Category Archives: Education

China bans tutors: levelling-up or dumbing down?

Xi Xinping

On the face of it, two recent moves by the Chinese government appear to be aimed at promoting greater freedom and opportunity for its citizens.

The one-child restriction imposed on couples in 1979 was relaxed to two in 2016 and extended to three in May this year. China’s population of 1.4bn is ageing rapidly and growth is very slow: so the brakes are being taken off. And last month a tranche of strict regulations on for-profit tuition was brought in, supposedly to quell the rampant expansion of profit-based tutoring which has imposed huge financial burdens on a society obsessed with ensuring academic success by its children.

The Chinese tutoring sector is vast – worth an estimated $120bn, according to press reports – and for the most part comprises a network of both indigenous and worldwide corporations, as well as smaller firms and private individuals. “Training centres” – non-government funded, profit-based organisations offering extra tuition to parents prepared to pay for evening classes and weekend tuition for their kids – abound across China.

Exact details of the new restrictions are due to be released next month: it’s not entirely clear whether state schools will be made to add additional tuition themselves, for instance. What is known is that there will be new guidelines on how much homework can be set by state schools, more standardization of the curriculum across the provinces and, with a few exceptions, far less involvement by non-Chinese firms. There will be much-reduced emphasis on the teaching of foreign languages. Clearly there will be less pressure on children, who will benefit from a more healthy study:life balance, as extracurricular tuition in the evening, at weekends and during public holidays will be banned. This will reduce advantages gained by children of better-off parents. Crucially the removal of most of the additional financial burden on poorer parents (they can’t buy something which is no longer being sold) will no doubt assist in the strategic objective of encouraging people to have bigger families.

But what about other effects of these moves? A larger working population will ultimately provide this authoritarian state with the ability to increase productivity. Will China need quite so many high achievers in the years to come? Or does General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Xinping (top right), see advantages in strengthening the proportion of blue-collar workers in the population?

And does this clampdown on the exertion of direct foreign influence on the teaching of core subjects signal yet more strengthening of the state’s cultural protectionism? Despite the 2 million strong internet censorship organisation, the internet in China is certainly leaky, for example via VPNs. But there’s another much more overt influence: Chinese students studying abroad.

Around 216,000 Chinese students currently study in the UK. According to Global Times, “the number of entrants from China for higher education in the UK each year since the admission year 2012-13 has exceeded the number of all EU countries combined and continues to rise […] ‘Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China, told the Global Times … that ‘as the relationship between China and the UK continues to decline, the UK obviously doesn’t want to cut off exchanges with China on a cultural level, as Chinese students are still a major income source for its education sector'”.

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Hong Kong protesters throw eggs at Xi Jinping’s portrait on National Day

The Communist ethic, and traditional Chinese beliefs and customs, have been increasingly pressurised by the interplay involved in the globalisation of trade, external social media influences and a more highly-educated populace. It is more vulnerable to internal critique and revisionism than ever before.

So … watch this space. The CCP has seen how a creeping Westernising of values, the uprising in Hong Kong and the imposition of trade tariffs can threaten its security. A future for China which is more inward-looking and more self-sufficient may well be on the hidden agenda of these recent moves.

Picture credits

Xi Xinping – Palácio do Planalto, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong protesters throw eggs at Xi Jinping’s portrait on National Day – Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The day I stayed out of School Assembly

Every morning at school, we’d file into the main hall for Assembly, the youngest boys in the front rows, the oldest at the back. After the Upper Sixth Form and Lower Sixth Form boys had taken their places, members of the teaching staff would file in via the walkway in the centre of the room, between the rows of chairs and thence onto the stage, thus facing the assembled ‘congregation’. Finally, the headmaster would take his place on the platform, mounting the steps to the left and taking a central position, rather like a priest.

This daily ritual would include the often passionate singing of wonderful Welsh hymns, accompanied by the powerful school organ, a memory I treasure and something I’ll never forget. Here’s one of my favourite hymns, sung by the Morriston Orpheus Choir.

