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Memories of a very Chinese education

By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2015-08-30 13:06

Since my first day at middle school in a small town in Central China's Henan province in 1997, I was, like most of my peers, told repeatedly by parents and teachers to study hard to enter a good university.

A red banner, with big, black words that read: "To enter a good college at all costs" hung in the back of my classroom is still fresh in my memory even 15 years after I last saw it.

My school at that time was even worse than the school in the BBC documentary, in which teachers wrote on the blackboard and required students to take notes. Students got punished when they became distracted, a rule supported by parents who expected their children to behave well in exams.

They were not unreasonable in doing so. China so lacked college graduates in the 1990s that any of them were sure of a promising future.

Graduates busy applying for a job today can only envy their fathers' generation, who cared about nothing but choosing among different offers. In that decade, gaokao, the national college entrance exam, was the only channel for many to enter their dream universities.

For parents, the scores their children got at school were the most direct evidence what kind of career he or she would take when growing up. For teachers and school managers, there was no better advertisement than good academic records of their students, because parents would choose to send children to schools where students got higher scores.

Changes first appeared in 2003. As colleges started expanding and raising their admittance rate from 1999 levels, those entering college that year suddenly found competition in the job market fiercer upon graduation. In the years that followed, college graduates have been taught again and again that they are no longer elites.

That period coincided with a robust wave of marketization in China after accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. In an increasingly capitalized society, good academic records are not everything, and one needs comprehensive abilities, such as social skills, the art of conversation and a good ability to concentrate, to survive. None of these skills can be obtained through exams.

During the same period, gaokao's role as the only channel toward higher education faded, too. As China's interaction with the other parts of the world grew, sending children out to the United States or Europe for a college education has increasingly become a choice for more families.

According to official data, more than 1.91 million Chinese students traveled overseas to study between 2001 and 2011, of whom 91.3 percent didn't have a scholarship.

That in turn resulted in a change of attitude by parents and teachers, who now hope the children they raise and teach could succeed in society. Competition remains fierce but is no longer about scoring high in exams only; increasingly more families start training their children in terms of social and other abilities, while teachers encourage their students to be more active and open.

The Chinese system depicted in the BBC documentary was more like the Chinese schools we went to 18 years ago. Maybe some schools in China are still like that today, but definitely not the majority, because schools must adapt to the nation's reality to survive.

The schools that train students for nothing but the college exam are only one of the choices these days. Maybe we can come back to Li Jun, an associate professor from the University of Hong Kong, who told me in an interview: "China is a huge country that does not lack diversity."

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