The Chinese education system is divided into three years of kindergarten, six years of primary school, and three to six years of secondary education, often followed by several years of higher education. Kindergartens and primary schools are usually run by local education authorities or even private enterprises. But whether you decide to send your child to a state school or an international school, you should get ready for a very competitive admissions process, an ambitious education system in general, and tuition fees that might seriously impact your cost of living.
Since 1986, people in China have had the right to a minimum of nine years of education, six years in primary school and three years in secondary school.
In China, children begin school at the age of seven (or six if they live in Beijing, Shanghai, or other major cities) and attend classes on five days a week. Before that, children often attend pre-school or kindergarten for about one to three years. The type of education children receive there can range from nursery classes and seasonal kindergartens in poorer areas of the country to top-notch pre-primary education. Moreover, extra-curricular activities and education groups, as well as activity centers and game groups, complement their pre-primary education.
At the age of seven, children begin primary education. In major urban areas, such as Shanghai and Beijing, kids can start primary school one year early, as mentioned above. All in all, 60% of the allocated time of instruction is dedicated to Chinese and math, also called “The Big Two”. Additionally, children are instructed in music, art, morals and society, and nature, and also take practical work classes. Some schools also start to teach foreign languages towards the end of primary school and add extra-curricular activities to the mix.
Between the ages of 12 and 17, children attend secondary school in China. Public secondary schools are often divided into junior middle schools and senior middle schools, each of them three years long. After completing junior middle school, students can choose whether they want to attend a regular senior middle school, a vocational school, or a secondary professional school.
The main goal of most secondary schools is to prepare their students for higher education. In fact, the quality of a secondary school is often measured by the number of students they send off to college. This has a lot to do with the limited number of spots at China’s universities and the high number of applicants. Thus, it is not surprising that secondary school students are under a lot of pressure. Aside from their regular work load, they also have to prepare for the Gaokao, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, which is the basis for recruiting students for institutions of higher education.
This nine-hour exam is very difficult and only 40% of students pass it in the first place. The exam tests the students’ skills and knowledge in Chinese, math, a foreign language, and a few other optional subjects. According to their results, they will then be admitted to top universities, regular universities, or institutions which operate on a provincial level. The higher the number of students who go on to attend top universities, the higher the popularity of the secondary school they graduated from. Ideally, all students who graduate from a Chinese university will later find a job and have a thriving career.
China is one of the most progressive countries, in terms of economic and business development, with an education system offering your children many opportunities to thrive in the future. Moreover, Shanghai’s students came out on top in OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2012, a test that rates the reading, math, and science skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries. It seems that Chinese schools, particularly those in the big cities, are a breeding ground for highly educated future professionals.
But the PISA scores are by no means representative. While schools in Shanghai seemed to offer great quality education, results from other provinces were not published. Schools in rural areas are often horribly understaffed. The student’s opportunities and the educational environment there are radically different from that in the big cities. Another issue is the pressure put on children who attend school in China, especially during the Gaokao. Many students crumble under the pressure and stories of depression and suicide are not unheard of. Therefore, you should make sure that the Chinese school system is the right choice for your child.
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