There is a common belief in Chinese society that education can help to get a better life. China’s education system offers nine years of free and compulsory education starting from the age of 6 or 7. This compulsory education includes six years of primary school and three years of junior secondary school.
After that, a student takes two high-stake exams to enter a path of higher education or a path of vocational education. Most Chinese parents aspire for their children to do well in these exams and receive higher education, a ticket for a more promising future.
For years, the Ministry of Education has required public schools to lessen homework for students, aiming to reduce their academic burden and stress level. However, that boosts the growth of private tutoring industry. Parents spare no resources to ensure their children will do well in high stake exams for a better life.
1. History and culture of Chinese education
More than 100 years before Plato set up the Academy (in 387 BC), Confucius in China began his teaching, reaching more than 3,000 students during his life. He believed that every man should be taught as long as he asks, no matter his background, social class, nationality, etc. His writings reached countries such as China, Japan and Korea and still influence today’s East Asian societies.
Over the course of Chinese history, the KEJU (科举) system was developed as a way to select talents to manage the country’s administrative system, based on written exams. In a feudal society, KEJU was relatively transparent and probably the only way to achieve social mobility for those born in poverty. This further made education the goal of Chinese society.
These histories instil a strong cultural drive to Chinese parents even today – education is the means to a better life.
2. Chinese education pathways and system
China’s education offers nine years of basic and free teaching via its public schools (unless in private schools which will be addressed in the section ‘public vs private schools). The nine years include six years of primary school (in some regions it is five years) and three years of junior secondary school (in some regions four years). The purpose is to build a broad foundation especially in the subjects of Chinese language and math.
After that, students have two high-stake exams, one at the age of 15/16, the other at the age of 18/19. These two written exams are designed to select ‘elite’ students for university education. Preparing for these exams is highly stressful for both students and parents.
The first exam (senior secondary school entrance exam) decides if a student enters a senior secondary school (preparing for a university education) or a vocational school (leading to a technical path without a university education). The second exam Gao Kao (university entrance exam) is only for senior secondary school students, to take at the age of 18/19 in order to select students for university education. Students who do not meet the minimum score required by universities will enter a technical college for a technical path.
Please find the below ‘Chinese education pathway’ chart for a better visual presentation.
Public vs. private schools
A student can choose a public school/university or a private school/university to complete education. Public schools are funded by the government while private schools are responsible for their own funding. But the ownership structure is not the only difference between these two types of education institution.
Management style: in a public school, a teacher is a civil servant who is guaranteed a life-time job. In a private school, teachers’ financial compensation or career reward is largely linked to students’ academic results. The incentive is greater to ensure students achieve better exam results in this case.
Facilities: a well-funded private school might have much better facilities and equipment for teaching.
Curriculum design: a private school usually has more flexibility in offering extra curriculum activities and soft-skill courses. A public school is more inclined to just follow the standard curriculum given by the Ministry of Education.
Student recruitment: a public school can only recruit its students from its local district. But a private school can make a more flexible decision to accept any students who can afford the tuition. Many families make their apartment-buying decisions largely based on school choices for their future children. (similar to what parents in the Western countries would do) However, if they can’t afford these properties, they would most likely spend money on private tutoring for these children.
It is wrong to simply assess a school’s quality based on its ownership structure. There are excellent and not-so-excellent schools in either category. Parents will make huge efforts to help their children attend a school with a good reputation and track record.
There are two types of private school: (1) International private schools offer an international curriculum (eg. A-level, IB, AP) to prepare a student for further study in the West. They usually target non-Chinese passport holders who are preparing to apply universities outside the Chinese system. (2) Domestic private schools follow a standard curriculum required by the Chinese Ministry of Education. These schools prepare a student’s formal learning journey within the Chinese system. This blog does not consider international private schools as their students (non-Chinese passport holders) only represent 0.23% of the total student segment according to Blueprint report of China’s International School, 2019. (中国国际学校发展蓝皮书 2019)
3. Subject, curriculum and homework for education in China
During the nine years of compulsory education, the Ministry of Education assigns compulsory teaching hours to designated subjects. For primary school, during the first and second year, from a total of twenty-six hours of teaching time, eight hours are dedicated to the Chinese language, four hours for math, three hours for physical education, three hours for character and life; four hours for music & art; four hours for extra curriculum. Additional subjects such as English and Science are taught from year 3. The teaching time per week is increased to thirty hours per week from that year.
