The walk yesterday was about as straight forward as it gets–a single road (A449) took me from the heart of Wolverhampton to the outskirts of Stafford. With her usual brilliance and forward planning Xuelin had selected a hotel (Holiday Inn Express) which was on the same road a few miles short of Stafford so I was able to finish by 5PM so we had time to meet up with friends for dinner.
Along the walking route I came across an interesting plaque referencing the ‘Battle of the Gauges’. Now this was a battle between armies but a battle of technologies, the technology being railway lines and the gauge being the width of the rails it was the iPhone/Android; VHS/Betmax battle of its day. There were powerful figures battling for supremacy of the ‘Broad Gauge'(7ft–2140mm) over the ‘Narrow Gauge'( 4ft 8.5 inches–1435mm).
The problem was that as railway technology got going different parts of the country used different gauges so trains would not be able to operate except on their own track. Those in favour of the broad gauge, chiefly Brunel, pointed to its greater stability and therefore higher potential speeds. Those in favour of the narrow gauge, chiefly Stephenson, said that the broad gauge was too expensive because it required the purchase of 50% more land to build.
In 1845 a Royal Commission on Railway Gauges was established and they decided in favour of the narrow gauge. This went on to be the favoured gauge around the world with some notable exceptions.
When the first firefight train from Yiwu, Zhejiang, China set off on its 12000km journey earlier this year it set off on Chinese ‘narrow gauge’ track and finished through Europe on ‘narrow gauge but when it reached Russia and the former Soviet Union the gauge changed to ‘broad gauge’ 1520mm. Apparently the Russian authorities were concerned that railway lines from the West could be used to invade the country so they insisted on a different gauge–during the Cold war the West was equally happy they made a different choice for the same reasons.
Back to education, which was my topic for the day.
We finished early yesterday and Xuelin had arranged for us to visit our friend Dr Kai Liu’s New Beacon Campus. Dr Liu invited us as soon as he discovered our route. Dr Kai Liu & his wife and another friend Dr Liangwei Zhu (heart surgeon from Nottingham) were already there waiting for us. Dr Liu is in charge the New Beacon Group which established a fantastic new 46 acre education campus in Stafford. They try and bring the best of Chinese education to the UK and the best of British education to China. It is an ambitious plan and one we hope will succeed.
If I was to be asked my favourite discussion topic then it would be education. I get more animated about discussions over education than I do about any other aspect of politics or even sport. My dream job in politics has always been to be a minister for education–twenty five years after my first appointment to the government I think I must have served in virtually every department apart from education.
Dr Kai invited a galaxy of education talent for dinner at the ‘Essence of Orient’ Chinese restaurant in Stafford. Amongst those present were Professor Mark Mabey of the New Beacon Group and a microbiologist by training; Dr Iona Yuela Huang who is a senior lecturer in Agri-business at harper Adams University and Dr Xuejuan Fan who is currently Head of Research and Education, she used to be health big data researcher at Oxford University. I could have listened, questioned and talked for hours.
The focus of our discussion was differences between Western Socratic pedagogy and eastern Confucian pedagogy. To be quite frank the discussion was so rich and interesting I wanted to develop it as a PhD thesis, but in essence where we came out was that the traditional suggestion that Western students were all about questioning and reasoning and Chinese students were all about listening and rote learning was probably too simplistic.
The most fascinating insight of the evening came from Dr Fan when she compared and contrasted her teaching experiences of Chinese and British students. She said that in China it is expected that the students will be pushed, especially for exams by both teachers and parents. In England she had found a reluctance to push for fear that this would make the child unhappy or anxious.
This is so true from my personal experience attending an inner-city comprehensive school teachers are too willing to back off pushing for excellence with children they presume to be ‘socially disadvantaged’.
I should say that there are many wonderful things about British education and I am incredibly proud of it and its quality is evidenced by the fact that the UK is the destination of choice for the brightest and best international students, especially from China, but
My main problem with British education is not at the elite Oxbridge end of things but in general education that there is a reluctance to push children out of their comfort zone. We are currently enjoying the World Athletics Championships from London and a few weeks ago Xuelin and I were at the World Para-athletics Championships. Have you heard of any champion who was not every day pushed outside of their comfort zone by themselves and their coaches to excel in their chosen discipline.
I had the great pleasure of speaking to the great Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike a few weeks ago about an event we are doing together and she said to me that the key to success is to seek to improve every day and that a Personal Best is the greatest achievement an athlete can have. Well I am with the Chinese and Anna I want children to be pushed to achieve their Personal Best every day not because I want them to be unhappy but rather because I know that when we achieve something that we thought was beyond us the effect can be utterly transformative and I want that for every child.
As if to confirm these thoughts I passed by a sign for Yartlet School which had the strap line of ‘Where excellence begins and confidence grows’ and I thought ‘You’ve got it’. This is a unifying statement of ambition which would fit perfectly well in a Chinese or British setting. It is the educational equivalent of the standard gauge that can facilitate the exchange of ideas between East and West–