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Reforms afoot, but parents worry about effect
By Antoaneta Bezlova,
Inter Press Service
  Beijing, 10 March (IPS) - It should have been a cause for jubilation but it made hundreds of Chinese parents worry when the Ministry of Education announced that primary school students were not going to get homework in the coming semester.
  The announcement early this year that schools would boldly experiment with new teaching methods aimed at raising ''well- rounded'' individuals, caused scores of one-child couples to panic.
  They feared their children might not get into high school and university. Moreover, they dreaded that new reforms would handicap their sole offspring for life, depriving them of the potential to get well-paid jobs.

   ''It is easy for them (Beijing bureaucrats) to say 'we are going to ease educational burden on children','' grumbled Zeng Xiaoyan, mother of a 12-year-old girl. ''But if they let children play now, who is going to take the high-school exams later?''

  Zeng is opposed to the plan, forgetting how just a month ago, she was deploring the difficult situation school children face.
  Her daughter, Xiao Liu, was always exhausted and depressed because she could never finish the overwhelming load of homework. Instead of watching TV and playing with friends, she was staying up until 11 p.m. to write essays and do mathematical equations..
  ''My heart was breaking just to watch her getting up at 6 a.m., not rested at all, and go to school,'' admits Zeng. It is quite different for Xiao Liu now, freed from the burden of never- ending homework. Her mother, though, is still anxious, but for another reason.
   ''I don't want her to pay for this leisureness for the rest of her life,'' Zeng asserts. ''If she doesn't master her English and doesn't get into the top 10 of her class, she will never make it to the university later.''
   And this is tough on children in a society where urban families are limited to one child. Parents pin a lot of hope on their children whom they see as their main support in old age as well as the sole carrier of the family line.
 Though it is every government's goal, providing Education for All is a tall order for the world's most populous nation.
  Despite pledges by communist rulers that mass education is one of their priorities, at the dawn of the new century and after 50 years of communist rule, China continues to be a country governed by a tiny educated elite while university education remains a dream for the greatest majority of population.
  In a country of 1.3 billion people, there are just 2.5 million university places. Only three or four of every 100 Chinese pass the entrance exams. Because of a high barrier at the university level, students compete to get into high schools that offer the best preparation.
  This determines a child's future from an early age. Severe competition begins at primary school where 10-year-old children struggle to get the best grades, spending long hours over school lessons and homework.
  Parental pressure on children to excel in school resulted in an ugly episode in the case of Xu Li, a 17-year-old secondary student from Zhejiang province, who killed his mother with a hammer..
  Like Zeng, Xu's mother wanted him to be one of the top 10 but he could manage only the 18th place. Angered, she refused to let him play football with friends and allegedly threatened to break his legs. In a fit of rage, the youngster swung at his mother's head with a hammer.
  The case triggered public concern and poignant debate in local newspapers. Educated in the Confucian virtues of filiality and respect, many parents were shocked by the violence and by the discovery at the amount of pressure their children were under.
  In early February, President Jiang Zemin made a widely- publicised speech on education which seemed to signal a turn in education philosophy. He called on schools to reduce homework and to teach courses that would create ''a spirit of innovation''.
  He talked also about the importance of creating 'well-rounded individuals' with improved ''moral, intellectual and fitness levels''. The decision by the Ministry of Education to experiment with new teaching methods this semester, seems to heed Jiang's guidelines about ''strengthening moral education''.
  Yet instead of drawing applause, this decision has generated much controversy. ''The ease of educational burden must begin at the university level admission,' said the Economic Information Daily this week, noting that if the teaching process is to be made more humane, the educators should stop relying solely on the grades when admitting students to colleges.
  But even if tutors are serious about changing the pattern of education, the fact remains that China is short of the university graduates it needs to propel its reforming economy. There are too many people competing for very few university places.
  The country has failed to expand the university and college enrolment adequately because its public expenditure on education is one of the lowest in the world.
  A table drawn up by the UNESCO in 1995 ranks China 119th of 130 countries in terms of its per capita spending on education. China's education spending is less than three of economic output, well below the 4.1 per cent average for the developing world and half the level of spending in the developed countries.
  Ten years ago, China promised to raise spending on education to four percent of GNP by the end of the century. But in a frank report submitted to the Asia-Pacific regional conference on 'Education for All' in Bangkok. in January, it admitted spending had actually fallen from 2.8 percent to 2.55 percent.
  ''With respect to the distribution of financial resources, the part devoted to 'education for all and compulsory education', China not only failed to improve as desired but instead tended to decline,'' the report said.
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