A delegation from the sector has returned from the Department for International Trade’s (DIT) first early years education trade mission to China.
As part of last month’s mission, 14 representatives of UK nurseries, chains and training providers attended British-Chinese education development forums in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
More than 700 Chinese partners also attended the forums, where delegates took part in panel discussions and networking events to explore opportunities for collaboration.
China has the largest education system in the world, with an industry expected to be worth £340 billion by 2020.
Interest in expansion into China has been growing in the UK early years sector, with provider British Early Education opening a 380-place setting near Shanghai earlier this year.
During visits to various settings, delegates were able to observe the different approaches of the Chinese early years sector.
Stephanie Molnar, director of the Elmscot Group in Cheshire, said, ‘Iwas surprised by the general lack of understanding of the benefits of a broad and child-led early years foundation; there was a definite need for improved PSE, creative and imaginative development opportunities for children, although some providers were quite inspirational.
‘There is no inspectorate, such as Ofsted, for children aged under three – this too surprised me.
‘Access to early years qualifications and training for local practitioners is very limited; although local staff can gain a teaching certificate, the concept of supply staff agencies doesn’t exist, and there is little or no regard to safeguarding and criminal background checks.
‘There is also a lack of inclusion in mainstream nurseries, especially for children with SEN, so there is tremendous potential for providers with SEN expertise.’
Mary O’Reilly, international professional team lead at Early Years in Northern Ireland, was struck by the enormity of the task of providing early education in China, which has a population above one billion and where many nurseries accommodate around 500 children at a time.
‘It is all on such a big scale,’ she said. ‘There is so much they can take from us in terms of a more child-centred approach and child-led learning, but there is so much we can learn from them too. They have to have a much more structured approach and methodology because it is just so much bigger.’
Returning delegates are now turning their minds to what they can take from the experience. Ms O’Reilly said, ‘It is still early to talkabout next steps, but certainly therewill be some. We will continue our ongoing work with Chinese kindergartens and daycares, and students at Hebei Early Education Institute, and will look to establish a second outlet in China.
‘Hopefully, in partnership with Invest NI, which is keen for these connections to be made, more organisations in Northern Ireland will be able to go out to China.’
Paul Whitehouse, director of Buttercups Nursery group, which owns eight settings, encouraged other nursery owners interested in the potential of the Chinese market to find out more.
‘The trip seemed an excellent chance to imagine an expansion for which the barriers, to an organisation of our size, would initially seem insurmountable,’ he said. ‘Now hopefully we can create something from it. Many who may be interested in this in future may just think they are too small, but that is certainly not the case.’
Ms Molnar added, ‘We were able to establish contact with a multitude of both established and new nursery providers and property developers, and these relationships will develop over the next few months as some are intending to visit us. Our hope is to find a Chinese partner who shares our goals and understands our approach, with the shared aim of taking Elmscot to China.
‘British providers have the potential to influence the early years development – and thus the mindset of future generations – of the largest population on Earth.’