My impressions of Beijing School for the Blind

This is the unabridged version of an article I co-wrote for the SSAT Inet newsletter with my headteacher. I know it’s a bit wordy but it was hard to cut down and not lose what I wanted to say.

Martin Sutton on visiting the I-Net conference Sept 2007
Rob and I arrived at the lavishly appointed China World Hotel just before midnight on the Sunday before the I-Net Conference and had our first introduction to the wonderful hospitality that we received throughout the conference week.
The presentations, seminars and workshops were of a high quality and the opportunity to listen to and speak with internationally recognised experts and practitioners was invaluable. The mix of delegates from over a dozen countries proved stimulating and the experience enabled me to look at my own school with a fresh perspective.
The rigour of the conference was balanced with opportunities to tour a part of the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square. Just as interesting, if less organised was the life on the streets around our hotel; the restaurants, shops and the Silk Market.
Our Chinese hosts were keen to show us the best of their provision. I was quite ignorant of the Chinese system of education before the conference and did not know really what to expect. My impressions were almost entirely favourable. The schools we visited appear to benefit from very healthy investment… Teaching staff are hardworking, talented and committed. The pupils and students were universally polite and welcoming and thoroughly enjoyed their opportunities to show their work and their school demonstrating enormous pride in their system. Language was not a barrier; teachers and pupils alike were eager to speak English with us.
On the morning of the first day we met other delegates and some colleagues from a special education background including Professor Barry Carpenter. With Barry’s help Rob and I were able to fit in a visit for a day to the Beijing School for the Blind. My impression of this school is of a highly organised well managed and well resourced school which supports the education of visually impaired young people and also youngsters with other special educational needs including autism and communication difficulties. We were particularly impressed with the commercial opportunities afforded to pupils by the school’s vocational initiatives for older pupils. Rob and I came away from school feeling impressed with the school’s commitment to CPD and feeling very much that our school would benefit immensely from a link with Beijing School for the Blind.
We decided that Rob and another colleague Margaret Stonier our MFL teacher should visit Beijing in April 2008with ssatrust in order to share awareness of the Chinese education and to further our aim of developing CPD and curriculum links with Beijing School for the Blind.