Please see the graph below which shows mandatory curriculum requirement for primary school teaching. The bar length indicates % of teaching time required each week.
Source of data: the latest compulsory education curriculum design (最新版国家义务教育阶段课程设置)
The decision on which textbook is used in school is usually made by the (central or local) Education Bureau without inputs from the schools, the teachers, nor the students. This centralised approach is seen (by teachers and parents) as too simplistic and unable to cater to students who have varying capabilities. If parents think the school textbook is too simple for their children, they will seek extra learning materials and tutoring services.
In first-tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, the local education bureau issues policies to reduce the students’ burden by not allowing homework for earlier school years. But parents send their children for extra tutoring or hobbies classes. In third tier cities, students are still spending a lot of time doing homework after classes. In some extreme cases, parents will have to do homework on behalf of their children so they can have enough sleep. As some teachers delegate the homework review task to parents, it becomes a whole family project to do homework, review, and revise, usually lasting until late at night.
4. Exams and Gaokao in China’s education
There are two important written exams that Chinese parents see as major battles to fight for and must win. The exam results will determine if the children will be able to pursue higher education or switch to vocational schools (seen as undesired by Chinese parents). The first exam takes place after nine years of compulsory education. The second exam is for university entrance.
Preparing for these exams, the modern version of the KEJU system, is extremely stressful for both parents and children. The first exam assesses six subjects for the 15 or 16-year-old student: Chinese, Math, English, Politics, History, Physics and Chemistry. The exam result is used to select students who can continue senior secondary school. Students who fail to reach the threshold will have to choose a vocational path.
For those entering senior secondary school, they have another critical exam, Gao Kao, three years after. This is an exam to decide if the student can get to a university and which one if so. The Government selects certain universities for elite status. They receive better resources and enjoy a better reputation. Therefore, these are desirable higher education institution to get into.
Gao Kao has the reputation of being ‘the one single exam to decide your whole life’. Chinese, Math and English are three core subjects for assessment. One can choose elective subject from Politics, History and Geography to study humanity subjects for university, or from) Physics, Chemistry or Biology to apply for STEM subjects at university.
5. A school day for a Chinese student
School term times
There are forty teaching weeks per year out of the fifty-two weeks. They are divided into spring term (twenty weeks) and autumn term (twenty weeks). During each term, about eighteen weeks are dedicated to teaching, one week for exam revision and one week for extra curriculum activity. During the teaching week, a student will have seven or eight hours for his/her class from Monday to Friday.
Morning: A student gets up about 7 am. Before going to school, he/she usually will have breakfast and do some reading out loud exercise (早读). After arriving at school, there is usually a school assembly (升旗仪式) before classes. Each class is about 45 minutes. There are four classes in the morning.
Lunch break: The lunch break usually starts at 11:30 when students either go home or stay at school to have lunch and take a nap. In some schools, afternoon classes start at 2 pm. But in other schools, the classes do not start until 3 pm.
Afternoon: There are about two to three classes in the afternoon. After school is dismissed, students either go home to do their homework or they go to attend private tutoring classes or extracurricular activities.
Evening: Dinner time is around 6 or 7 pm. In the evening, students will continue their homework and most likely it is a family event as parents have the responsibility to review their homework. It is not unusual for some families to do homework together until late at night.
In theory, the weekend is for resting. But the common practice is for parents to send their children to all kinds of private tutoring classes (补习班) or extracurricular activities classes（兴趣班). For some children, they rush from one class to another, not able to really enjoy their weekends.
In Chinese society, the exam (usually in written format) has a critical role in one’s education. It is partly due to history and culture, partly due to the exam’s role in selecting students for a desired pathway. The Ministry of Education has been encouraging schools and families to reduce students’ burden. In some provinces, Education Bureaus forbid schools to assign homework to students during the early school years. But in reality, parents will send their children for private tutoring classes or extracurricular activity classes. So, a child’s schedule is usually crammed between schoolwork and tutoring classes, leaving little time for relaxing, playing, or socialising.