Education Matters: We must learn from international school partners

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School with members of a school squash team

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School with members of a school squash team - Credit: cont

One of the least dazzling moments in my decidedly unstellar school career was studying A-level French, writes headteacher Geoff Barton.

I chose the course because I’d achieved one of my few decent grades in the subject at O-level. Somehow I had scraped a B. I got nothing higher in any other course.

So I opted for French chiefly because my other choices were limited by a failure to achieve the sixth form entry requirements but partly for more pragmatic reasons. My parents were going through a shortlived flirtation with caravanning holidays in obscure outposts of rural France. I perhaps thought an A-level in French might help me engage in late-night badinage in village bistros or at least help me in ordering another croque monsieur.

In reality, the study of heavyweight 19th Century French authors never proved particularly handy. In any case, I hadn’t actually studied them.

Our teacher planned most lessons around an interminable diet of reading through these classic works. We all dutifully sat with our French texts on our desks and, one by one, we had to translate them aloud while the rest of the group listened in stupefied mock-interest.

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I found the task as humiliating as it was difficult. I just couldn’t manage that kind of spontaneous translation. So I was delighted when one of my friends hit upon a shortcut. In those innocent pre-internet days, he discovered that Penguin Classics published English translations of our French set-texts.

Thus we sat with the French text on our desk, the English translation held furtively below, and we bluffed our way through translation. We’d pretend that it was us – rather than a scholarly translator – who came out with sentences like this: ‘MADAME VATJQUER, nee de Conflans, is an old lady who for forty years has kept a second-class boarding-house in Paris, in the Rue Neuve Sainte-Genevieve, between the Latin quarter and the faubourg Saint-Marceau’.

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Looking back, it was pathetic and perhaps helps to explain why I failed my French A-level. I got an N – the euphemistic ‘near miss’ that used to be wedged between grades E and U.

I haven’t improved much since. For example, my Chinese speaking skills are limited. It’s a massively complicated language to learn, reliant on subtle changes of intonation that are almost imperceptible to many westerners.

But two weeks ago I found myself making a brief and stumbling speech in Mandarin. I was in Shanghai for three days as a guest of our partners school and local government officials.

We were signing an agreement to take the links between our two schools into their tenth year of fruitful inter-cultural learning. I’d asked a fluent speaker to record my message in Mandarin which I then laboriously transcribed into a phonetic English approximation.

Judging by the generous reaction of my audience, the speech just about worked. With characteristic politeness Chinese teachers and officials nodded indulgently, laughed in the right places, and thanked me for making an effort.

Our partnership project will now gain greater ambition, with more of our students heading to Shanghai each year and more of their students visiting us. We are exploring a teacher exchange programme, a specialist focus on maths teaching, shared video resources of teaching styles, and an exciting new intern programme for students between the sixth form and university.

But what our Chinese partners would really want is for more of their students to visit us, with, perhaps, a stint at our school in Suffolk, another in the USA and a further one in Australia.

This is a vision of breathtaking boldness and I flew home thinking of that Chinese educational mission. They are determined to build creativity in their students, to develop leadership, and to inculcate a truly international view of the world.

That’s our aim as a school too.

It’s such a contrast to our own government’s policies for schools which so often feel insular, uncreative and locked in a vision of the world as it was rather than how it could be.

Me – I’m with our Shanghai partners on this. I couldn’t be prouder that we’re working with a top school in the world’s top performing city – even if I still can’t say so in French or Chinese.

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