Gansu is one of China’s poorest provinces and is struggling to emulate the economic growth and prosperity of the country’s east coast regions, writes Chris Tribble at the Guardian. And thousands, if not millions, of students in the capital of Lanzhou are trying to learn English.
In a bid to stem migration away from blighted cities such as Lanzhou to the jobs and prosperity of the eastern cities, the central government in Beijing has been investing in infrastructure and jobs.
These western cities are now doing everything they can to be part of China’s next success story. A knowledge of English is seen as an essential skill to transform their populations into a high-value workforce.
While a national campaign for education renewal, including wholesale reform of English language teaching, started at the beginning of the last decade, its effects were only felt in Gansu and Qinghai in 2005.
According to Professor Wu Heping of Northwest Normal University, the leading teacher training institution in this part of China:
“[This process] has been driven by a common awareness of the limitations of English language teaching in the school system, rather than by systematic research”.
A serious concern voiced by English language education professionals is that the reform process will remain doomed to failure without an equivalent change to the examination system. The main target for change is the all-important Gao Kao college entry exam, which was taken by around 9 million school leavers across the country this year and includes an English language test.
The result, according to education experts, is that students and parents in Gansu remain desperate to get good grades in the Gao Kao. The state is investing heavily in teacher education and improved facilities at school, but candidates are failing both to achieve the grades they need to progress into higher education and to meet the levels of communicative capacity demanded by employers.
Still, the failure of the state school system in Gansu is creating opportunities for an emerging private English language teaching sector. At the top end of the market, and charging fees of up to $300 a term, are major school operators such as New Oriental, currently China’s largest provider of private educational services.
Only recently established in Lanzhou, New Oriental’s success has been phenomenal. In the build-up to its opening in 2008 it ran its publicity campaign under the slogan “Sorry we’re late”.
Two months later, New Oriental changed the slogan to “Sorry we’re full”. The head of the school has since gone on to lead marketing for the whole group.
Another major player is the Shanghai-based Rise group. In addition to its school in Lanzhou, this joint venture with US publisher Houghton Mifflin now has 60 centres in other cities.
The sprint to pass exams such as the Gao Kao leaves students a long way short of completing the marathon distance required to reach communicative competence.
This is the real challenge that China’s English language learners must find a way to overcome.