Chinese: A Growing Rival to French in UK Schools?

Chinese is gaining popularity as a modern foreign language in UK state and independent schools as China’s global influence grows. Here, looks at how and why students are increasingly looking to master Mandarin Chinese in classrooms across the UK today.
Chinese: A Growing Rival to French in UK Schools?
By Carli Allan
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Kensington Wade is the first prep school in the UK to offer a bilingual English-Chinese education.

Mandarin Chinese - it is the most widely spoken first language in the world. Is it any surprise then to see the growth of Chinese language in classrooms across the UK.

In the past decade, Chinese has become increasingly popular at GCSE and A Level, with rising numbers of UK schools now teaching the subject to non-native speakers as part of the curriculum. There are over 6,000 students in over 70 state schools studying Chinese from Year 7 through to GCSE, and it’s taught in 22% of independent schools as a full curriculum subject at Key Stage 3. 

The UK’s education sector is responding to the growing demand for Chinese language skills in the global job market. The UK government is investing over £10 million in teaching Chinese in secondary state schools, select independent schools have made Chinese a compulsory subject, and the country’s first bilingual prep school has opened in London. 

Mandarin Chinese in UK state schools

The UK government has identified Chinese as one of the most important languages for the UK’s future. In 2017, it founded the Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP), an intensive language funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Council. Students on the programme study eight hours of Mandarin Chinese every week - including four hours of classroom taught lessons - from Year 7 through to Year 11. 

Prior to the MEP, Mandarin Chinese had been taught in only a small number of English state schools. Today, the DfE has exceeded its original target to get 5,000 students on track to fluency by 2020, and the MEP has been extended until 2024 with plans to expand its participation from 79 schools to 100.

Participating schools are among the academically top performing state schools in the country, with a high percentage being grammar and faith schools. The schools need to have an Ofsted rating of Good or Outstanding and be able to select a minimum annual cohort of 20 children into the Programme in Year 7. 

The DfE says:

“Learning Mandarin has the opportunity to open up a wealth of opportunities to students, and it is the most widely spoken first language in the world. Given China's huge strategic importance to the UK and the importance of education in developing that wider relationship, we want to boost the number of schools teaching Chinese and the number of pupils studying it.”

Mandarin Chinese in UK independent schools

There are many independent schools now offering Chinese as part of their modern languages programme to non-native speakers; it’s also popular with native-speaking boarders coming to the UK from countries including Hong Kong, mainland China and Singapore.

Brighton College introduced Chinese in 2006 and became the first public school to make lessons compulsory from the age of four. Last year, 40 Brighton College students took Chinese GCSE, compared to 86 in French, 55 in Spanish and 14 in German; 95% of the cohort achieved the top Grade 9 in their Chinese GCSE. 

In other examples, Chinese is compulsory from Year 7 at St Mary’s Calne and can be studied through to A Level; Sevenoaks School offers Mandarin Chinese to Years 8-11 and then as part of the IB Diploma Programme, and Gresham’s offers Mandarin Chinese at GCSE, A Level and in the IBDP. Benenden School has been teaching Chinese to non-native speakers for 12 years, and says that “the number of pupils is growing as the subject becomes more popular and embedded in the life of the School”.

Many of these schools are seeing students (non-native speakers) applying to read Chinese or Oriental/Asian Studies courses at Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities.  

Kensington Wade is a bilingual nursery and prep day school offering a English-Chinese education for children aged three to 11.

There is also just one bilingual school teaching Mandarin Chinese in the UK. Located in central London, Kensington Wade is a bilingual nursery and prep day school offering a English-Chinese education for children aged three to 11. It is the first of its kind in the UK to teach Chinese as a bilingual subject.

Opened in 2017, this is a small school of around 100 students that combines a traditional British early years and prep school curriculum with a Chinese education that works towards fluency. It’s attracting parents from various backgrounds, but all described by the school as “forward-thinking with an international outlook”. 

Principal Jo Wallace explains its bilingual model.

