A for entertainment, F for accuracy

Updated: 2015-08-28 08:28

By Chris Peterson(China Daily Europe)

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A for entertainment, F for accuracy

The screenshot shows students's bad behavior at class in the BBC documentary,Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School.

BBC documentary series on China-UK education project is fun but flawed

It ran for three weeks, and triggered an avalanche of comments both in China and the UK. Debate rages about the merits of British education versus the Chinese system. Most of my friends and colleagues have watched it, and I have been glued to the screen.

The series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, has been described by critics and viewers variously as car-crash television, reality TV gone mad, an insult to both Chinese and UK teachers, and a superficial attempt to tackle an interesting question.

Me, I tend toward the car-crash television theory - you watch because you are waiting for the next bit of high drama.

One thing that did surprise me was that the three-part series was made in conjunction with Britain's Open University, which provides distance learning and off-campus study for tens of thousands of people in Britain, either those in work, or those who missed out on a traditional bricks and mortar educational career path. In other words, a serious educational establishment.

I should confess here and declare an interest - I am studying for a BA honours degree in History at the OU. But that's given me access to the members-only online debate that's been set off by this series.

And what a debate - over 30 pages of comments, averaging at least 10 comments per page, from OU students past and present, of all ages and from all backgrounds. I don't think I've seen such a reaction to a subject since I started my studies two years ago.

There are common themes running through the debate thread - outrage at the behavior of the students, harsh criticism for the apparent aloofness and remote attitudes of the Bohunt School staff members, disbelief at the disruptiveness of some students, disagreement over the accuracy of the Chinese and British systems as portrayed, and sympathy for the five Chinese teachers involved in the month-long project.

Sample comments:

"I watched with dismay this tosh (rubbish) on television."

"A dreadful, smug head."

"Uninspiring Chinese teachers."

"Merely lame 'edutainment' - the cameraman zoomed in on the pretty girls in the class."

"It does look as if the Chinese teachers were set up to fail, and reinforce the prejudices of the rather smug English teachers that our system is better."

"Chinese school students need more creativity and vitality, and British students need more perseverance and responsibility."

"I am appalled by this documentary. It is utterly unfair to put Chinese teachers into a British school to teach Year 9s."

"In Britain we seem to have turned education into a form of entertainment, a game that everybody wins."

"The Chinese teachers must have known to some extent what they were letting themselves in for."

"Students I teach from China can also be lazy and disrespectful, but express it in different ways - evasiveness, plagiarism and being uncooperative in class."

And the comments go on, and on, with a fair number of Chinese contributors as well as Britons.

From my perspective, I feel it is wholly wrong to portray this as a serious experiment - it only lasted for a month, and there was no attempt to mention any caveats.

We learn from the Chinese-language media that only two of the teachers were straight from the education system in China - the rest, it is said, have been living and teaching in the UK for several years. I can't vouch for the accuracy of that.

If you looked closely, the various students who were misbehaving and disruptive were all wearing discreet microphones clipped onto their polo shirts - the others did not. That raises strong doubts in my mind about the spontaneity of the scenes in class.

My wife, herself a product of a French education in her native Vietnam, came up with the word that summed up a lot of what the program was purporting to say. That word is "disconnect".

Disconnect in as much as it was clear the students, Chinese teachers and English teachers, as well as parents, had little or no understanding of what was happening.

If you take two totally separate societies and cultures and compare the two, of course there will be differences.

Point a camera at most teenagers, and they will for the most part act up.

I have been through a traditional English education, my daughters have done the same, and I am watching my two grandchildren navigate their way through the vagaries of the English primary system. Plus, my eldest daughter is a teacher, and she has never witnessed any scenes such as those depicted in these programs.

I work with Chinese colleagues here in London, and all are adamant that China's system is changing, and has been for the past decade.

Pause here for a smug, I-told-you-so moment. After the second episode aired, I firmly predicted to colleagues in the office that there would be a happy, Disney-like ending.

There was. The badly-behaved members of the class miraculously got their acts together, the Chinese teachers relaxed slightly, and in the final test between the English system and the Chinese method, China edged it. Self-conscious high-fives all round, with pupils admitting they had enjoyed it after all.

You couldn't have made it up. Well, if you were producing a three-part television series you could.

And here's a final thought - if the British education system is so lacking, why do thousands of Chinese students come here to sample its sixth-form colleges and universities?

I have the overwhelming feeling that what the producers were looking for was sensational tabloid-style television. Fine, but please don't present it as a serious study.

A bit like comparing chalk and cheese, really.

The author is managing editor of Europe for China Daily.