China’s changing education

Issue: 143

Sally Kincaid

Xiaming Li, Education in China: Cultural Influences, Global Perspectives and Social Challenges (Nova, 2013), £124, and Holly H Ming, The Education of Migrant Children and China’s Future (Routledge, 2013), £85

Chinese education has become a hot topic in the UK. Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss recently led a delegation to Shanghai to “discover” why Shanghai pupils had come the top of the OECD Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables in maths in 2012. On returning from the trip, Truss announced that GCSE maths should become harder, with more traditional maths lessons at primary school, and that a delegation of 60 Chinese maths teachers are to be flown to England to show how maths should be taught.

Teachers and educationalists have always learned from each other, Education in China will make for an interesting read for anyone involved in education. It is an ambitious book, 21 chapters covering 18 subjects, with contributions from 38 different academics from both China and the West. Many of the subjects could have been books in their own right. Each chapter describes the changes and improvements in all sectors and subjects since the Cultural Revolution, but also shows there is a real debate about how the Chinese exam based education system should be reformed.

One of most interesting chapters in Xiaming’s book is written by Chinese educated Yiyun Chen who now works in the USA, another country obsessed by a testing regime. Ironically, she describes how attempts have been made in China to move away from the regimented exam and testing regime at the same time as the likes of Elizabeth Truss and Michael Gove continue to try and turn every state school into an exam factory.

She refers to the “stuffed duck” type of education where pupils are given a dry and outdated knowledge transfer, a sentiment that teachers in England will recognise. Unlike Gove, the Chinese government, at least at a propaganda level, recognises that this type of school system does not equip students with the ability to be creative or critical thinkers.

At least in China, there is an acknowledgement that quality of education is not just about passing the Gaokao (university entrance exam), or ranking pupils and/or schools in terms of education achievement. Teachers should not be rewarded or punished based on the rate of college enrolment among the students they teach.

Maybe rather than hang large signs outside English schools with quotes from the latest Ofsted report—instead they should be replaced with a quote from China’s former Vice Premier Li Lanqing: “Students are buried in an endless flood of homework and sit one mock extrance exam after another leaving them with heads swimming and eyes blurred.” Chen continues, “an educational system like this violates the original purpose by ignoring children’s actual needs and jeopardising their all-around development.”

However, despite some reforms within the system: restructuring of exams; expansion of college enrolment, the competition for places at university is so great that there has been a backlash from pupils against changes that will not help them pass the exam, so cramming schools and excess homework continue.

There is no question that 30 years of huge economic growth in China have had a positive impact on education. Government official figures claim the number of children who enrol in school has increased from 94 percent to 99.5 percent for elementary school, from 20 percent to 98 percent for middle school and 10 percent to 66 percent for high school. From less than 1 percent, 23 percent of the population now enrol in college. However, this expansion in education has not happened evenly across the country—children living in cities have a better quality of schooling than those in rural areas, with better qualified teachers and higher spending on resources.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics there were over 250 million migrant workers in China in 2011, one third of the country’s labour force. These migrant workers have fuelled urban economic growth. But their rural residency permits (hukou) prevent them from accessing the services the government provides to urban hukou dwellers—including free public education for their children.

The issue of the schooling of rural-to-urban migrant children is given only one chapter in Education in China. However, Ming’s book on The Education of Migrant Children and China’s Future covers this important topic in much more detail based on the extensive research she has done on the realities of being a migrant child living in the cities.

There are an estimated 20 million floating children who move to the cities with their parents, 44 percent aged between six and 14 meaning they should either be attending primary or junior secondary school. She conducts her research in Beijing and Shanghai because they have the highest concentration of migrant families with an estimated 450,000 and 500,000 in the two cities respectively. An increasing number of children are born in the cities and yet do not have the same rights as children whose parents have an urban hukou. If they attend public schools they are required to pay hefty fees or attend private, profit-driven, low quality schools for migrant children.

Once children get to the end of middle school year nine, their choices are either to end their education or go to the rural area where they are registered, even if they have never lived there. As pupils are not allowed to take college entrance exams outside the location of their hukou registration, public high schools do not admit students with non-local hukou.

Ming’s recommendations and conclusions are limited. She believes that national government can recommend to local government that they allow migrant children to access high school. But at the present time education funding is allocated to hukou registration, therefore there is always going to be a shortfall between the number of children living in the cities and the allocation of resources to schools in those cities.

Unless the hukou system is abolished the issue of lack of choices for migrant children will increasingly become an issue for those youngsters and their parents who live and pay taxes in the cities but have none of the benefits.