In December, Education Secretary Justine Greening led a small delegation to the latest UK China Education Summit in Shanghai, part of the wider UK China ‘People to People Dialogue’.
When arriving in China you anticipate striking differences in our two education systems, given our very different histories and political cultures. This is no doubt the case in many areas of education policy and practice, but in technical and professional education, through the four summits I have taken part in, I’ve become increasingly struck by the extent of shared concerns and similarities of approach between China and the UK.
When the Summits began, in 2012, university and school education were the predominant themes, but on this occasion the greatest attention in the formal ministerial summit was given to technical and professional education. In both nations it seems that the critical role of this sector in increasing prosperity, productivity and social equity is being recognised. For those of us involved in this field, such recognition may feel somewhat belated, but it is nonetheless welcome.
In China there is considerable interest in the UK’s emerging apprenticeship model. The fact that this model is still being built might make it more appealing to the Chinese for study on an exchange visit than a finished model. An apprenticeship system, and indeed an overall skills system, must be related to the prevailing national business model and economic system. Tracking and learning from a system that is in transition is arguably at least as valuable as looking at one that is in stasis. This cuts both ways as the Chinese seek also to both upgrade and develop their technical and professional education system with the conversion of a significant number of existing universities into ‘applied universities.’
The relatively new English Skills Plan provided a good basis to explain intended policy changes in England, but I’m not sure I came away with a solid understanding of parallel developments in China. This wasn’t down to a lack of openness but lack of time for mutual exchange. For this reason, I think a more dedicated and consistent Further Education policy exchange similar to that established for schools policy would be useful.
I’m also pleased that Yufeng Liu, a senior official from the Chinese Ministry of Education, has come to the IOE as a visiting scholar to research our apprenticeship system. From our early conversations, her work clearly builds upon sentiment expressed at the Summit aimed at making Chinese technical and professional education more directly responsive to employers at the local, regional and national levels; the parallels with the intentions of the Skills Plan published by Government in the Autumn of last year and building upon the recommendations of the report on technical education by a panel led by Lord Sainsbury, are clear, not least in terms of the balance to be struck between the three levels in relation to apprenticeships.
As well as a dedicated policy exchange and academic study, I think also that the existing Principals’ Shadowing Programme, operated by the Association of Colleges, with the support of the British Council offers a powerful means of building mutual understanding. From shadowing visits that have already taken place, it is clear that sharing leadership approaches to institutional autonomy and enterprise have been particularly interesting and revealing. The shadowing has already resulted in further work in Nanjing Province looking at the way in which a local skills ecosystem can be built between employers and colleges in order to meet the needs of the port and logistics industry in this rapidly growing city
The Shadowing Programme might also prove a useful vehicle to take forward a new theme identified by the Chinese Minister at the Summit – community adult education. The irony of this issue being raised at an international conference won’t be lost on those in the UK who have kept alive the flame of adult education in the face of swingeing cuts in funding over long periods of time. The Chinese have recognised what such stalwarts as Alan Tuckett, Peter Lavender, Tom Schuller and colleagues like Sam Duncan at IOE have been saying for so many years – that we have an ageing population where people may need to change occupations many times, where lifelong learning will be essential, and where community cohesion may be harder and harder to maintain without adequate funding for and interest in adult education from policy makers.
Finally, a thought on maths and English. With the current focus on literacy and numeracy teaching in colleges, and with Sir Adrian Smith’s review of post-16 maths teaching, is there anything we might learn from China? Or that they can learn from us – for instance in terms of teaching that is contextualized within technical studies. Being open to reciprocal lessons that might be learned is at the heart of mutually profitable exchange.
Globalisation is getting a bad press at present but it’s not all bad!
 I actually prefer ‘through life learning’ to ‘lifelong learning’; the latter makes me think of a punitive sentence rather than something that is progressive.