Children wait to perform at a ceremony for the new French International School in Beijing, 19 October. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Beijing: Inside the private schools educating China’s elite

In recent years the number of private schools catering to Chinese nationals has grown rapidly. A Chinese-owned chain offering a Canadian curriculum dominates, with more than 30 schools across the country.

A few exits north of Beijing Airport, it seems a village has been torn down with no particular plan in mind. Beyond a half-collapsed brick wall lies a rubble-strewn patchwork of foundations – the footprints of traditional single-storey courtyard houses – that stretches on for several hundred yards. At the far corner of the abandoned village is a surprising sight: a tidy quadrangle of red-brick buildings stands behind a wrought-iron fence, looking like the Hollywood set of a school. Against the relentless grey of suburban Beijing, the grass lawns are so green they appear lit from within.

This is Keystone Academy, whose website boasts that the school will nurture the emergence of “the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of China”, tapping in to the ambitions of the country’s new elite. Such schools are wary of journalists, so I posed as a prospective parent to take a look inside. Keystone Academy is modelled on a New England boarding school, and says it uses the same curriculum as Sidwell Friends, where Barack Obama’s daughters study. It is the brainchild of well-connected private investors, and it charges fees of up to £25,000 a year, roughly six times the per-capita income in China.

Standing in front of a conference table strewn with candy-coloured luxury bags and tablets, the head of admissions explained the benefits of Keystone’s extra-curricular activities, including a swimming programme taught by a pair of Olympic gold medallists. Fathers peered at smartphones; mothers in thick mascara, pressed jeans and rhinestone-encrusted platform Chuck Taylors snapped pictures of the PowerPoint presentation. A woman in a red leather jacket clutched my arm and earnestly told me how lucky I am not to be Chinese.

“You have other choices,” she said. “For us it is just this.”

The “us” she was referring to are wealthy Chinese passport-holders. Since 2005, UK public schools including Harrow and Dulwich College have opened satellite schools in China, but these are open only to students with a foreign passport. Chinese nationals can study an international curriculum at a private school, but only at the same time as they follow the Chinese programme.

In recent years the number of private schools catering to Chinese nationals has grown rapidly. A Chinese-owned chain offering a Canadian curriculum dominates, with more than 30 schools across the country. Schools offering British, Australian and US curriculums are also popular.

An educational arms race has developed. One school has outdoor fields shielded by a football-pitch-sized dome, intended to filter out the Beijing smog. Administrators from elite New England prep schools are installed at private Chinese academies with the kind of pomp usually reserved for the pandas the government donates to zoos overseas.

The people I met at the Keystone Academy open day are in many ways privileged. State schools are so crowded that parents will pay hundreds of dollars to secure front-row seats for their children, in the hope that teachers will notice them. For the children of migrant workers, substandard illegal schools are often the only option.

Yet wealthy Chinese still face a stark choice. They can send their kids to local schools, where young lives are consumed by days and nights memorising enough information to compete with the ten million candidates who sit each year for the gaokao, the gruelling national college entrance exam that a third of all students fail. Or they can send them to one of the new crop of schools, such as Keystone.

Despite the apparent emphasis the private schools place on encouraging free thinking, there will be many questions that students cannot answer, and that teachers won’t ask. Under law, discussion will veer around certain topics. School libraries will not stock history books that mention events that shaped the lives of parents and grandparents: Tiananmen Square, the Great Leap Forward, the famine that ensued. If topics of equality and justice arise, there will be no mention of the wealth accumulated by the families of the most powerful men in the Communist Party. Students will learn subjects such as Chinese handicrafts and dance, but this will not be enough to bind them to their national culture and heritage.

Although the population of school graduates grows each year, the number of pupils sitting the gaokao has remained steady as ever more students opt out. Few private-school students will take their gaokao, knowing that they are unlikely to pass. They will have no choice but to study abroad and return as outsiders. There will be so much they know, yet they will never be allowed to say. 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt