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On her first trade mission to China, Prime Minister Theresa May held up Busy Bees Nursery Group as the poster child for Britain, with early years provision that has led China to embrace education for children under two.
Busy Bees' first nursery in China opened in Harbin last September, offering more than 200 places to children from birth to six-years-old. The idea of children going to an educational setting from birth is new to China, as the country has no legislation or framework for the education of children under the age of two-years-old.
This year, Busy Bees wants to open five more pre-schools in China. It intends to have 33 nurseries by 2023, with 200-place nurseries in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Xiamen.
Speaking in Shanghai, during her trade mission in February, Theresa May said: “Now when people think of international trade, I’m sure early years childcare isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. But Busy Bees’ presence here shows just how diverse the British export offer is, just how much we have to offer in China.”
Not creative thinkers
Teaching styles in the two countries differ - with rote learning popular in China. Far from the child-led education in the UK, learning in China can mean all children will either eat, read, sleep or play at the same time.
And although China’s employers had well-qualified staff on paper, they were not creative thinkers. Busy Bees’ business partner OCEG knew that in relation to education in China - the creativity just wasn’t there.
While children may see and paint Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, their work is less about art, more about imitation, with all children creating identical pictures.
With different languages, time zones and business etiquette to contend with, John Woodward, the president of Busy Bees which runs 344 UK nurseries, also saw that in China the average school is much bigger than those in the UK.
Mr Woodward says before setting up a Chinese nursery, he got together with Oriental Cambridge Education Group (OCEG). Busy Bees could not operate in China without a local business partner and Mr Woodward confesses: “In my opinion, you need a local management team wherever you go in the world.”
But having nurseries in other parts of Asia helped prepare the group to expand in China. In 2015, Busy Bees bought 70 nurseries in Singapore and Malaysia. It also owns Singapore’s Asian International College. Mr Woodward says: “When we bought the UK, Malaysian and Singapore business we gained essential knowledge. We wouldn’t have gone to China without that”.
He used the attitude gained from opening the group’s first UK nursery in 1984. “We were a bunch of teachers and friends – six of us. We sold our houses to fund it. When we started 35 years ago, a lot of my colleagues said: ‘You’re crazy. You’re giving up a great job. You’re taking on such a risk.’ I quite like proving people wrong.
There is a ‘fear of China’
“I’ve always quite liked a challenge.The reason to be in Asia is because it’s a great opportunity. China will have 220 cities with over one million people. In comparison, Europe will have 35 cities with one million.
“If you look at parents generally in China, they give more money to children’s education than the UK, US or Europe. The UK can learn a lot from China. We seem to have a fear of China – that they are copying everything we do. I think Asia has a respectful business environment.”
Mr Woodward wants to blend best practice from Britain with traditional care in China. “There is not just one way of providing education. My view is we should embrace different ways as long as it’s good quality. We don’t want every nursery to be the same.
“We want them to reflect the local community and to be responsive and respond at a local level. They favour Montessori more in China. Harbin has, as a result, some Montessori influences.”
Busy Bees’ International Pre-school has a library, science room, art room, bilingual library, outdoor garden and an indoor garden. Reflecting local conditions includes an indoor garden - as Harbin is known as the 'ice city'with a snow season that can last as long as half a year with the temperature dropping in January to as low as -38 C.
Being able to respond to local needs and be international has led to the group helping children to talk in English with native English speakers as well as with teachers from other countries outside China. Chinese teachers speak in Mandarin, while an international teacher, typically from England or Singapore, speaks in English to the children.
Mr Woodward says: “We expect most of the teachers will eventually be Chinese. We will have to recruit, train and qualify staff ourselves in the UK and around the world.
“Harbin is linked to the Asian International College. Yes, we will look to open more training colleges.Teachers should be what most parents want for their child. Staff should be personable, have empathy, smile, have character and energy.”
Cultural differences may exist between England and China but can be overcome. In China, one child may have six people overseeing their development; two parents and two sets of grandparents. As a result, one may take charge of health matters, another clothing, another education and another food.
And children in China will often sit with an open mouth, while their grandparent puts food in it. “To have a child wearing a top with spilt soup, that is a loss of face”, explains Yvonne Smillie, Busy Bees’ international project co-ordinator. But the new nursery is teaching children independent skills such as feeding themselves.
Staff have introduced ‘fusion menus’ two days a week. These ‘Western days’ see children eat with a knife and fork instead of chopsticks and a bowl. Meal-times involving teachers eating with children, were also introduced but Chinese staff were initially reluctant to sit with the children and be eating food with them. However, staff were soon reassured that a ‘family-style’ eating environment meant they were role-modelling good table manners for the children.
Like British parents, Chinese ask ‘Does he have friends?’
Activities like messy play take place in Harbin with gloop (a cornflour and water mixture) explained to parents and staff as a tool to improve children’s fine motor skills. Making the mixture from scratch is also an opportunity to introduce mathematics. But Ms Smillie says just parents in the UK, parents in China ask similar questions. “One parent asked ‘Do the children like him? Does he have friends?’”
Typically, teachers in China shepherd children from one classroom activity to another but children at the nursery are getting more child-initiated play. She adds: “What the nursery is doing is bringing a lot of excitement and fun into learning. If you look back on how early years education has changed over the last 15 years in the UK, we have done things very differently.”
But she warns: “We have a responsibility to be careful. There is more structure in Harbin than in an English nursery. We have to be mindful that they will go on to very structured schools. If we don’t prepare them for that, we will have failed them.”
Competition: ‘No one company can dominate in China’
John Woodward received an OBE in 2015 for his service to childcare. Considering what British nurseries could learn from other countries, he says: “Provision in the UK should be more affordable. I think that the UK does a pretty good job with our early years provision – that’s across the sector.”
On Busy Bees’ global expansion, he says: “Sometime in the future we’ll do an acquisition in the US. We’re also looking to expand in Australia, the rest of South East Asia, Vietnam, Philippines”.
On the subject of early years opportunities for others in China, he says: “If you look at the numbers in China, no one company can dominate because there is so much demand. The more we work together the better it is for everyone.”
And what of parents’ response to Busy Bees’ Chinese growth plans? Busy Bees’ international project co-ordinator, Ms Smilie says: “Young Chinese professionals, they want their children to be children of the world not just children of China.”