Tiananmen Square to Baby Art
We arrived in Beijing on the 300km an hour bullet train - the fastest train in the world - and found that this this city has quite a different feel from the ultra-modernity of Shanghai.
The first of our professional visits was to a nursery practitioner training college. The students do a three-year vocational course here. The emphasis is on practical skills such as painting, singing, dancing and handicrafts, including mandatory piano lessons for three years! This college doesn't offer the four-year course that would lead to a degree level qualification, but there is plenty of demand for its students.
The course also includes child development and work experience - 'it's a bit like the NNEB used to be!', said one of our group.
Madam Pung, the principal, has links with Havering College in London, and was very interested to hear about UK nurseries and training.
The second visit was to Baby Art - activity classes at the weekends and in the evenings for parents who want extra-curricular tuition for their 2-7-year-olds. They also bring their children for social reasons as they are nearly all single children.
The centre we visited is part of a large chain located in major cities in China. This one was in an incredibly glitzy shopping centre full of international brand names. It has bright rooms and children enjoying themselves, with some quite accomplished at their art. The staff were very clear, however, that they prioritised enjoyment over acquisition of skills, and asked many questions about how our group would deal with parental pressure to push their offspring and how best to engage reluctant children.
The fees charged for the sessions took our breath away, however - the equivalent of £25 for an hour. With average salaries here much lower than in the UK, this is very difficult for many to afford, although education is given such importance that people will do all they can to provide opportunities for their children.
Aside from the early years visits, we've had a whirlwind of cultural, political and historical experiences.
We've wandered through the imposing, vast spaces of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, been impressed by the Summer Palace, seen the giant pandas, the Beijing acrobats and the Olympic bird's nest stadium, and, perhaps best of all, climbed up a section of the Great Wall of China - and we've got the medals to prove it.
The Great Wall was truly amazing and well worth the many, many steps that we climbed to reach the top of this section (and an ice cream!).
On to Xi'an now, with the Terracotta Warriors sure to be a highlight.
Would you like to experience this for yourself?
There will be a second specialist and cultural tour to China this year, from 30 August – 13 September. The tour will be led by NW deputy editor Ruth Thomson.