Full of Eastern Promise – reviewing a school in China


Once a year, I am fortunate enough to be asked to be part of the annual review team for our sister schools in China. Although my primary role is to quality-assure the boarding provision, the team has a shared focus on teaching and learning, safeguarding, leadership and the extra-curricular offering. It is, essentially, an inspection and the best cultural and professional development I get all year, not to mention a change of scene at what can be a niggly time in the run-up to Easter.

No sooner are we in China and in the cramped Buick on the road south from Beijing to Tianjin, than the familiar dull, claggy air takes up residence in my nostrils and the roof of the back of my throat. Tianjin is home to over 14 million people (vaster than London but not a patch on some other Chinese cities) and can suffer from some of the worst pollution in the world. No wonder the Chinese spend half their time hacking up rheum from their throats and expectorating it on the ground, as happened behind me in airport security. Strike one for cultural relativism. Today was not the acrid, poisonous smog of high pollution days, but more an olfactory manifestation of the gloomy grey film through which the view all around is experienced.



Tianjin – bigger than London (and a bigger wheel!)

Arriving in the familiar hotel brings a jaded nostalgia. It is the loop of music which does it and which I had anticipated before leaving. A sense of belonging and yet longing. I miss my family more than I had imagined I would and the wide-eyed enthusiasm of previous stays has been superseded by the stingy eyes of the traveller: close cousin to aeroplane bad breath and the seemingly unavoidable feeling of fat which comes from the sedentary consumption of flying. The stale cigarette smell of the carpet does not help. I wonder when they banned smoking indoors here.

Governance and School groups

Our first day is very much acclimatisation and some last minute reading ahead of a team meeting which focuses on last year’s report and how we might expect things to have developed. For three of us, it will be a direct comparison whilst we also have two new members on the team: one current secondary head and a former head-turned-SLT and governance advisor. For a mere middle leader such as me, you can imagine how much wisdom there may be to gain and I tried to be on listening mode as much as possible – good preparation for the job ahead. Those unacquainted with our group of schools raise some challenging questions about governance and leadership; of most interest was how a seemingly ever-growing group of schools can maintain a coherent vision and set of values and yet retain individualism and cater for their own specific markets. This touches on the question of franchising and branding – an area I am increasingly finding fascinating. In some respects, it may be useful to treat the group like an MAT (multi-academy trust), with each school being individual and equal.

Whoever decided that 7am was a reasonable hour to be setting off on day one of the review was clearly keen to get their pound of flesh. With me staring down an 8pm finish in the boarding house, things looked bleak. However, the sun was shining and once we got started, we quickly found a rhythm. A whole-school review does develop something of a rhythm: as you observe lessons, engage a variety of staff in conversation and watch children interact, patterns emerge which crystallise and clarify as the hours and days go on. Our lead inspector has a wonderfully calm and measured way about him and was quick to encourage us just to observe and allow our instinct to breathe. There is time for scrutinising further on days two and three and team meetings become more about digging deeper, ‘drilling down’ ( a phrase which has become what we in schools do with data) and picking up on areas where there is a lack of clarity or consistency. The information becomes a web, where a comment made in one area opens up a new line of enquiry in a wholly different aspect of school life. Once again, in terms of learning, I cannot imagine a better way to reflect on all aspects of school life. Above all, what always seems to come out in the wash is that without a precise, defined direction, articulated by the leaders, a school becomes fragmented and people tend to perform in isolation (the word ‘silo’ is often used to describe this), which means that children are left unsure of quite what to expect – not something you pick up if you are only focused on delivering your own lessons and activities.

Boarding – it’s about the people, not the place

It was a joy to revisit the boarders whose accommodation is named after my own house back in leafy Berkshire and there could not be more of a contrast: where my fifty-odd boys look out from their Victorian mansion over a large garden into a pine forest, the denizens of Tianjin’s modern apartment block -mostly coming from China – have the delights of a pair of newly-erected, forty-storey tower blocks and a shopping mall which is bathed in psychedelic light even after their lights-out. Each actually has its own charm: my boys would kill for the en-suites and having boys and girls together lends a lovely atmosphere, whilst the privilege of not having to worry about the pollution index might give the UK the edge. A hilarious (yet necessary) new development is the fire escape harness and rope which the Chinese boarders trained to use on World Book Day. Photos of Macbeth and Where’s Wanda (the houseparents) swinging from the windows suggest this was one of the more memorable CPD sessions. Despite all the differences in background, I was reminded that kids are kids and it was nice to know the warmth and energy I had left behind was being replicated 8000 miles away.

Culture Shock

The rate of building development in China is staggering. Apparently if the municipality stopped all construction tomorrow, there would be enough housing for the population until 2048, and yet the high-rises still pop up like spores as the administration cannot afford the unemployment. As one might expect in a communist country, you can see many uniformed people whose job it appears is merely to usher you to nowhere and to check your papers in the most cursory of ways. But it is certainly not oppressive. In fact, China is probably the safest I have felt wandering around in a foreign country. As long as you can cope with the odd old man noisily coughing up some accumulated phlegm, and don’t expect traffic to stop at red lights or zebra crossings, you’ll largely be ok, and for women, too. Do watch out for electric shocks, though. I got a particularly nasty one from one of the newer bridges, but was told that if you carry a battery in your pocket, you’ll be ok. If anyone can affirm this old-wives’ tale, I’d be grateful!


