Mandarin squeezed in tight school curriculum

By Geoff Cumming

Too few students learn Mandarin, says John Key. Photo / Greg Bowker
Too few students learn Mandarin, says John Key. Photo / Greg Bowker

Politicians and industry leaders may point to where our future lies but New Zealand schools, for the most part, seem in no hurry to get there.

Prime Minister John Key last year complained that the number of secondary school students learning Mandarin had only just overtaken the number learning Latin.

Mr Key urged young New Zealanders to improve their general understanding of Chinese culture and suggested a campaign was needed to have Mandarin taught in schools.

Only 101 of the country's 2500 schools offer Chinese language classes, many after school hours. While the number learning Mandarin has quadrupled in the past decade, to 10,230, progress has come from a very low base.

Schools cite good reasons for their slowness to embrace China - resourcing, lack of qualified teachers, a crowded curriculum and lack of demand from students and parents.

Most of those learning the language are at primary and intermediate schools, but only a third of pupils spend more than 30 hours a year on the subject and, in many cases, language is combined with broader cultural studies.

In secondary schools, the numbers have risen only slowly, to 2119 in 2010. The total has only just overtaken Latin (1786 last year) and trails German (5554), Spanish (10,970), Japanese (14,506), Maori (22,884) and French (23,858).

The Ministry of Education says equipping students to compete successfully in an ever-changing world is a key goal. Schools are encouraged to develop broad programmes about Asia and the Pacific Rim, says manager of secondary outcomes Tony Turnock.

Given its rapidly increasing importance in the region, schools may increasingly focus on China, he says.

The ministry's "Asia knowledge" website has resources for teachers. Curriculum resources concentrate on the significance of lantern festivals and the Beijing Olympics.

Information on history is sourced from the Chinese Government - you won't read about the Cultural Revolution here.

A ministry spokesman says the curriculum is deliberately non-prescriptive. "It's up to schools to deliver the curriculum in a way that suits the needs of their students and parents."

In this "hands-off" environment, it seems few school communities are heeding calls to prepare students for a future in which China is the global powerhouse.

Feedback from secondary school heads of departments highlights the challenges. A Colmar Brunton survey for Asia-New Zealand in 2009 drew responses from 258 heads of department at 73 schools. It found less than a quarter included Asia-specific topics or projects lasting several periods of study and only a third included Asian themes or contexts of any duration.

The department heads identified barriers including resources, availability of professional development, lack of curriculum opportunities and time constraints. They also cited a lack of demand from students and parents for lessons about China or Chinese language - suggesting communities are not convinced by calls to equip our young for an Asian future.

The response of one department head was revealing: "We do not have a large proportion of Asian students in our classes so I do not particularly promote the Asian aspect."

A shortage of New Zealand-qualified teachers is a problem for Mandarin lessons. Those fluent in the language say they cannot sustain a career by teaching a handful of classes a week.

Into this void has stepped the Chinese Government with $250,000 for the Confucius Institute, which aims to boost the number of Mandarin learners to 50,000 in five years.

Eighteen Chinese language assistants are now helping qualified teachers at 35 schools, 23 in Auckland.

"Not many New Zealand teachers have the skills to teach Mandarin or teach about China," says institute director Nora Yao. "We definitely need to get more qualified."

- NZ Herald

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