The Education System
To provide for its population, China has a vast and varied school system. There are preschools, kindergartens, schools for the deaf and blind, key schools (similar to college preparatory schools), primary schools, secondary schools (comprising junior and senior middle schools, secondary agricultural and vocational schools, regular secondary schools, secondary teachers' schools, secondary technical schools, and secondary professional schools), and various institutions of higher learning (consisting of regular colleges and universities, professional colleges, and short-term vocational universities). In terms of access to education, China's system represented a pyramid; because of the scarcity of resources allotted to higher education, student numbers decreased sharply at the higher levels. Although there were dramatic advances in primary education after 1949, achievements in secondary and higher education were not as great.
Although the government has authority over the education system, the Chinese Communist Party has played a role in managing education since 1949. The party established broad education policies and under Deng Xiaoping, tied improvements in the quality of education to its modernization plan. The party also monitored the government's implementation of its policies at the local level and within educational institutions through its party committees. Party members within educational institutions, who often have a leading management role, are responsible for steering their schools in the direction mandated by party policy.
The May 1985 National Conference on Education recognized five fundamental areas for reform to be discussed in connection with implementing the party Central Committee's "Draft Decision on Reforming the Education System." The reforms were intended to produce "more able people"; to make the localities responsible for developing "basic education" and systematically implement a nine-year compulsory education program; to improve secondary education develop vocational and technical education; to reform and the graduate-assignment system of institutions of higher education and to expand their management and decision-making powers; and to give administrators the necessary encouragement and authority to ensure smooth progress in educational reform.
The National Conference on Education paved the way for the abolition of the Ministry of Education and the establishment of the State Education Commission, both of which occurred in June 1985. Created to coordinate education policy, the commission assumed roles previously played by the State Planning Commission and the Ministry of Education. As a State Council commission, the new State Education Commission had greater status than the old Ministry of Education had had and was in charge of all education organizations except military ones. Although the State Education Commission assumed a central role in the administration of education, the reform decentralized much of the power previously wielded by the Ministry of Education and its constituent offices and bureaus, which had established curriculum and admissions policies in response to the State Planning Commission's requirements.
The State Education Commission, with its expanded administrative scope and power, was responsible for formulating guiding principles for education, establishing regulations, planning the progress of educational projects, coordinating the educational programs of different departments, and standardization educational reforms. Simplification of administration and delegation of authority were made the bases for improving the education system. This devolution of management to the autonomous regions, provinces, and special municipalities meant local governments had more decision-making power and were able to develop basic education. State-owned enterprises, mass organizations, and individuals were encouraged to pool funds to accomplish education reform. Local authorities used state appropriations and a percentage of local reserve financial resources (basically township financial revenues) to finance educational projects.
Compulsory Education Law
The Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education, which took effect July 1, 1986, established requirements and deadlines for attaining universal education tailored to local conditions and guaranteed school-age children the right to receive education. People's congresses at various local levels were, within certain guidelines and according to local conditions, to decide the steps, methods, and deadlines for implementing nine-year compulsory education in accordance with the guidelines formulated by the central authorities. The program sought to bring rural areas, which had four to six years of compulsory schooling, into line with their urban counterparts. Education departments were exhorted to train millions of skilled workers for all trades and professions and to offer guidelines, curricula, and methods to comply with the reform program and modernization needs.
Provincial-level authorities were to develop plans, enact decrees and rules, distribute funds to counties, and administer directly a few key secondary schools. County authorities were to distribute funds to each township government, which were to make up any deficiencies. County authorities were to supervise education and teaching and to manage their own senior middle schools, teachers' schools, teachers' in-service training schools, agricultural vocational schools, and exemplary primary and junior middle schools. The remaining schools were to be managed separately by the county and township authorities.
The compulsory education law divided China into three categories: cities and economically developed areas in coastal provinces and a small number of developed areas in the hinterland; towns and villages with medium development; and economically backward areas. By November 1985 the first category--the larger cities and approximately 20 percent of the counties (mainly in the more developed coastal and southeastern areas of China) had achieved universal 9-year education. By 1990 cities, economically developed areas in coastal provincial-level units, and a small number of developed interior areas (approximately 25 percent of China's population) and areas where junior middle schools were already popularized were targeted to have universal junior-middle- school education. Education planners envisioned that by the mid-1990s all workers and staff in coastal areas, inland cities, and moderately developed areas (with a combined population of 300 million to 400 million people) would have either compulsory 9-year or vocational education and that 5 percent of the people in these areas would have a college education--building a solid intellectual foundation for China. Further, the planners expected that secondary education and university entrants would also increase by the year 2000.
The second category targeted under the 9-year compulsory education law consisted of towns and villages with medium-level development (around 50 percent of China's population), where universal education was expected to reach the junior-middle-school level by 1995. Technical and higher education was projected to develop at the same rate.
The third category, economically backward (rural) areas (around 25 percent of China's population) were to popularize basic education without a timetable and at various levels according to local economic development, though the state would "do its best" to support educational development. The state also would assist education in minority nationality areas. In the past, rural areas, which lacked a standardized and universal primary education system, had produced generations of illiterates; only 60 percent of their primary school graduates had met established standards.
As a further example of the government's commitment to nine-year compulsory education, in January 1986 the State Council drafted a bill passed at the Fourteenth Session of the Standing Committee of the Sixth National People's Congress that made it illegal for any organization or individual to employ youths before they had completed their nine years of schooling. The bill also authorized free education and subsidies for students whose families had financial difficulties.
"Key schools," shut down during the Cultural Revolution, reappeared in the late 1970s and, in the early 1980s, became an integral part of the effort to revive the lapsed education system. Because educational resources were scarce, selected ("key") institutions--usually those with records of past educational accomplishment--were given priority in the assignment of teachers, equipment, and funds. They also were allowed to recruit the best students for special training to compete for admission to top schools at the next level. Key schools constituted only a small percentage of all regular senior middle schools and funneled the best students into the best secondary schools, largely on the basis of entrance scores. In 1980 the greatest resources were allocated to the key schools that would produce the greatest number of college entrants.
In early 1987 efforts had begun to develop the key school from a preparatory school into a vehicle for diffusing improved curricula, materials, and teaching practices to local schools. Moreover, the appropriateness of a key school's role in the nine-year basic education plan was questioned by some officials because key schools favored urban areas and the children of more affluent and better educated parents. In 1985 entrance examinations and the key-school system had already been abolished in Changchun, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Xiamen, and other cities, and education departments in Shanghai and Tianjin were moving to establish a student recommendation system and eliminate key schools. In 1986 the Shanghai Educational Bureau abolished the key junior-middle- school system to ensure "an overall level of education."
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