Preprimary & Primary Education
Unlike primary education in Chinese cities, kindergarten education is not offered on a universal basis. Nationwide, in 1998, approximately 24,030,000 children attended 181,368 kindergartens (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). The proportion of children who attend kindergartens in cities is higher, with more children spending at least some time in kindergarten between the ages of three and six when they enter primary school. It is a general principle that children who have attended a reputable kindergarten will more easily attain a spot in a good primary school. Consequently, despite the higher fees charged at the best kindergartens, places are often difficult to secure. Sometimes there are entrance examinations designed to test coordination, verbal development, simple counting, and the recognition of shapes. Despite the existence of formal selection procedures, access to guanxi (connections), or a "back door" may help with entry into a good kindergarten.
Factories, companies, universities, and government offices all operate nurseries for their own employees. Their quality varies, depending in part on the nature of the unit to which they are attached. Usually, the elite kindergartens are operated by local education bureaus. University kindergartens are renowned for their standards, and the admission criteria are very stringent. When choosing kindergartens for their children, however, closeness to the work place and opening hours coordinated with the working day make enterprise kindergartens a convenient choice. The majority of urban kindergartens are run by the residents' committees. These provide day care only. The equipment is simpler and their staff less highly trained than in the elite establishments.
Kindergarten activities have undergone significant changes in the 1990s. The popularization of a national kindergarten syllabus has produced a surprising degree of similarity in the children's day and in teaching methods used in kindergartens all over the country. The subjects taught include language, arithmetic, social studies, music, art, and physical education. The learning through play approach is much better established than in the past.
The status of kindergarten teachers has not risen very much since the days when the majority of staff were kindly but uneducated elderly women. Today, the qualified teachers are graduates from normal schools for kindergartens. They are called laoshi (teacher) as a mark of respect, rather than the familiar address form ayi (auntie) used in the past. However, their wages are poor, and kindergarten training tends to be taken by less competitive students whose grades are not good enough to get into any other college.
Moral and ideological education in kindergarten has changed a great deal in the years since Mao's death (1976). In the past, words like "revolution," "socialism," "communism," and "Chairman Mao's thought" were common in the kindergarten classroom. Today, although the government still requires kindergartens to instill a strong ideology and children are still taught to "love China and the communist Party," kindergartens also teach children to be modest, unselfish, tidy, and polite. Children also need to learn to distinguish between good and bad, care for their environment, and help one another. These values are important considering the fact that today's Chinese children are from one-child families, and most of them are spoiled by their parents and grandparents.
The most important document regarding primary education policy was The Government Administration Council Directive Concerning the Reorganization and Improvement of Primary School Education signed by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1953. It asked primary schools throughout China to have the same pedagogical plan and to develop the same systems of governing attendance, leave, and certification of attainment. Children begin primary school when they are seven-years-old or often six-years-old in urban areas. Primary education includes six-year programs, although in the past there were some five-year programs. There are three types of schools: full-time elementary, rural elementary, and simple elementary (Ashmore & Cao 1997). In 1998, about 139,538,000 students were enrolled in 609,626 primary schools (China Statistical Yearbook 1999).
Primary classes are large, the atmosphere is formal, and discipline is quite strict. Children are no longer required to sit with their hands clasped behind their backs as they were before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but they sit in straight rows, stand up to answer the teacher, and recite much of what they are required to learn in unison.
Two programs were developed to satisfy the need for education in less developed areas. One is the half-and-half agricultural secondary school. Students in this kind of school spend a half-day in study and a half-day in labor to support themselves. Their facilities are often primitive: a hastily erected shack or the floor of a barn. Another program is the part-time primary school, often called "simplified primary school." It usually offers a few daily classes taught by locally recruited teachers, usually themselves only primary school graduates. The classrooms are often located in old temples and the facilities are ill-suited for students. These are known as minban (popularly-run) schools, which are run communally by villages; they are solely supported by village funds and do not receive any financial support from the national government. Minban schools do not intend to prepare students for further education or for vocations different from those of their parents. The number of minban schools is unreported by Chinese authorities. Theoretically, every primary school teacher should be paid by the government. In reality, sometimes it is hard to find a teacher in rural areas. Villagers need to recruit teachers themselves, and the salary of the teacher is drawn from village funds.
The curriculum for primary schools is very much standardized in China. There are standard textbooks for curricula at all levels. The central theme of these uniformly written textbooks is that China is a unified, glorious country with a great past and a bright future. Despite considerable variation in geography, agriculture, climate, language, and local customs, nearly the same subjects are taught with the same materials throughout the country. The standardized curriculum dictates that 40 percent of class hours should be devoted to the study of Chinese (including reading, writing, composition, and speaking). A further 24 percent of class hours is devoted to arithmetic. The remaining class hours are absorbed by physical education, music, art, natural science, politics, geography, and history. Increasingly, foreign languages, particularly English, have become optional courses. The government planned to make English a mandatory course starting at the third year of primary school at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
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