them fascinating.

I was struck by the strong belief in the importance of persistence - the idea that all students could and would master the core ideas of each subject, even if they needed a little more time to get there.

I also noted the systematic way that teachers sought to learn and improve their practice.

I was delighted that the headteachers on the visit who are some of the best in the country - felt that they could learn from the approaches use as well as work in partnership with their Chinese counterparts.

The importance of mastery

This idea of mastery is starting to take hold in classrooms in England. Led by evidence of what works, teachers and schools have sought out these programmes and techniques that have been pioneered in China and East Asia.

At Westminster Academy, for example, they have transformed the way they teach through the Singapore approach - its bar method which imparts a deep understanding of number and the practice of whole-class teaching with regular feedback to pick up students who don’t understand.

With the Ark Schools Maths Mastery programme, more than 100 primary and secondary schools have joined forces to transform their pupils’ experiences of maths - and more are joining all the time. It’s a whole school programme focused on setting high expectations for all pupils - not believing that some just can’t do it. The programme has already achieved excellent results in other countries.

In the past, there has been too much what I call ‘false differentiation’, where different parts of the class are taught different things. Where a failure to get a concept or understand an idea would mean a student being put on a different track rather than being given the practice and assistance to catch up. Where material was sometimes covered superficially rather than properly understood and consolidated. This had the effect of diminishing the reach of good teaching whilst allowing children to fall behind. Expectations for too long were too low.

Far too often in this country, some children have been written off. We hear talk of a ‘forgotten 50%’. The idea of a ‘scrapheap’ has become a cliché in its own right.

In some of our best classrooms and in China, there is no assumption, from the off, that some should be separated and given less demanding work. Chinese teaching combines very high expectations of students with sharp accountability for teachers and strong analysis of why students didn’t understand the work and how they could be helped to keep up with the rest of the class.

As the Confucius saying goes: “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”

Another key feature is the belief in continuous improvement. Through teacher researchers - teaching techniques are evaluated and honed and best practice shared between teachers.

The success of this approach cannot be just seen in Shanghai’s results but also in Singapore, Korea and elsewhere.

Through maths hubs and Confucius classrooms - 2 complementary programmes that involve in depth work and close collaboration with China - we can benefit from this approach. It’s not about cherry-picking methods or techniques. It is the underlying philosophy that is so vital.

Maths hubs

We are setting up 30 maths hubs across the country. There has been huge interest from schools, with hundreds of applications from the top schools in the country.

With these innovative hubs, we want to improve the quality of maths teaching across the country, to transform the way maths is taught by learning from the very best around the world, and to dramatically increase the number of young people continuing to study maths beyond 16.

We are working with schools in Shanghai and Shanghai University on a programme to achieve this.

From September, 2 teachers from every hub, starting with primary schools, will spend time in Shanghai schools experiencing their outstanding practice first hand. And top maths teachers from Shanghai will then be embedded in English schools to support them in transforming the way they teach maths.

These hubs will commence operations from September, and every school in England will have access to their local hub for advice and expertise.

Confucius programme

And we’re taking steps to ensure that more English children than ever before can learn Mandarin. Think of the huge intellectual benefits.

It requires mastery of quite different sounds and script. Students have to hone their listening skills, and learn to decipher characters totally different to anything they’ve used before.

I was interested to see in China that children were learning both Pinyin and the characters of Mandarin. It is a difficult language even if you are a native speaker. But it opens the door to another world. Access to the largest consumer market on the globe. Business opportunities galore. About a quarter of all internet usage is already in Mandarin. Just a few weeks ago, the Chinese government launched its first-ever guide to expanding abroad, which focused on Britain as an outlet for high-quality investment.

A survey of businesses found that Mandarin came second only to French as a language skill they want in future employees.

That’s why the Prime Minister’s ambition to double the number of Mandarin learners by 2020 is so important.

That’s why I am delighted to support the IoE Confucius Institute - in partnership with Hanban - as “a world leading centre for Chinese outside China”. The Confucius Institute and its network of Confucius classrooms will put in place a strong infrastructure for Mandarin.

These plans will help to drive up the numbers of new Mandarin teachers trained by 2019 - so that as many as 160 graduates each year qualify.

As well as specialist teachers, we want to see an increase in other teachers who can offer Mandarin. Current plans mean the number of those teachers will rise to 1,200 by 2019, up from 263 last year.

This will mean the doubling the number of students taking Mandarin within 3 years and doubling it again within 6.

The new boost will bring a huge improvement on the current position. At the moment, only about 3% of primary schools, 8% of state secondary schools and 10% of independent schools offer pupils the opportunity to learn Chinese as a curriculum subject.

We are already seeing improvements.

While the EBacc encourages pupils to take a language at GCSE - and we’ve seen an increase in Mandarin GCSEs, so that now about 3,000 pupils each year take the GCSE.

And we’ve also increased bursaries - so that we get the best Mandarin graduates into schools - with up to £20,000 available for teacher training for the best candidates.

What improvement we will see

We already see great work from the Confucius classrooms. From Northumberland to Southampton and from Plymouth to King’s Lynn - and from reception to sixth form - the work Confucius classrooms do, bringing expertise and support to other schools, is as valuable as the teaching they do in their own schools.

I recently visited the Confucius Classroom of the Year - at Dartford Grammar School - and saw a teacher called Paul Tyskerud teaching a class of 11-year-olds. It was nearly all conducted in Mandarin. The children were talking about which sort of pork noodles their grandmother preferred and were able to engage in conversation. All after only 2 terms of study.

Imagine if those students had started learning Mandarin at age 7, how fluent their Mandarin would be by age 11 and 16. That’s our intention with the new languages curriculum offering Mandarin from age 7. By the time they leave school they will be able to converse and do business. A huge asset.


I hope that both the maths programmes and our work with the Confucius Institute will allow English and Chinese schools and teachers to work much more closely together - sharing techniques, sharing experience, combining the best of both countries to achieve more for everyone.

I know that there are elements of our education system which China is keen to learn from. And likewise, as I said earlier, I think there’s a lot we can learn from China. The belief in the power of education. That everyone can master both their subject and their own destiny. That we all have it in us to improve.

So thank you again for inviting me here today.

And I wish the Institute of Education Confucius Institute and all of the Confucius classrooms the very best of luck for the future.

Thank you.

Published 6 June 2014