Rob Butler on returning to Beijing in April 2008
When I arrived at Beijing International Airport I was reminded how quick the rate of change is in China. We passed speedily and efficiently through the new terminal 3 building (including a ride on the monorail) which opened in February of this year. As we were driven to our hotel passing the familiar landmarks on the way into Beijing centre, it felt as though I was on the way to visit an old friend. Our scheduled tour of the Hutongs not far from Tiananmen square serves to remind of how far China has come in a relatively short time. The old narrow streets, lined by traditional dwellings around a courtyard, are in marked contrast to the towers and office blocks that dominate the skyline of Beijing. The friendliness and openness of the Chinese people also becomes apparent when you get the opportunity to share their culture with you.
The first full day in Beijing was to be our visit to Beijing School for the Blind. We did eventually make it to the school – traffic in Beijing has to be seen to be believed and the rain only added to the plight of the city’s drivers. We arrived at the school and were immediately made very welcome and, as is tradition, given Chinese tea. The first thing I noticed was how the school seemed so much more “finished” than last time I visited. Although the school is still in the middle of a major rebuilding project the staff had worked hard to make sure the pupils were settled and it showed.
The school had made efforts to accommodate our requests and we were taken to an infant class learning about pizza, tasting a variety of potential toppings and describing the tastes. What became immediately obvious was the similarity between the pupils of our two schools and the challenges faced by all teachers of children with special needs. The lesson was well staffed with a good pupil to teacher ratio and all pupils were engaged with the lesson. Our next lesson was a group of older pupils who had a range of visual impairments. We observed the teacher working with the pupils for a literature lesson. Pupils using their Braille typewriters and were able to enter text with amazing speed. The Braille text books were very thick but served as a good illustration of the investment the school has made in the support structures of the school. When the lesson had finished we were given the opportunity to interact with the class, who had many interesting questions to ask. Cultural differences became apparent in the questions the pupils asked, which all revolved around school and our pupils’ experiences of school. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the interaction was watching the faces of the pupils as my responses were translated. The questions of the pupils and their focus on education were in stark contrast to the priorities of English pupils. Mention of class visits to my house and some of the lessons resulted in gasps and rapid chattering between pupils. I had taken a selection of English sweets for the pupils to try. Tasting the Pontefract cakes led to some interesting expressions on their faces as did the sherbet lemons. The pupils were genuinely interested in what I had to say and thanked me for both my time and for fetching presents.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for lunch but the management of the school had made a huge effort to share with us some of their culture. We were taken to a private room in a restaurant that served authentic Beijing dishes. As well a selection of local dishes, we drank Chinese tea (to which I am now addicted) and toasted our future collaborations with Chinese wine. To a Westerner, one of the biggest differences between cuisines from the two cultures is bones. Smaller animals like fish and chicken are often cooked on the bone which can take a little getting used to. Beggar’s chicken and Squirrel fish were two of the more memorable dishes, both of which were bursting with flavour. Meal times in China are very social, with plenty of conversation and sharing of dishes – something we have lost over in the West.
Our visit to Beijing also gave us the opportunity to showcase our school and how we work with pupils. The courses we offer and the way we work with pupils were watched carefully but the photographs of the school prompted the staff to ask questions and probe the way we work. By the time we were showing the photographs of the sensory room the questions were in full flow. Staff were keen to learn how the multisensory equipment worked and how it would be used with pupils. The teachers were also keen to learn more about the TEACCH approach used with our special autistic group. The presentation concluded with video clips showing our pupils on a fund raising day for Sport Relief, and doing a science experiment for Healthy Eating Day. The staff were very interested in how we organised these days and were keen to replicate the process in their own school.
Day two at Beijing School for the Blind consisted of a tour of the vocational classes. We saw pupils taking an anatomy lesson (as a part of the massage courses) which was delivered using models and a data projector. The pupils were encouraged to work independently and were all able to identify parts of the heart by end of the lesson. We also saw massage classes where pupils were learning about the shoulder and techniques that could be used. Piano tuning is another course pioneered by the school and we were given the opportunity to see how the class learned their new trade. We were also shown the multiple needs group who were very similar in ability and behaviours to pupils in English specials schools. Lunchtime consisted of different local dishes in another restaurant but the atmosphere was much more relaxed with the staff treating us as friends rather than business colleagues. It was interesting that the staff raised the issue of Tibet and were very keen to make us understand the issues through their eyes. Speaking to the staff honestly and frankly made me realise that despite our difference, we are all the same underneath and have the same hopes and aspirations for our children. Whilst I appreciate that Chinese politics aren’t perfect, Western activists and campaigners who want to change the system would do well to visit China and spend some time talking to the people to find out how they feel about it. After lunch we visited the vocational site where some graduates from massage school are employed to provide massage to the public. An impressive range of techniques is offered and the quality of provision was evidenced by the number of members of the public in there.
The last day of school visits saw us visit another special school (with pupils of similar ability to our own) and a mainstream school – The Center School for the Mental Retarded in HaiDian District. The special school had been through a rebuilding programme and had a state of the art building to house its pupils. Seeing my second new build school made me realise the significance that the Chinese place in Education, in a city where space is scarce the new build schools have plenty of room relative to the high rise accommodation that surrounds them. The school well resourced and used a variety of techniques (such as rice play) that compare well to English special schools. Life skills were taught with facilities many English schools would be envious of, including a four lane road with crossing and traffic lights! As with Beijing School for the Blind, the dedication of the staff was one of lasting impressions I took away from the school.
The mainstream school made an interesting contrast to the two special schools, with much larger classes and a more academic and businesslike approach. The school we visited (Beijing no. 57 High School) hadn’t yet been rebuilt and so space was tighter than at other schools. One of the most striking sights was the number of bicycles in their sheds, which is a far greener alternative to the school run done by English parents in their petrol-guzzling cars. Many of the pupils were sitting mid-term exams so we didn’t get to see lessons, only a brief look at some Art, Music and Applied Science (flight simulator) lessons.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from our visit is that despite the differences between our cultures, we are much more alike than first appearances would suggest. Only by regular contact and exchanges between our two countries can we unpick these differences and understand each other better.