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China's Educational Success Is Taking a Toll on Students

AFP / Getty Images

Compare Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, to Liu Weihua and Zhang Xinwu and she comes out looking like a pussy cat. Well before Amy was making her daughters practice their instruments four hours a day, Liu and Zhang were credited with turning their daughter Yiting into an overnight celebrity in their native China, the very crucible of tiger parenting.

Not for singing or dancing on a TV talent show, which is the way most British children find overnight fame. Instead Yiting became famous for being the paragon of everything a Chinese child should be: She brought honor to her family by winning a full scholarship to Harvard. The resulting book, Harvard Girl Liu Yiting: a character training record, became the must-read manual for other Chinese families also seeking the holy grail of a place at an Ivy League college or Oxbridge. It went on to sell two million copies and spawned 70 copycat versions, including Yale Girl and Ivy League’s Not a Dream. All were based on the premise that with a strict upbringing and intense hard work any Chinese family could win the dream ticket.

Yiting’s parents started early. While still a baby, they placed toys just out of her reach to make her try harder to get them. At primary school, they timed her work to prepare for exams and encouraged her to hold ice in her hands for endurance. At the same time as Harvard Girl became a best-seller, there was one more development which increased the temperature still further in the global hothouse. In 2000, the first results of the Programme for International Student Assessment were published to compare education systems around the world. Across the globe, 26 countries put forward a representative sample of their 15-year-olds to be compared in tests on maths, science, and reading.

In the early days, China did not take part. But as the number of participants grew, in 2009 it dipped its toe in the water. It entered the children of Shanghai, the country’s most affluent petri dish of achievement, where 80 percent of children go to university. It was an impressive debut. Immediately Shanghai, with a population the size of Ghana, entered the chart at number one. The result triggered an unprecedented wave of panic among Western countries whose economies had also been slipping down the league. From starting out in the top ten in the first table, the U.K. had now dropped to twenty-fifth for reading, twenty-eighth for maths and sixteen for science. American and French pupils also scored poorly.

Western politicians rushed to condemn children for not working hard enough. The UK’s then-education secretary, Michael Gove, called it a “Sputnik moment”—after the moment the Americans realised they were falling behind the Russians in the space race.

“We are in a global race,” he warned. “Our children are competing against children in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, and we need to make sure our national curriculum—the standards we set—are as rigorous, as tough, as those on the other side of the world.”

“If that's what they are doing in China… and some of the countries with the best educational standards in the world, we have got to do that here.”

But while Gove may be gone, there is still no sign that his knee-jerk “for God’s sake, knuckle down and get on with some work for once approach” to education is being reversed by his successor. Regiment the national curriculum. Test children at every opportunity was apparently the answer. But also remember that you are dealing with children and you have to be careful what you wish for—let alone how you want to achieve it.

Contrasting Western and Eastern education has never been a comparison of like with like. A closer look at the classrooms which produce these results shows that China’s success comes at a high cost. And it’s the Chinese themselves who are the first to admit it. In China, children spend more than a month longer in school a year than our children, and the school day lasts nine hours—with breaks for eye massages to reduce eye strain and physical activity to keep concentration levels high. One study found that up to 90 percent of Asian schoolchildren, including those living in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, are nearsighted. This has been put down to them spending too much time indoors studying and not enough time outside in the sunlight. By comparison, the overall rate of myopia in the U.K. is between 20 and 30 percent.

Furthermore, the school bell in many countries in the far east is just the end of the first shift. Children then move on to cram schools. These are taken so seriously that in neighbouring South Korea, and across the far east, inspectors launch lightning raids to enforce curfews to prevent them teaching pupils past 10 p.m. Nor are children thriving under the pressure. A  survey of nine- to twelve-year-olds in the eastern province of Zhejiang by University College London found that more than 80 percent worried “a lot” about exams, while two-thirds feared punishment by their teachers. Look on YouTube and you will find examples of explosive violence by teachers against pupils. When questioned, three-quarters of the Chinese children surveyed say they are also scared of being physically punished by their parents.

Some see no way out. A 2009 study found that 24 percent of 2,500 students in Shanghai there have thought about killing themselves, mostly in response to exam stress. Last March, a boy apparently threw himself out of his classroom window rather than deal with the shame of not excelling in his university entrance exams. But of course the supreme irony is that despite being the envy of every country, the Chinese are calling their education system a failure.

At the same time as Western governments strive to make their schools more Asian, Asian governments are trying to make their schools more European and creative. The phrase gaofen dinen has now passed into general useage, meaning students who get high scores but have low ability and never learn to take initiative.

And while we fret here about poor maths scores, the Chinese also point to another test, which did not grab the headlines, which found that in tests of creativity and imagination, their children came fifth from bottom. “The results are shocking,” China Daily warned. “Children had almost no chance to use their imagination. From the first day of school they are pushed into a culture of exams, exams, and more exams.”

Changes under discussion at the Chinese Ministry of Education include stopping written homework for primary school pupils and encouraging kids in non-academic extracurricular activities to produce more well-rounded children.

More and more Chinese parents are also seeking to educate their children at home. There has even been a boom in alternative education such as  Waldorf  Steiner schools in China, with the movement now being described as a powerful counter-cultural force. One such school, the Chengdu Waldorf school in the South West of the country has a five year waiting list.

At the very heart of this system is Peking University High School deputy principal Jiang Xueqin, who is damning in his assessment of Chinese methods.

“It’s a test-oriented education system, which means that students are taught from a very early age how to beat tests. The failings of a rote-memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning.

“One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores come down.”

This article was originially published by New Statesman.