Educating China's children - Michael O'Sullivan

Educating China's children - Michael O'Sullivan

Returning from a week in China, I am thinking about the powerful social, economic and political forces which are driving changes in school education in that country. Not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but right across an increasingly urbanised society. China has 16 cities with populations of over 5 million. In two cities 300 miles apart China has 16 cities with populations of over 5 million"

on the Yangtze River, Wuhan (10 million) and Nanjing (8 million), I saw first-hand how the swelling population of professionally employed parents, sometimes referred to as “China’s middle class”, is looking for an education for their children markedly different from the education they themselves received at school. “Children” rather than “child” will soon be the right word, since the government relaxed the one-child family policy two years ago, permitting any couple of whom at least one is an only child to have two children. This exemption benefits the majority of urban Chinese couples in their 20s and 30s.

It is a far cry from the early 1980s..."

The great effort made by China to improve school education since the Opening and Reform process began three and a half decades ago has produced substantial results. There has been impressive progress in, for example, achieving almost universal participation in primary and junior secondary education, and in the major cities completion of 12 year education and indeed progression to universities is becoming the norm. It is a far cry from the early 1980s, when fewer than five percent of children received any kind of higher education. Efforts to promote wide learning of English from junior years and even from primary school have made a significant difference already to the ability of younger people in China to communicate in English. China takes pride in children’s high levels of maths and science attainment, reflected in the high standings of Shanghai school children in global PISA tests. Such world-beating performance has provoked a good deal of enthusiasm in western countries for learning from China in education.

But of the many headaches with which policy makers still have to grapple, one of the most difficult is the question of how what is still a relatively monolithic and traditional state school education system can respond to the changing expectations and needs of China’s rapidly growing and well remunerated middle class. For There are calls for fostering creativity and independent thinking skills..."

reasons that are in part driven by changing values and in part by concern for their children’s career prospects in a changing world, these Chinese parents are looking for education for their children which redresses perceived deficiencies in national education. For many, this means education which prepares students for entry to, and success in, a leading American or British university. But aspirations go wider than that. Not everyone can afford to study abroad, and not all who can afford it would want their child to leave China at such an early age. There is a broader demand, heard ever more loudly from middle class parents, for education which allows students choice and autonomy, rather than imposing a rigid curriculum. There are calls for fostering creativity and independent thinking skills, with less mechanical practice of processes and less rote learning; for combining knowledge of China and the Chinese language with a global perspective and deeper understanding of other cultures; for a better balance between hard knowledge and soft skills, and between sciences and the humanities.

These parental ambitions for children are not really in conflict with the views of policy-makers. For some years the authorities have supported the idea of “quality The government displays understandable pride in what Chinese education has achieved"

education” which fosters both deep intellectual and broad social development. The government displays understandable pride in what Chinese education has achieved, but is very concerned about precisely those aspects of the national education system and curriculum with which parents are dissatisfied.

So, difficulties for policy-makers arise not so much from the nature of these new demands as with how to organise and regulate their supply in China’s school system. Thirty years ago there were no private schools in China"

Thirty years ago there were no private schools in China, save those reserved for the children of expatriates. Even as private schools were allowed to form over the last two decades, many state secondary schools were permitted to create new “international programmes” on their own campuses, leading to globally recognised end-of school qualifications such as A Levels. These programmes have catered on a fee-charging basis to the middle class, and have done so rather more successfully than most private schools. The greatest advantage enjoyed by state schools offering international programmes has been their more trusted brands, built upon a much longer history than any private school in China.

Yet the parallel running of what are effectively private education programmes within state schools has given rise to a host of problems. The most concerning negative effects have been: breakneck development..."

The most concerning negative effects have been: breakneck development of sometimes poor-quality programmes which fail to meet parents’ expectations, as state schools jump on the international bandwagon; distortion in the allocation of public education resources, as these are commandeered to make private programmes more attractive to customers; and tensions within schools when parents jostle for places for their children on quota-limited international programmes.

All these issues have promoted a reconsideration of policies, and it is becoming clear that fee-paying international education in state schools will be squeezed, perhaps with the consequence that provision of such programmes by private schools will flourish and expand. Great effort will continue to be made to improve the national ...make the curriculum fitter for the 21st century"

(free) education system and make the curriculum fitter for the 21st century and more attractive to today’s parents. However, that will take time and, meanwhile, local authorities will try hard to find policy and regulatory solutions which both promote improvement in state school education and provide international education options within the city for those parents who want them. The great incentive for local governments to succeed in this dual provision arises from the competition between cities in China to attract and retain professional talent. Highly employable, professional Chinese will be unwilling to reside in places where their children cannot receive the education to which their parents aspire.

This policy flux creates interesting times for organizations like mine, which are involved in the provision of international education in China. The leaders of Chinese ...education, will underpin the future economic strength of the city"

cities know that their success in offering competitively attractive education, both free state education and paid international education, will underpin the future economic strength of the city, which depends heavily on attraction and retention of mobile professional talent. Parents of means will scan the landscape for the education options most suited to what they perceive to be their children’s needs, and will be extremely demanding of the schools, public or private, to which they entrust their children.

Michael O'Sullivan
Chief Executive, Cambridge International Examinations