It was fundamentally a religious ceremony, incorporating a Bible reading and prayers. Needless to say, most of the hymns had religious content. The whole process would usually end with the singing of another rousing Welsh language hymn – and then the boys would file out again and prepare for lessons. This was back in the 1960s. It was taken for granted that everyone had an identical Christian faith, apart from one group: Roman Catholics were allowed to be absent and stay in a designated room for the duration of Assembly. There was no room for scepticism.

And, for all I know, this procedure still goes on at what was then the boys-only Caerphilly Grammar-Technical School but is now the coeducational (mixed sex) comprehensive, St Martins School.

I remember it all so well. But I also remember my own epiphany moment when I decided that there was no God. Alongside lessons in Biology, Chemistry and Physics that offered rational explanations for so many aspects of existence – including Darwin‘s theory of evolution, complex chemical theories and Einstein‘s theory of relativity, none of which bore any relation to anything in the Bible – I was expected to believe in what I came to regard as nonsensical cant. I was also taught Religious Education, during which Bible stories were presented as historical fact.

And one day I decided that I wasn’t going to take part in Assembly anymore. My hard-working father had died suddenly of a severe brain infection at the age of 38. I was fourteen and my younger brother seven years of age. Thus my mother was left to bring up two young boys on her own. I did have time to pray for my Dad’s recovery, even though I was already quite sceptical about the existence of a god. But clearly the prayers I’d said when Dad was on his death bed in hospital were a meaningless gesture.

I’d mused about the idea for some time; but I remember the very point in the very road where I experienced the realisation that I’d been hoodwinked – like a reverse revelation. All those school assemblies, all the beautiful hymns, all those Sunday school attendances at St Catherine’s (recently rebuilt), reading the gospels religiously and saying all those prayers – it was all just a waste of time. Furthermore, I felt that I’d been brainwashed. Yet daily attendance at school assembly was compulsory.

Being in that hall every morning and going through such a meaningless ceremony began to feel like I was having salt rubbed into my wound. As I saw it, I was being forced to thank God for taking away my beloved Dad. I fairly quickly concluded that there was no god – and that even if there had been, he wouldn’t deserve any praise from me. As far as I was concerned, I had every right to absent myself from Assembly. So, one morning, that’s what I did. I stayed in my classroom … aware that my absence would bring the full weight of school discipline crashing down on my head.

By the way, I was delighted to read, last week, that a couple in Burford, West Oxfordshire, had won a concession by Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) after challenging their policy of collective compulsory worship.

Lee and Lizanne Harris challenged compulsory collective worship in school assembly on human rights grounds. They’d discovered that their children’s school insisted that their kids pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes during assemblies at academy school Burford Primary School, despite the school’s having no religious character. Bible stories were presented as fact. In addition, their children were made to attend past school leavers’ ceremonies held in a local church, during which students were presented with a bible as a ‘guide to life.’

Backed by Humanists UK, the couple withdrew their application for judicial review after ODST agreed to provide “a meaningful alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all pupils withdrawn from compulsory prayers”.

As soon as it was discovered I had stayed out of Assembly I was given a severe reprimand by my form master – but, much more dramatically, I was sent to the Headmaster’s office. Actually, from what I recall Mr Bell-Jones (left) gave me quite a mild talking-to. But he did leave me in no doubt that I’d get into severe hot water if I repeated my protest. So I never did.

But my opinion hasn’t changed after all these years, and I’m not in such a small minority anymore. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, over half – 53% – of all UK adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 48% in 2015. The latest figure is the highest since the BSA survey began tracking religious affiliation in 1983, when 31% said they had no religion.

With these figures in mind, I wonder how much compulsory worship is still in operation in UK schools currently.

I pat myself on the back for having stayed out of Assembly that morning. I feel just as strongly that no religion should be forced on any child. What’s more I had no hesitation in completely agreeing with Stephen Fry‘s sentiments around the notion of meeting God, in his memorable interview with the late Gay Byrne.

 

 

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