I was approached when I released our curriculum software by a Chinese lady, Jan, who was planning to open groups for children in China… but the software wasn’t exactly what she was looking for. She asked me if I would be interested in setting up a nursery in China! At the time it seemed an impossible thought and I was also in the throes of establishing more day nurseries in my home town. Last September she approached me again enquiring whether I would be interested in working with her. A Chinese based children’s swimming club wanted to set up a nursery for their members. I was invited to join the group this March for a week.
After three attempts to get all the necessary information and the forms correct for a visa, (costing £80) for one entry into China as a tourist, I was set to go. Up to that point, the reality hadn’t really hit. I then began to worry about what I might find and how I would ensure I would be professional and psychologically strong. I decided although hesitant, to go with an open mind and take full advantage of my experience. I left and returned within a UK week, travelling time of 23 & 24 hours, including a plane change in Beijing, which involved a short train journey and many identity checks by stern security officers within a two to five-minute walking distance. The ‘alien’ (that’s me!) had detailed forms to fill on arrival and departure too.
I was met at the airport by a stranger with the right name who knew my name, but who couldn’t speak much English. He drove me to my hotel, in almost silence. Those that know me, know I am not generally quiet and would have loved a chat after so many hours in the sky! The journey was across large roads, big cars, tall buildings, and then arrived at a posh hotel. Here I later met Jan, when she arrived on a different flight.
The swimming club was very good. It was a clean, happy place with soft play and a large TV screen available to watch others in the water, comfortable pastel coloured sofas for parents to also sit and chat. There are a selection of toys and a bookshelf with a range of books, for adults and children. Children sized European toilets, baths and a separate room for nursing mothers are all provided. I was mesmerized at times as each parent played games in the water, singing rhymes with their tot. My own experiences of water as a child was not so pleasant. As the pool was in the basement I could watch through windows overhead.
My hosts were very attentive and I felt a little spoilt. My UK Chinese colleague Jan, interpreting in both directions, was exhausted at times. We had gained nine hours and I guess lost some sleeping time. They were keen to please, checking what I liked to eat and drink. I arrived in the evening and all began the following day, visiting, eating, drinking tea and lots of discussion, until the evening before I left for the airport at 6 am. They gave me the widest experience possible of the Chinese culture, from small streets full of small shops and street food stalls to elaborate seafood restaurants, the beach, cinema, shopping centres, an arcade of slot machine games and early years establishments.
I had a Chinese breakfast, lunch and dinner every day at the swimming club, but more often in restaurants. From time to time, I am quite proud to say I actually forgot I was using chopsticks! No food is wasted. Every part is eaten and if too much is ordered it is packed up and taken home.
The children were gorgeous. There was a mutual fascination between us – they small and petite although it was easy for me to mix boys for girls, and me tall and with strange features! I watched these toddlers follow the same developmental stages and behaviours as European children which in some ways was a ‘reality check’.
I visited 7 ‘kindergartens’ – all but two were huge with little outdoor space, on three or more floors. Some had balconies. One had no outdoor space at all. Huge is an understatement – 300 children or more per building! There were too many children for each member of staff. In one setting the children were periodically moved from one space to another (with their coats on). Very noisy, one even used a loud hailer to control the children. Very institutional, instructional and authoritarian. Every child did the same thing; exercised outside making the same movements with their bodies. The group waiting while ‘the teacher’ placed the right limb into the proper position. They used the sand room or made a rabbit from clay and these were all EXACTLY the same, size and shape to the extreme. Large expensive pieces of equipment without much play value had been installed (for parents I presume). A water feature with very little play value (turned off) in the area named ‘Reggio Emilia’ but void of any other resources. I saw books in two smaller settings. The emphasis was placed upon discipline rather than learning (other than the discipline) and there appeared to be a total lack of curriculum framework in each. Parents collected children from outside the ‘classroom’.
I was told that the state lavishes resources at university education.
The week made me realise how lucky we are here with our EYFS, despite needing to educate politicians and be continually improving what we do.
Purpose built Kindergartens have to be provided on each new estate and rent tends to be cheap.
These serve estates of high rise blocks of flats. I slept on the 19th floor of my hotel but this building was certainly not the tallest by far. Goodness knows how anyone would get out if there was a fire. Also, it is very traditional to have bars over the balconies and windows. Families use the Kindergarten in their area and if they wish to go to another (thought to be better) then they have to know someone it that area to help them get a place.
On a more positive note, I met with a set of very switched on parents. They all wanted the best for their one or two children (one child policy now replaced by a two-child option) and feeling inadequate in knowing how to provide that. Very similar to our parents in the UK but their expectation sat upon their own unconscious memory of their early educational experiences. All opted to attend the meeting as they were eager to support an Early Years Foundation Stage Kindergarten in the area. Just as I might in England, I was quizzed on temper tantrums, bed sharing, comforters and feeding issues, as well as how to help their child learn. There was great interest in ourEASYparent software. Many had studied English at school and although hadn’t had much opportunity to speak it, could understand and read English. However, I see a translated version in the pipeline. Eagerly, they took details of the website.
