Whenever I visit other countries I make the effort to read the national and local newspapers, if they are available in a language that I can manage. Today I picked up a copy of China Daily – Asia Weekly for June 13th – 19th and discovered an interesting article by Xiong Binqi, who is described as the Vice-President of the 21st Century Education Research Institute. I have no idea what this presumably esteemed institute is or does, but Dr Xiong certainly provided an article of considerable interest. It was written beneath a banner headline “Education System in Search of Reforms”, a title that would sit just as well in the newspapers from almost anywhere in the world.
The tone of this article was of specific interest to me as it discusses the difficulties that exist in parts of China through the creation of “elite schools”, referred to in this piece as “super high schools” whose sole function appears to be cramming children to succeed in the national college entrance examination or gaokao as it is known here. These schools provide a narrow curriculum aimed only at teaching to the test and ensuring that students gain the highest possible grades. Despite this, there is a scramble from parents eager to enrol their children. In many instances students who have previously passed the gaokao, but with what is seen to be a low grade, attend these schools in order to reach a higher level. Xiong uses the example of Lu’an Maotanchang High school in Anhui Province to illustrate his concerns. He states that:-
“The problem is that in some areas, students who cannot get admitted to a key university are regarded as failures despite having cleared the gaokao.”
Xiong points out that there are places at the “top universities” only for 8.5% of the successful gaokao students and therefore competition for places is extreme. Presumably this means that 91.5% of students can be regarded as failures! This is clearly nonsense.
This notion of a competitive drive for “top universities” is of course not restricted to China. In my own country gaining a place at Oxford or Cambridge is seen by many as the pinnacle of an academic education and here places are certainly restricted. As in China with their apparently more desirable universities, many places at Oxford and Cambridge are gained by students from what might be termed elite schools. A market driven education system can only serve to increase this type of competition, but it now sounds as if in China this situation is being driven to a new extreme.
Xiong tells us that:-
“The small town in Anhui Province from where the Maotanchang [super] High School operates is known as the town of the college entrance exam.”
He then goes on to explain that Maotanchang school forgoes all activities other than those focused upon passing the gaokao examination. There is no entertainment or leisure that might impede the progress of the selected students. This is apparently accepted because what he describes as the “gaokao business” is regarded as a “pillar industry” within the town. I must confess that this is the first time I have heard education spoken of as an industry, though I suspect we will hear the term again in the future.
I find myself wondering what the students from these super high schools must be like. How broad is their knowledge of the world? What do they know of history, music, theatre, literature or art, all areas that enrich the lives of much of the world’s population? Can we really regard students as well educated simply on the basis of passing examinations? How do they regard themselves alongside other students who do not attend these super high schools and presumably therefore have less chance of entering the “top universities”? More importantly in some ways, what happens to that inevitable proportion of students who despite attending these schools still fail to gain a place in a desirable institution? How is their self-esteem affected by such a predicament?
Education has always been competitive, but in the past it was also well rounded and provided students with an appreciation of a broad curriculum and a sense of social justice. I am not sure that the model described in Xiong’s article creates a situation that is either sustainable or desirable. I can fully appreciate the anxieties that he expresses with regards to the extreme pressures that the gaokao system is placing on the shoulders of both students and teachers.
I feel quite sure that an examination of Chinese society would reveal many highly successful individuals who have achieved much in their lives and for their communities without a degree from a “top university”. Just as there are many in my own country who without the aid of an Oxford or Cambridge degree have become leaders and innovators throughout the world. Furthermore, there are great numbers of individuals who without the aid of a university education at all, make a significant impact on the daily lives of those who they now serve as nurses, teachers, shop workers, cleaners, taxi drivers or any one of a million or more essential jobs that keep our societies moving.
I wish good luck to all Chinese students sitting for the gaokao this year, but please remember that if you do not secure a place in a “top university” or indeed any university at all, this does not make you an inadequate person or any less valuable to the society that you live in, and to which you can undoubtedly contribute with great success in the future.