China’s Five Obstacles – 2) Education

EducationThe second of five articles summarizing what stands in China’s way of becoming a superpower in football by 2050 focuses on when students can actually play.

China’s vast size and huge population means its potential is far greater than most nations. Currently, football is the industry trying to exploit that potential in the hope of success on the global stage. But while the marketing possibilities for fans are enormous, the playing side of things faces a great challenge that is very much imbedded in the Chinese culture…education.

Simply put, the greater the population the greater the competition. So with regards to academic achievements, one student is always trying to outdo the other and that is often fuelled by immense pressure from the parents.

Subsequently, students will be spending the majority of their ‘free time’ completing homework, attending extra classes or partaking in an activity (music or dance) that their parents may have forced upon them in the first place.

books 2A typical middle school student would spend roughly four hours doing homework after school. That comes after a school day that starts at 8:00 a.m. and finishes at 4:30 a.m. Naturally, playing a sport during the week isn’t even a consideration, let alone a priority of any sorts.

This huge commitment is driven towards admittance into a top university. The quality of the course a student studies at that particular university is irrelevant. It’s still name over substance in China, which differs from the western approach.

To get into the top universities, students attending one of the 333,000 (approx.) state schools must take the Gao Kao exams. These take place on the 7th and 8th of June, leading to parents and grandparents standing outside the school gates, anxiously waiting for their loved ones ahead of an outcome they believe dictates the students’ future careers and success. The many years and countless hours of studying boils down to several tests in Chinese, Maths, English and one other specialist subject chosen by the student.

Special hotel rooms near the schools are available for students so they can spend more time revising and less time traveling back and forth. Parents will often accompany their children or employ Gao Kao nannies (latest bbc link) who specialize in preparation for the exams. To avoid any noise disturbance, roads outside the schools are blocked off during the two days.


Tightened security during the exam days.

Many parents have been planning their child’s route to a top university since pre-school. They essentially work their way back from a top high school in order to know which middle school they are best attending, which leads to the primary school decision and ultimately the desired choice of kindergarten. In addition to this, they would have their child enroll in a number of after school or weekend classes (sometimes in spite of limited finances) to ensure their child is a top academic student.

Clearly it’s a lot of pressure for the students not just because of the volume of competition they’re up against but also the fact that most are from a single child family. The weight of responsibility in addition to the hopes and dreams of their parents, including both sets of grandparents, can sadly lead to fatal consequences with some committing suicide despite being the top of a class of 50.

A 2008 poll of more than 3,800 teenagers in Foshan, Guangdong province, found that 17 percent of female junior high school students had contemplated suicide according to China Daily.

“There is a clear connection with the country’s basic education system,” said Xu Kaiwen, anassociate professor of clinical psychology at Peking University.

There’s a distinct lack of work life balance for these deprived teenagers which can start from as young as kindergarten. I once taught a five-year-old girl who spent 60 hours a week studying. She was a very sweet and well-behaved student, capable of fluently reciting a story in English that would take a few minutes to finish. She was also confident and sociable, but I couldn’t help but fear for her future if this was how her childhood – supposedly the best and certainly the freest period of life – would begin.

It’s not uncommon to see students from middle to high school appearing sapped of all energy and life as they wheel their school bag – such is the weight of it – back home.

As a sweeping statement, Chinese students are often labeled academically very strong but short of creativity, initiative and social skills. It’s the IQ v EQ argument and parents are beginning to acknowledge the significance of EQ, especially when it comes to university applications abroad.

Western universities look at the student beyond their test scores. They want to know if they can bring more to the university than just good grades. Do they have other skills in sport, music, drama etc.? Do they contribute to the community? Parents are now considering these questions but the student would often end up specialising in ballet or a musical instrument ahead of any sport.

That’s partly due to a presence of the archaic belief that sport only provides physical benefits. However, parents are beginning to accept that regular involvement in sport allows participants to develop their leadership skills, confidence, ability to deal with different characters, decision making and crucially, understanding of teamwork. A set of transferable skills not just limited to school but also their careers further down the line. Furthermore, an increase in alertness, concentration and healthier lifestyle will naturally assist their work or studies.

But it will take a great deal of time for the majority of parents to accept this to be true and not see P.E. as just an opportunity for overrun students to let off some steam. In my opinion, more time than the 34 years they’ve set to become a superpower within football both on and off the pitch. But as the locals say, “Don’t underestimate China!”