UK  premier David Cameron at a primary school  in Chengdu on Wednesday
UK premier David Cameron at a primary school in Chengdu on Wednesday

Schools should stop teaching children so much French and German and focus instead on Mandarin, David Cameron said on his return from a three-day trip to China.

Although the prime minister helped sign trade deals worth about £6bn during the visit, he warned that Britain risked losing out in the long run by continuing to prioritise European languages.

Mr Cameron said: “I want Britain linked up to the world’s fast growing economies. And that includes our young people learning the languages to seal tomorrow’s business deals.

“By the time the children born today leave school, China is set to be the world’s largest economy. So it’s time to look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin.”

The prime minister spent the final day of his tour in Chengdu, where he announced measures to boost Mandarin studies in the UK.

The British Council and the Hanban, the Chinese office for teaching Mandarin as a foreign language, have signed an agreement to double the number of Chinese language assistants by 2016. The government will also fund a greater proportion of what schools pay to teach the language.

The two organisations will also fund 60 headteachers to go on study visits to China in 2014, with the aim of doubling the number of Mandarin learners to 400,000.

Despite efforts by the British Council and UK-based Confucius Institutes to increase the uptake, Mandarin teaching has only taken off in a small minority of schools. A YouGov poll last year suggested that just 3 per cent of primaries and 9 per cent of secondaries were offering lessons in the language. Two per cent of schools said they had started classes but withdrawn them.

But Mr Cameron’s focus is not just limited to language teaching. He also announced that British maths teachers will go to China to investigate maths and science teaching, hoping that they can learn from successes that this week saw Shanghai teenagers soar ahead of students from other countries in the OECD’s Pisa rankings.

The British Council has also agreed to teach 50,000 English teachers in China over the next three years. The announcements shift the focus of Mr Cameron’s trip from immediate dealmaking to longer-term planning for what the UK should do to adapt to the reality of China as an economic powerhouse.

The three days in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu saw various deals signed, from Jaguar Land Rover cars, to folding bicycles, to pig exports. But the most important element of the visit was the fact that it happened at all. British ministers have, for the past 18 months, failed to arrange bilateral meetings with their Chinese counterparts, with the UK in the doghouse after Mr Cameron met the Dalai Lama in London.

The UK prime minister’s visit was meant to heal that rift, so he was delighted when Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, called the bilateral relationship “indispensable”.

The diplomatic slog, which included three meetings in Beijing on the first day, appeared to have backfired when the Global Times, a Communist newspaper, accused Mr Cameron of insincerity and irrelevance. But the prime minister got a glimpse of the tortuous internal workings of the Chinese government when the paper later published a piece insisting that previous disagreements should not be allowed to taint the country’s future partnership.

The last day of Mr Cameron’s visit – spent in Chengdu, one of China’s fastest growing cities – included a trip to the cottage that was once the home to Du Fu, China’s most famous poet. But even there, the prime minister kept the focus on the mercantilist aspect of his trip, saying: “It was said in 19th century America that if you wanted to see the future you should go west, and I think today the same could be applied to China.”


Little interest in Mandarin . . . unless your name is Boris

David Cameron’s exhortations for more UK schools to be teaching Mandarin has ramped up the pressure on long-running efforts to bring Chinese language lessons into England’s classrooms, writes Hellen Warrell.

Only six months after the 2010 election Michael Gove, education secretary, travelled to Beijing to sign an agreement with the Hanban – China’s language office – pledging training for 1,000 more Mandarin teachers to work in English secondary schools. Officials said at the time that there were only 100 qualified Mandarin teachers in England, and that the new staff would help UK pupils to compete in the increasingly globalised economy.

Despite these promises, the numbers of Britons studying Mandarin have actually decreased over the course of this government. Only 2,541 UK students took a GCSE in Mandarin in 2012, compared with 3,650 in 2010. As a comparison, 153,436 UK pupils sat French GCSE in 2012 while 57,547 took the German exam.

Earlier this year the British Council warned that the lack of Mandarin teaching was damaging the UK’s economic prospects. The organisation blamed a shortage of qualified Mandarin teachers and the “continued focus on traditional European languages”.

There is, however, one high-profile student doing his best to drive enthusiasm for the subject. London mayor Boris Johnson boasted on a visit to China two months ago that he was learning Mandarin.

Get alerts on UK when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article