“Kensington Wade is first and foremost an English prep school that prepares children for entry into top senior schools. We do more mathematics and English than most other prep schools but also have a broad curriculum, high quality specialist teaching and an extensive co-curricular programme. On top of this, we give children a huge advantage – fluency in Mandarin!

"By being in our immersive environment, the children are spending hours of their day switching between languages and the effect of this is to turbo-boost their cognitive, social and emotional skills too. This gives children benefits in problem-solving, task-switching, working in a group, negotiation skills and empathy – all the skills that employers, Oxbridge colleges and, increasingly, 11+ assessors are looking for.”

There are many practical and compelling reasons to study Mandarin Chinese. In a 2018 British Council survey, 69% of business leaders believe that Chinese skills will be important for the future of British business and the economy, and 66% said that it was currently difficult to recruit employees who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Families coming to Kensington Wade are not there because they are Chinese – in fact, most do not speak Chinese at home. Instead, they have an understanding of the considerable benefits of bilingualism, and the value of learning a language from an early age in an immersive setting – in this case, Chinese.

Knowing Chinese, the most widely spoken language on earth, can give students an extra edge in the increasingly global economy. And, as Mrs Wallace says, “business leaders and international organisations are looking for people who can speak the language and operate successfully in a Chinese cultural context.” But the benefits extend beyond employment opportunities.

Learning Chinese also has cognitive benefits because, unlike most other languages, it stimulates and activates the development of both sides of the brain. Chinese writing develops shape recognition and spatial awareness as children need to make sure that each character is the same size, no matter how many strokes are required," adds Mrs Wallace.

“Psychologists suggest that children are open to better and easier learning of Chinese as it is a tonal language and they have the sensitivity to pick up nuances of tone and sound, making it easier for children to grasp Chinese pronunciation. The tonal associations of Chinese can also enhance musical ability.

Learning Chinese opens a window into a fascinating history and culture and an immense store of literature and art. China is publishing more books than any other country and is making more and more contributions to scientific, technological and philosophical studies.”

GCSEs & A Levels – a qualification in Chinese

While there has been a sharp fall in the number of students in England studying for and taking GCSEs in modern languages (Spanish, German and French), Mandarin Chinese has become increasingly popular at GCSE and A Level. Since modern foreign languages ceased to be a compulsory part of the Key Stage 4 national curriculum from 2004, the number of entries in German and French GCSE have more than halved from 1996 to 2021. In 2022, French GCSE had 129,419 entries, a decrease of 16% on 10 years ago and a huge fall of 62% from 2002.

According to the official statistics published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), there were 3,648 Chinese GCSE entries in the UK in 2021 and 5,504 in 2022. This represents a slight increase of around 50%. There were 1,349 A Level Chinese entries in 2022, a much smaller increase from 1,312 in 2021.

French remains the most popular modern foreign language (MFL) being taught in the UK at GCSE level though, and French, German, and Spanish have significantly higher numbers of entries than Chinese at GCSE and A Level. However, if Chinese continues to grow in popularity, there is a chance that it may eclipse these modern foreign languages as a qualification.

Kensington Wade opened in 2017 with just one early years class of 15 children, and now has over 100 students as parents in west London recognise the benefits of a bilingual education.

The future of Mandarin Chinese in schools

The opening of a school like Kensington Wade, the increase in Mandarin Chinese programmes in UK state and independent schools, and the significant increase in the number of GCSE and A Level entries highlight the growing importance of Chinese as a language on a global scale. And, as Chinese proficiency becomes increasingly valuable in the job market, we can expect more students to take Chinese exams in the future.

However, as well as there being a lack of professionals able to teach Mandarin Chinese in the UK, the language is more challenging than other traditional European languages studied at school. Its complicated script using over 60,000 characters, different grammar structure, and vast vocabulary, requires a significant amount of time and effort from students. Mandarin is also a tonal language, meaning that the pitch of a word can change its meaning, which can be difficult for learners to grasp.

With the right amount of dedication, investment, resources, and teaching methods though, students do have the opportunity to master Mandarin in the UK – and learn a language of the future.

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