The last place I thought I’d see Dante

One of the great displays of equality was on show on the Friday night when we walked along the river to the ‘Italian-style town’ – a bizarre reconstruction of the old Italian concession from the days of empire, complete with statues of Dante, and Marco Polo atop a camel. As we walked on the generous pedestrianised riverbank, we encountered regiments of po-faced men and women square dancing to electropop as if in some esoteric military exercise. Not exactly my taste, but a nice age and gender balance which says something for the progressiveness of Chinese contemporary society. Of course, you can also still see fishermen casting for what must be some pretty unhealthy catches, several tai-chi and mah-jong enthusiasts, middle-aged men playing keepie-uppie with a shuttlecock of sorts, and my favourite characters – the men whose morning routine is to bellow across the river at the top of their lungs. I don’t know why.

Traditional Chinese Medicine – a new look at staff wellbeing!

I think I am getting more open to new things in my old-age. I can’t say I’ll be going back for more dried jellyfish with my salad, but I’m glad I tried. More so than my colleague who thought he was getting a cream brioche with white chocolate shavings, only to realise the chocolate was fish flakes – not good with your morning coffee. Disappointingly, the bullfrog curry we ordered at a thai restaurant failed to arrive. Not strictly part of the review (but I suppose it could be classed as ‘staff wellbeing’) was a session of traditional Chinese medicine offered to the common room. I listened in to a lecture on how too much sweet food would damage my spleen, and too much sour food would damage my liver, before being subjected to torture treatment at the hands of some visiting doctors (well, they had white coats on). First, I had cupping, which I thought was something else entirely, hence the vanity screen. Made to lie on my front, with shirt off, the kind doctor placed a series of glass yoghurt pots on my back which were apparently designed to suck the bad blood to the surface and to realign the ‘meridians’ of my body, getting my chi back in balance. Well, I hadn’t been aware that my chi was totally out-of-whack, but I do know I’ll be getting some questions about the welts on my back when I get home. Secondly, I had a head massage which was a bit like that Meryl Streep scene in ‘Death Becomes Her’ when she stretches her neck three times its length. Of course, I shook his hand, bowed and said thanks before getting a repeat dose, plus full back-cracking from medicine man number three. I left the acupuncture for others and returned, a shadow of my former self, to the relative tranquillity of the first drafting stages of the review.


Not yet fully convinced about Chinese medicine


The Korean approach

Cultural difference is obviously something unavoidable when you set up shop in a foreign country. Tianjin has a large Korean population, whose views on education are significantly at variance with current UK thinking. Lots of work is going into helping Korean families understand the student-centred, independent-thinking model, yet despite having chosen an international school for their children, the average Korean boy or girl would still be attending ‘academy’ – three extra hours of tutoring away from school, before even attempting their set homework. What is more, the rigid social hierarchy of the Koreans can also cause social issues in school. I spoke to one year 8 boy who had been found bullying another child – the roots of this stemming from the fact his father is extremely well-respected and the so the boy himself expected to be top-of-the-tree. I was encouraged to hear him speak positively about how the restorative approach the school took had helped him understand the victim and developed his empathy. Another case had a less happy ending, when another Korean boy was disciplined by the school and the ensuing shame he brought on his family within the community led to not only public humiliation for him but a loss of face in his father’s workplace and ultimately a return to Korea for the boy and his mother, effectively splitting the family. One perhaps hopes that by exposing young people to a range of social backgrounds and ways of learning that a more open-minded, tolerant approach develops in the future. It certainly raised some pertinent ethical and educational questions in my mind, further developed by my reading of Lucy Crehan’s excellent Clever Lands.


Tiananmen Square

By the time we came to deliver our oral judgements on Friday, I think we were all ready for a bit of a break before flying home. Although this was my third trip to China, I had not visited the capital yet and so we made arrangements for our last day there. Although it did end up being a bit of a box-ticking exercise, visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City was well worth the bother of queuing and taking on the metro. It was nice to experience some culture after three full days in and out of a boardroom. Tiananmen was as expected – vast and full of red flags and uniforms, whilst the ancient palace of the emperors definitely delivered. I think I even discovered a name for our new English Department – I’m not sure which is better – ‘The Hall of Literary Brilliance’ or ‘The Pavilion of Literary Profundity’. I might even re-name my office along the lines of the ‘Chamber of the perpetual email’ or ‘Spiritual Hall of the unmarked essay’.


What better name for our new English department?

We ended in full ‘Brits-abroad’ mode. Some haggling in the silk market and dinner of burger and chips in a taphouse which could have been anywhere in the world. I even sneaked into an Irish pub nearby to catch a bit of rugby and football. Well, you’ve got to prepare for coming home somehow, that’s my story, anyway.

Don’t stop learning

What did I learn? That time away from the day job is immensely valuable to allow you to think and get a different perspective on things. I’m also looking forward to seeing how well my own boarding house runs in my absence and what feedback my assistant has (he will have gained from the experience, too). Also, that if you get the chance to perform a review, take it. Interrogating how a school runs at all levels is amazing learning, as is spending time talking to, and more importantly, listening to, experienced school leaders from a range of backgrounds. I have also made some very useful contacts to whom I know I will turn for advice in the future. And just remembering to take chances when they come along. Little did I expect I’d be jetting around the world when I applied to be a housemaster, but I am grateful for the opportunity.






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