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Give children back their childhood
By Xu Shengsheng (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-06-23 08:38

A recent survey by Shanghai educational department shows that homework assigned to primary school pupils has become a heavy burden they can hardly bear, with 90 per cent of the children having to toil at their assignments far into the night before freeing themselves from their stacks of papers. In extreme cases, some poor kids have to work until midnight.

With increasingly weighty school bags and heavy workload after school, very little free time is left for the kids to enjoy their flowering childhoods. Most of them are stressed out from their full scheduled. They are unhappy.

This picture of minors' lives is vexing the whole society. And it makes me feel bad to see the way kids drag themselves home in the afternoon after a rigorous day, looking exhausted, bulging bags strapped to their backs.

This presents a striking contrast to my childhood when I attended a primary school in Shanghai. It was located in an alley off what is now the most prosperous section of Nanjing Xilu and bore the English name the "Mary Farnham School". It survived all the changes over the years, and is still a primary school today.

At that time, in addition to the main subjects, we used to spend a lot of time singing, dancing, and playing games. We also gave performances on special occasions and invited parents to join us. The most exciting acting activities took place during the Christmas and New Year holidays, when we would stage short plays adapted from Bible stories to the accompaniment of the piano and the chorus.

The scenes of the shepherds, angels, the star, the baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger and many other features remain deeply engraved in my memory. Those were really happy days for a boy. Though devoting far less effort and time to academic works, I do not in the least think it was an inferior upbringing in comparison with that kids today receive, despite the dearth of nous at that time about the science and technology known at the present time.

The dominant factor giving rise to the increasingly hefty volume of home assignment lies in the drawbacks inherent in the current enrollment system for schools of different levels. The overpowering criteria for appraising students are based on their academic performance. Grades are always omnipotent. Higher grades lead to a top high school, which itself will lead to a top college. And eventually a good job.

So it is only logical to practise oceans of exercises to master the tricks of gaining high marks. Teachers are carried along in the academic race, issuing reference materials and endless thick flow of mock exam papers in a bid to boost the proportion of students admitted by major schools of a higher level. Sure, some are driven by sheer personal interests.

To make things worse, young urban parents, in their eagerness to make their kids super tykes, are pushing them to be all they can be in the hope of their growing up to be a dragon or a phoenix. Fearing that school education isn't competitive enough to give their kids an early edge, they drive them into private classes for extra forced-feeding of key subjects. Parents say their kids need such "extras" if they are not to get behind. And there are numerous private classes that offer "math Olympics", musical instruments, dance, drawing, calligraphy and tutoring for many other subjects - you name it.

The whole thing seems to be a huge vortex, into which schools, families, businesses, and indeed the whole society is being sucked, with kids stricken the hardest. And there seems no way for them to get themselves out of it. While most people, especially parents, are very unhappy about the situation, they just cannot resist the formidable trend. They cannot help but drift with the stream of success-oriented culture, however unwilling they may be. In this ruthless scramble for an early success, not only the kids are overburdened, but parents are suffering severely too, spiritually, physically and financially.

The loud cry for quality education has been around for quite some time, and indeed it has already played its role in shaping the desired quality of our offspring. Unfortunately it is not backed up by a workable, quantitative gauge for assessment of students. Much remains to be done in this respect.

Good news is that the higher authorities, from Central Government down, have alerted the educational sector nationwide and the general public to the harm being done to minors by the vicious cycle of competition. To address this problem, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission has recently imposed restrictions on the amount of home work assignment, and banned all forms of tutoring after classes.

In a resolution aimed at improving and strengthening ideological and moral education for primary and secondary students, it is stipulated that from now on, no homework shall be allocated to first and second graders, and that for higher grades it be no more than half an hour's work. It is also strictly forbidden to nibble away lunch time, breaks and holidays for extra coaching.

Rules or resolutions alone will not work. But this is a good beginning. It needs joint efforts from every aspect of society to slash the kids' workloads, and leave them more time and space to prepare for a life based on their highest interests and ideals. Under the proper guidance of teachers and parents, of course.

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