Secondary education in China has a complicated history. In the early 1960s, education planners followed a policy called "walking on two legs," which established both regular academic schools and separate technical schools for vocational training. The rapid expansion of secondary education during the Cultural Revolution created serious problems; because resources were spread too thinly, educational quality declined. Further, this expansion was limited to regular secondary schools; technical schools were closed during the Cultural Revolution because they were viewed as an attempt to provide inferior education to children of worker and peasant families. In the late 1970s, government and party representatives criticized what they termed the "unitary" approach of the 1960s, arguing that it ignored the need for two kinds of graduates: those with an academic education (college preparatory) and those with specialized technical education (vocational). Beginning in 1976 with the renewed emphasis on technical training, technical schools reopened, and their enrollments increased (as did those of key schools, also criticized during the Cultural Revolution). In the drive to spread vocational and technical education, regular secondary-school enrollments fell. By 1986 universal secondary education was part of the nine year compulsory education law that made primary education (six years) and junior-middle-school education (three years) mandatory. The desire to consolidate existing schools and to improve the quality of key middle schools was, however, under the education reform, more important than expanding enrollment.
Chinese secondary schools are called middle schools and are divided into junior and senior levels. In 1985 more than 104,000 middle schools (both regular and vocational) enrolled about 51 million students. Junior, or lower, middle schools offered a three year course of study, which students began at twelve years of age. Senior, or upper, middle schools offered a two or three year course, which students began at age fifteen.
The regular secondary-school year usually had two semesters, totaling nine months. In some rural areas, schools operated on a shift schedule to accommodate agricultural cycles. The academic curriculum consisted of Chinese, mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, foreign language, history, geography, politics, physiology, music, fine arts, and physical education. Some middle schools also offered vocational subjects. There were thirty or thirty-one periods a week in addition to self-study and extracurricular activity. Thirty-eight percent of the curriculum at a junior middle school was in Chinese and mathematics, 16 percent in a foreign language. Fifty percent of the teaching at a senior middle school was in natural sciences and mathematics, 30 percent in Chinese and a foreign language.
Rural secondary education has undergone several transformations since 1980, when county-level administrative units closed some schools and took over certain schools run by the people's communes. In 1982 the communes were eliminated. In 1985 educational reform legislation officially placed rural secondary schools under local administration. There was a high dropout rate among rural students in general and among secondary students in particular, largely because of parental attitudes. All students, however, especially males, were encouraged to attend secondary school if it would lead to entrance to a college or university (still regarded as prestigious) and escape from village life.
In China a senior-middle-school graduate is considered an educated person, although middle schools are viewed as a training ground for colleges and universities. And, while middle-school students are offered the prospect of higher education, they are also confronted with the fact that university admission is limited. Middle schools are evaluated in terms of their success in sending graduates on for higher education, although efforts persist to educate young people to take a place in society as valued and skilled members of the work force.
Vocational and Technical Schools
Both regular and vocational secondary schools sought to serve modernization needs. A number of technical and "skilled-worker" training schools reopened after the Cultural Revolution, and an effort was made to provide exposure to vocational subjects in general secondary schools (by offering courses in industry, services, business, and agriculture). By 1985 there were almost 3 million vocational and technical students.
Under the educational reform tenets, polytechnic colleges were to give priority to admitting secondary vocational and technical school graduates and providing on-the-job training for qualified workers. Education reformers continued to press for the conversion of about 50 percent of upper secondary education into vocational education, which traditionally had been weak in the rural areas. Regular senior middle schools were to be converted into vocational middle schools, and vocational training classes were to be established in some senior middle schools. Diversion of students from academic to technical education was intended to alleviate skill shortages and to reduce the competition for university enrollment. Although enrollment in technical schools of various kinds had not yet increased enough to compensate for decreasing enrollments in regular senior middle schools, the proportion of vocational and technical students to total senior-middle-school students increased from about 5 percent in 1978 to almost 36 percent in 1985, although development was uneven. Further, to encourage greater numbers of junior-middle-school graduates to enter technical schools, vocational and technical school graduates were given priority in job assignments, while other job seekers had to take technical tests.
In 1987 there were four kinds of secondary vocational and technical schools: technical schools that offered a four year, post-junior middle course and two- to three-year post-senior middle training in such fields as commerce, legal work, fine arts, and forestry; workers' training schools that accepted students whose senior-middle-school education consisted of two years of training in such trades as carpentry and welding; vocational technical schools that accepted either junior-or senior-middle-school students for one- to three-year courses in cooking, tailoring, photography, and other services; and agricultural middle schools that offered basic subjects and agricultural science.
These technical schools had several hundred different programs. Their narrow specializations had advantages in that they offered in-depth training , reducing the need for on-the-job training and thereby lowering learning time and costs. Moreover, students were more motivated to study if there were links between training and future jobs. Much of the training could be done at existing enterprises, where staff and equipment was available at little additional cost.
There were some disadvantages to this system, however. Under the Four Modernizations, technically trained generalists were needed more than highly specialized technicians. Also, highly specialized equipment and staff were underused, and there was an overall shortage of specialized facilities to conduct training. In addition, large expenses were incurred in providing the necessary facilities and staff, and the trend in some government technical agencies was toward more general technical and vocational education.
Further, the dropout rate continued to have a negative effect on the labor pool as upper-secondary-school technical students dropped out and as the percentage of lower-secondary-school graduates entering the labor market without job training increased. Occupational rigidity and the geographic immobility of the population, particularly in rural areas, further limited educational choices.
Although there were 668,000 new polytechnic school enrollments in 1985, the Seventh Five-Year Plan called for annual increases of 2 million mid-level skilled workers and 400,000 senior technicians, indicating that enrollment levels were still far from sufficient. To improve the situation, in July 1986 officials from the State Education Commission, State Planning Commission, and Ministry of Labor and Personnel convened a national conference on developing China's technical and vocational education. It was decided that technical and vocational education in rural areas should accommodate local conditions and be conducted on a short-term basis. Where conditions permitted, emphasis would be placed on organizing technical schools and short-term training classes. To alleviate the shortage of teachers, vocational and technical teachers' colleges were to be reformed and other colleges and universities were to be mobilized for assistance. The State Council decision to improve training for workers who had passed technical examinations (as opposed to unskilled workers) was intended to reinforce the development of vocational and technical schools.
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