One might be mistaken for thinking that Su Manwen, a 7-year-old first grade student in a primary school in Dongcheng district, Beijing, would be pleased to discover that her school was reducing her study workload on orders from the government.
Although she still gets up each day at 7 am for 8 am classes, she's usually finished at school by 4 pm, and by then she's completed her 30 minutes of review - a much lower workload than when she previously had lots of homework, courtesy of new regulations for primary and high school students from the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education.
However, although her homework may have been cut, it doesn't necessarily mean her total workload has been reduced. When she comes back home, she has to recite ancient Chinese poems, play the guzheng (a traditional stringed instrument) and do other homework assigned by her mother.
"I'm not happy to hear about the new regulation because it just means my mother will assign more homework for me," Su told the Global Times. "The homework assigned by my mother is more difficult than the work assigned by my teachers."
Whilst education authorities can pass regulations to try and curb the intense pressure faced by students; they have a much harder time dealing with the fierce competition that makes parents push their children to study around the clock.
The new regulation, which the Beijing Times has dubbed "the strictest rule of its kind in China," covers a range of areas of study and will take effect on March 19. Under the regulation, primary schools should cancel midterm exams, limit homework and both primary and high schools are forbidden from issuing exam rankings. It also forbids schools, teaching research institutes and private tutoring organizations from organizing "make-up" classes outside of the regular school curriculum. Teachers in public schools can't charge fees for after-school classes, and can't persuade their students to attend training classes for their other subjects, according to the People's Daily.
Since it was announced on February 25, some primary and high schools in the capital have been trying to adjust their rules to meet the new requirements.
But for Su, little has changed. Her mother, surnamed Jin, spends about 20,000 yuan ($3,212) a year on her daughter's extracurricular education in English, the guzheng and the game weiqi (also known as Go).
At least, Su says she enjoys some of these activities and they don't make her feel too tired. Jin said that ultimately, competition is driving her decisions.
"Most parents have only one child and lack parenting experience. We must teach our kids learning abilities to be successful in the future," she said. "All of society judges students' performances through the gaokao (national college entrance examinations)."
Shao Changjie, a high school English teacher in Beijing, hailed the regulation, but has her own concerns.
"With less homework, teachers may have more energy to improve their teaching abilities," Shao told the Global Times. "Since scores are ultimately the final measure of the gaokao, how can we know the quality of a high school, teachers and students without exams and their rankings?"
Cities across the country, such as Lanzhou in Gansu Province and Xiamen in Fujian Province, have attempted similar regulations.
The Xiamen education bureau even ordered local primary and high schools to post their school timetables near their school gates in an effort to promote transparency, the Xiamen-based Strait Herald reported Tuesday.
Wang Yu, 15, a Grade-9 student in Xiamen, said that her life hasn't changed and now she is busy preparing for the senior high school entrance examinations (zhongkao), which fall in June. Every day she gets up at 6:30 am, has exams at noon and goes to bed at 11 pm.
"I can handle my fast-paced life. The pressure comes from my parents who have too many expectations of me," Wang Yu told the Global Times. "If what I learn is based on my own interests, I'll enjoy it more."
Wang Hongcai, Wang Yu's father and an education expert with Xiamen University, told the Global Times that he feels sad witnessing his daughter work long hours every day.
"It's bad for her health. Many students sacrifice their health to gain good scores due to the furious competition in society," Wang Hongcai said. "The policies sound good, but implementing them is a problem because it involves balancing the interests of different groups. Nobody can relax as long as the gaokao and zhongkao exist."
This isn't the first time attempts have been made to tackle the problem.
In 1988, the National Education Commission, the predecessor to the Ministry of Education, released a regulation to cut the workload of primary school students. In 2000, this attempt was repeated. Ten years later, the plan yet again appeared in the country's mid- and long-term education reform and development outline, as approved by the State Council in 2010.
"Government orders won't work without reforms of the zhongkao and gaokao," Xiong Bingqi, an education expert with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told the Global Times.
The government hires staff according to exam scores while telling schools to cut the study workload, said Xiong, adding that when the government keeps issuing orders to curb the study workload but it makes no difference, it weakens government credibility. He said that the government should increase investment in education and empower schools to conduct reforms.
Boosting after-school institutions
Despite the continued attempts to reduce study workloads, the demands on students have increased each year and after-school tutoring businesses have reaped the rewards.
Around 87 percent of primary and high school students have attended an after-school institution, Ge Jianping, a vice president with Beijing Normal University, said in a China Education Daily report on Tuesday. Out of those surveyed, 68 percent said they were required to do so by their parents. Societies affected by Confucian culture stress students' performance and discipline, Lao Kaisheng, an education professor with the Capital Normal University, told the Global Times.
"Reducing their study burden is a problem faced by all of society. Society pins too much hope on changing lives through education," Lao said. "It has gone beyond seeing education as a way to improve one's own development, to seeing it as a ladder to the upper levels of society."