No prizes for getting into best schools
Published: Apr 25, 2013 06:33 PM


Illustration: Lu Ting/GT
Illustration: Lu Ting/GT


This week rescue efforts are still being made to save as many lives as possible in Lushan county, Sichuan Province after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the area on April 20 and which has already claimed 196 lives.

A terror spree in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region killed 21 people on Tuesday which has drawn worldwide condemnation. It seems nothing major has occurred in Shanghai over the past seven days. But, in fact, parents of Shanghai's grade five primary school students are currently suffering the type of anxiety that some would describe as psychological torture.

Let me explain the country's junior high school recruitment policy first. China implements a nine-year compulsory education policy which means that all children can, and must, receive at least nine years of education. Shanghai is no exception to this rule, but it is the only city that has five elementary school years and four junior high years, while other parts of the country have six elementary years and three junior high years.

Shanghai parents are not alone with these anxieties; the parents of grade six pupils in other regions share their concerns.

But why should parents worry when the fact is that all children have access to a junior high school education?

It is reported that Shanghai has 120,000 grade five students this year. At the same time, Shanghai has more than 1,300 primary schools and junior high schools.

Evaluated by history, reputation, location, the quality of teachers, past results, previous students, facilities and other factors, these schools are categorized as "excellent," "good," "average" or "bad," by most parents.

Inevitably, all parents will target the "excellent" schools, and which invariably receive thousands of applicants for their relatively limited number of places.

Unlike the citywide or nationwide entrance examinations for senior high schools and universities, there is no set exam for junior high school applicants.

Then what are the criteria for the schools to choose "top" students?

Usually, children from certain blocks of housing in the neighborhood of the school have the right to be admitted to the school, given that the school is a public institution. And this explains why house prices in certain areas are so much higher than in surrounding locales. Shanghai people refer to this kind of real estate as "school quarter houses."

Admittedly, if the guanxi (connections) network of a family is strong enough, there is also no need to worry about their children being admitted to a top school.

But the majority of ordinary families have good reason to worry about their child's educational future.

My friend told me that he is being driven to distraction because of the headaches around his grade five daughter being admitted to junior high school. Both he and his wife are graduates from Fudan University, Shanghai's premier university. He is the chief editor of a fairly well-known magazine in Shanghai. And perhaps out of misplaced confidence, neither he nor his wife imagined that they would have to place their daughter in any extracurricular training courses in order to better guarantee her admission to a reputable school.

So, for the past five years their daughter has been studying in a relatively relaxed manner. She has published several articles in newspapers and magazines. Her main hobbies are writing, drawing and music.

At the same time she performs fairly well in school with her Chinese, math and English all evaluated as "A-grade" by teachers. She is also a young cadre.

But as excellent as this is, she wasn't offered a place by a private school which will recruit some 500 students this year. The problem is that she lacks district, city, and even national level contest prize certificates for subjects like Chinese, math and English.

It's like a hidden rule for top schools to screen applicants, despite the fact that such informal vetting is actually prohibited by the city's education authorities. But, at the same time, all private schools have the freedom to choose whichever students they want.

My friend admitted that he underestimated the fierce competition among pupils and their parents.

Several years ago, I clearly remember him shrugging when I outlined my own daughter's future educational plans. And I'm not saying I am any smarter or wiser than him for having the foresight to realize how important such extra tuition would be. We didn't enroll our daughter into any expensive training schools, but my husband and I did coach her at home for certain contests.

Thankfully, she won prize certificates in all the main subjects, namely Chinese, math and English.

And, as expected, last year, she received several offers from excellent schools. Unsurprisingly, I didn't experience as much anxiety as my friend throughout this whole process.

But even now, I find it hard to draw conclusions as to which of us was the more responsible and enlightened in guiding our children's future.

The next two weeks are the crucial period as to how a grade five student's junior high school life will be determined. At the end of the day, all pupils will find a place somewhere. But there are still some serious issues that need to be debated and clarified at this particularly distressing time.

I think that parents should be notified at a very early stage as to the criteria whereby students will be admitted to both public and private schools.

The education authorities should play a leading role in facilitating this all-important communication between schools and parents.

The current situation is farcical, in that the authorities refuse to acknowledge the existence of prize certificates, while schools blatantly use them as criteria for admission.

A long-term, transparent, and consistent admissions system needs to be established as soon as possible.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.