The Real Confucius Classroom

On May 28 the Sunday Age ran an article expressing concerns with Confucius Classrooms. The claim essentially was that schools were being used by the Chinese government. It followed on June 12 with a piece raising concerns about the low take up of foreign language study in Australian schools. The same journalist was responsible for both articles. It seemed clear in the first instance that no attempt was made to investigate how Confucius Classrooms actually operate. And the journalist didn’t connect the dots between the two articles.

The Confucius Classroom program provides support through Hanban – the Chinese government agency that promotes international understanding of Chinese language and culture – to schools in other countries. Some are run independently (as ours is) and some are run through Confucius Institutes which are the product of a partnership with Australian universities. The May 28 article effectively claims that school principals have, for the sake of a few dollars, opened themselves up to political exploitation by the Chinese government.

A cursory check with the schools hosting Confucius Classrooms would have put the journalist’s mind at rest on that score, but instead readers got the whiff of a conspiracy from disaffected China watchers.

Then, two weeks later we got the article bemoaning the lack of interest among Australian students in studying foreign languages. The issues here have been well canvassed over many years and the decline in languages study is indeed a concern. I posted some two years ago on this issue and offered some practical suggestions.

But let’s step back in time for a moment. Not long, just to April this year when Victorian premier Daniel Andrews launched Victoria’s new China Strategy. It’s a multi-faceted approach that recognises the economic and cultural imperatives of engaging with the new world power to our north.

A key element of the blueprint relates to education and as such it dovetails with the state’s International Education strategy launched a month earlier. Around 58,000 Chinese students are enrolled in Victoria’s education facilities and they help strengthen connections between our two countries. In schools there is a growing awareness of Asian perspectives and a desire to build intercultural perspectives.

An obvious point of connection is the study of Asian languages. The decline in the study of foreign languages in our schools is a matter of public record and a series of well-meaning national and state based pronouncements have done little to halt the fall.

There are particular challenges with the study of Chinese language, which by all rights should be a priority in Australian schools. These include teacher shortages, lack of cohesion between language programs in local schools and the sheer number of hours study required to become proficient in Chinese. I addressed this issue in detail in a 2014 post, Saving Languages in Our Schools.

One ray of light has been the opportunity for schools to engage with Chinese language and culture through the Confucius Classroom program. Our school established an independent Confucius Classroom in 2011 based on our long standing sister school relationship with Dongzhou Middle School in Haimen, a regional centre in Victoria’s sister-state, Jiangsu Province.

Despite conjecture the May 28 conjecture, the Confucius Classroom program is free of Chinese political influence. Funds are provided through the Chinese government agency Hanban, but decisions are made by the school partners. It’s a great pity the journalists responsible did not seek an opinion from the schools involved.

After an initial funding allocation to assist with resources such as books and other equipment, the key to our program has been the provision of Hanban teachers each year to support the establishment and growth of a Chinese language program in our city.

The success of the program is stunning. Through our Confucius Classroom we have now engaged 25 primary and secondary schools in Bendigo in the study of Chinese language. With the support of the principals of those schools we have been able to employ additional teachers to supplement those provided by Hanban and this wonderful team is now delivering high quality Chinese language lessons to more than 3000 students. In the face of declining language studies in Australia that’s a spectacular result.

We also provide free lessons each week to more than 40 members of the Bendigo community and we have created many opportunities for sharing with our sister school, including reciprocal student visits.

This success is not the result of an education department plan. It’s a product of our initiative and of schools working together, but it would not have been possible without the Confucius Classroom. Our program has developed with the full knowledge of the state education department and we have, quite appropriately, been trusted to make the decisions needed at the local level to make it work effectively.

If government plans to engage with Asia are to be successful we need to work collaboratively with our neighbours and to display the trust expected of friends. The Confucius Classroom program provides a model through which Victorian and Chinese schools can work together to improve opportunities for students in both countries. Let’s not undermine that capacity through needless fearmongering.