I will just tell you that I totally changed the layout of the room before this meeting took place. A table with a red table cloth had been placed with chairs behind (for me and Jan) then chairs had been laid out in rows before us. I asked Jan to explain to my hosts that the EYFS is about ‘relationships’ with parents and a circle of chairs was more friendly. He laughed, hopefully recalling our earlier conversation on this. However, I half expected it to be put back again but was pleased when the time came to meet the families, to find it just as I had left it.
In China, children attend Kindergarten at three and leave for school at six (the latter refreshing – shame the quality was so poor!). Beforehand, children may attend a ‘Baby Club’ which is similar to a coffee lounge with rooms for music and physical apparatus, available for the children to attend with their parent. The one I visited was in a shopping area without any outdoor space.
I was asked to give a presentation to the investors of the project on my last day. Although quite capable to ‘knock one up’, I hadn’t arrived prepared to do this. I couldn’t access my Dropbox (cloud storage) or YouTube from the Chinese internet the latter known to be blocked. I emailed the staff at one of my nurseries and put a plea on Linked in to send me a link to a clip of EYFS practice to no avail – everything seems to be on YouTube! I didn’t have an active search engine as Google didn’t work either. I scraped together some pictures I happened to have on my hard drive and made a PowerPoint. The investors of the project were attentive to my presentation in English, somewhat longer as it all had to also be translated.
The main points covered in my presentation were:-
- What a nursery looks like in the UK, including the type of activities available
- Principles of the EYFS stressing:-
– all based around the child, not the adult
– their children are learning all the time
– the concepts of ‘unique’, ‘individual’ and ‘differentiation’ in relation to the children
– the purpose and rationale around the National Standards
– partnership arrangements between practitioner and parents
- More detail about how children learn
– during play within the enabling environment
- The adult’s role
– planning, observing and record keeping
– working with parents to maximise learning opportunities
– identifying interests, learning styles and schemas, with some examples
- The research that backs up EYFS practice
– enriching progress when parents are involved
– the importance of learning in the formative years
– brain development
– high-quality early years’ impact on later exam results and life choices
– improved adult mental health (China has higher than average suicide rates)
- More detail about the curriculum
– the areas of learning
– the characteristics of effective learning
- The overarching aim within my own settings
- A synopsis of what I observed visiting the settings in China in relation to:-
– the enabling environment
– building personal relationships
- My recommendations on the way forward
I felt difficult about presenting my findings in China. I didn’t want to offend, but I had to convey the truth and I asked Jan to explain this. Suddenly they changed from fairly passive attentive listening to animated loudness, wanting to hear my professional findings; which was a relief! A host of questions were put to me which extended understanding and imparted to me at the same time, of their dissatisfied situation. The sadness of it swept over me.
I now know what it must be like for a child when not given enough warning or time to react. The group chatted to Jan in Chinese, then a question quite out of the blue would require my answer, not understanding the conversation, I had no idea what was going to be asked next. Very stressful in a positive way and I was totally drained.
Half the group wanted to know more about EASYpro, the EYFS software for nurseries or pre-schools here. My impression was that they were surprised by the content. An ex-teacher asked if it could be made simpler as she felt Chinese children wouldn’t be able to achieve so much. I explained it was about giving children opportunities and as they are individual I would expect them to develop at different rates. I explained what I had noticed about the children in the swimming clubs; their development and behaviour was the same as children in England. Eventually, with other people in the group’s encouragement, she seemed to accept it. She then became concerned that there would be a lack of discipline and parents wouldn’t understand it. The discussion continued…. and it became clear that possibly a ‘certain older generation’ would find change difficult to understand and accept.
A city so modern in many ways and yet left within the past culture too. I felt there were lots of opportunities to help start to make a difference and for me to help. Discussions continued beyond my departure, and a meeting organised for Jan as her flight was later.
I felt very emotional on the plane, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly why- I fobbed it off with being tired which I confirmed to myself when I for the first time ever, fell asleep in the bath once home! The purpose of EASYpro is to help others ‘to get it right’ for every unique individual within a culture where the majority of early years settings have good and outstanding ratings. The day after being back (as I write this it is the end of my third day), I couldn’t stop crying. The emotions put to one side while in China came to the forefront. In China, all the large settings I saw, I am sure as a former Registered Nursery Inspector with Ofsted would be unsatisfactory or closed.
So, time now to contemplate on the way forward. The next visa, will be a ‘visiting on a business’ kind?