The poor pupils: victims of the Chinese education system

Yupei Guo's picture
Chinese students are renowned for winning every year's IMC, for achieving the top grades in schools in North America and Europe. However, I also want to tell the stories of a group of people that is easily forgotten: the pupils who do poorly.

Readers of my previous post will have known that I am Chinese and have attended several schools both in England and China. In this post, I wish to tell the stories of several of my good friends in China, who are either looked down upon or ignored altogether by their teachers and sometimes the classmates.

They represent a large portion of China's pupils, yet do not have many opportunites to speak out about their opinions.

1. Qu Shuo
She is one of my best friends, who welcomed me warmly on my first day in the secondary school where I didn't know anyone, generously lending me all her notes and textbooks and spending entire break times on explaining materials I didn't understand.

I took her to be an example of academic excellence, as she studied and worked diligently. However, after two exams it soon became apparent that she just could not perform well enough in tests.

Some teachers would call her into their offices and lecture on her suspected "laziness" from a moral high ground. They never offered to tutor her, or at least offer some practical, specific advice that would be suited to her conditions. Due to her levels in academic subjects, they branded her with other terrible adjectives like "lazy", "disobedient" and "have no sense of responsibility".

2. Meng Yue
Meng Yue is also someone who welcomed me on my first day. She is quick, witty and rather sharp, yet lacks the ability to present her best side in exams due to stress and anxiety.

I recall once, after a major exam, both Meng Yue and I were called into the Physics Department. The teacher smiled warmly at me and congratulated me for achieving the highest score in the year group, before turning to my poor friend and letting out a string of cruel comments on her exam results. Indeed my friend did terribly, yet the comments were so nonsensical and irrational that they nearly reduced my friend to tears. After fully expressing her opinions, the teacher stated that she would call my friend's mother to inform her of her daughter's "unacceptable " behaviour--one of Meng Yue's worst fears.

Just three months before the unfortunate incident I had stood in the exact same spot in the room, head down and simply swallowing the nonsensical claims. Yet the attitude changed radically, for no other reason but the improvements in my levels.

I agree that teachers will inevitably have their favourite pupils, yet disapproving of a pupil's moral characters simply due to a number written on the answer sheet is not only unacceptable, it is horrifying.

The teacher later told me that she didn't mean the things she said. Yet her motivation--and what many others believe to be undeniable truth--is that academic performance is everything, and that nothing else matters.

It is absurd, yet enhanced by the Chinese examination systems. With every student aiming for a few top places, authorities are forced to raise the standards and introduce new forms of testing knowledge, which simply popularised rote learning. The pupils whose specialities are not this can feel very miserable indeed.

They are virtually barred from student union elections. They feel ashamed to be engaged in discussions. As we focus the spotlight on the glamorous, how many of us really care about these people?

While I was in England we had quite a number of people who failed academically, yet this shortcoming did not stop them from being accepted by everyone else as humorous, talented, determined, or possessing even more important virtues. Judging by intelligence is ridiculous, and encouraged by Chinese schools.

When I asked Meng Yue how she felt, she replied, "nothing, just numb." I could think of nothing to comfort her.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 10/12/2010 - 18:39

This is a worrying but fascinating insight into the Chinese system, which seems to turn people who fail into social pariahs. Do you think this level of fear motivates the other pupils to perform in an above average fashion?

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 11:54

English Additional Language (EAL) students have been disturbingly absent from the ongoing debate about academies, free schools and exactly who has educational choices under this new government. Yet there are currently over 900,000 EAL learners in our schools. This equates to 11.6% of our secondary schools and 16% of our primary schools.

The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) fought very hard for the retention of the ringfencing of the EMAG grant. Unfortunately this has now been mainstreamed along with most other specific grants.

International students are currently poorly served by the present education system and this, I suggest, is set to get worse. Some of the reasons are: their parents do not often understand the complex admissions process; their applications for school places are frequently rejected because the EAL students are frequently perceived negatively to affect GCSE results. Furthermore, teachers receive little EAL training partly because of a prevailing ethos in government that you can dump a student new to English in a school and he/she will just get on and learn. Research has proved that they don't.

These students need dedicated English language development programmes within the content of subject disciplines. Research has also shown that an emphasis on language within subject teaching benefits all students, particularly in the most challenging schools. They also need careful induction into our community and school systems and ongoing support throughout their school careers.

Under the new system, academies and free schools can and do cherry pick their students. These schools may not wish to admit EAL students because of the potentially additional expense involved in their education.

Yet we live in a global society and creating local schools with diverse populations of students - from different backgrounds and with different gifts and abilities - is potentially the ideal mix for a successful and healthy school.

Our school is an upper or secondary modern school. We are in a county that promotes selective education. However, our head is happy to take all children, no matter what their circumstances. We have a strong EAL department, thanks to the Head's support, and last year, two of the EAL students (Chinese and Sri Lankan) had a clean sweep of A and A* GCSEs. They came top overall in our GCSE results despite having only been in the UK since Year 9. They also contributed hugely to extra- curricular school life.

EAL students are incredibly rewarding to teach and make wonderful progress given the right pedagogy. They also add a huge amount to the richness of our schools. Many of us believe that they make school a more exciting and inspirational experience for all the students.

I think we as teachers and parents should continue to urge the government to facilitate educational choices for the groups of students and their parents who are least likely to get any choices at all. These are students from the lower echelons of our communities, children from foster homes, refugee children, traveller children and also special needs students and ethnic minority and EAL students.

These are all just children. All of them are potentially very capable and given the right school environment, really do prosper.

To those of you who believe that these are the very children yo do not want in the same schools as your children, please come to our school. You are warmly welcome.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 20:48

This is a very interesting comment. I think you're right that we need to provide real choices for our children, not least in the subjects that they can study and that might interest them. I would be interested in visiting your school. I tried emailing the address left on the site, but could get through. Could you email me and so we can arrange this?

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 10:28

It seems that Mr Gove is impressed with the Chinese education system

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