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Controversy swirls around 'Olympic math' for kids and loss of childhood

As a clock in the sitting room ticked, the unhappiness on the face of 11-year-old Xu Xiangyu became increasingly evident. It was Saturday afternoon. The "darkest moment" was coming.

At 6pm, Xu was sitting with a dozen children of his age in a classroom down in a narrow lane in urban Beijing.

He was given a list of 16 mathematics questions. In one hour, he was supposed to solve them.

Apparently, Xu didn't. In the following hour, he sat silently, nonchalantly listening to an enthusiastic teacher lecturing about the answers to the mysterious math questions.

Now and then, he could feel his mother's watchful eyes glancing at him from several rows behind.

His mother was taking notes. So were other parents and grandparents, who were listening to the lecture with their children.

"Those questions are so difficult that even I don't know the answers," says Xu's mother Huang Yan, who has a master's degree in communication. "I took notes in case he needs my help."

The class Xu was attending, "Olympic math," focused on math that was far above the level of primary school. Such after-school classes, along with others focusing either on English or Chinese literacy, are widespread across China.

To fifth-grader Xu, the math class (36 hours in total), which cost his mother more than 1,600 yuan (US$235), was a "personal torture" besides a waste of time and money.

"What's the point of learning things that are useless in daily life?" says Xu, who spent one year in a London primary school from 2007 to 2008 when his mother studied there.

"For example, a question is like, 'What's the sum of the first 500 figures of 1,2,3,2,3,4,3,4,5,4,5,6' ... Do you think the question means anything in life?" he asks. "The class is like poison to me. I hate it."

But Xu's mother doesn't agree. "Almost all the kids in his class are attending such classes," she says. "I am afraid he would lag behind if he didn't. The competition for a good middle school is so intense."

To sixth-grader Zhao Zihao, in Xinxiang, a city 600 kilometers south of Beijing, a two-hour "Olympic math" class every week was nothing to complain about.

Zhao takes the class every Monday and Tuesday night and a two-hour after-school English class every Thursday and Friday night.

"I know he is tired. But what else can we do? We are from an ordinary family. He has to study hard to enter a good middle school," says his father Zhao Qingyong.

China's nine-year compulsory education covers primary and secondary school.

No entrance tests are required for the students to enter public primary and secondary schools. Students are assigned to schools with reference to their residency, according to China's Law on Compulsory Education.

But in reality, a student can enroll in another school, usually a good one, rather than the one he or she is assigned to, if the student excels at math or English or has some special music or sports talent.

A top award in "Olympic math" or English or a national certificate for piano performance will be a stepping stone to top secondary schools.

Other ways include family connections with authorities or huge "voluntary donations" to a school.

The amount of the "donation" varies with schools. Zhao says his son did not do well in a test organized by an agency, which he said represented the school he hoped his son could enter.

"I paid 50 yuan to the agency for the test. The agency said the top 120 students could enter the school without paying donations," he says.

The school has 20 classes each grade and each class has about 50 students.

"I heard that the donation for that school is about 18,000 yuan," or about a year's saving for his family. "We need to find some guanxi (connections), otherwise we won't even have the chance to give the money," he says.

Yang Dongping, a professor with the Beijing Institute of Technology, says competition for good secondary schools has increased Chinese children's academic burden, harmed their mental and physical health and widened inequality in education.

He says nine-year compulsory education aimed to provide equal educational opportunity.

But the current practice has pushed students into the misery of numerous after-school classes, contests and training for certificates.

"It has legalized money-for-education and power-for-education," Yang complains in a blog entry on enrollment-oriented classes or contests, especially "Olympic math," saying that the harm of such classes to children was even worse than "pornography, gambling and drug abuse."

"Why did I say so? Pornography, gambling and drug abuse only affect a limited number of people. But the 'Olympic math' class as well as other extracurricular classes in the name of selecting elite students has made prisoners of numerous children, harming a whole generation."

His blog ignited massive public complaints about extracurricular classes as well as the education system.

So far, his blog has received more than 480,000 visits and nearly 7,000 comments.

In response to public complaints, Xu Mei, spokeswoman of the Ministry of Education, said the ministry opposed selecting students through tests during the compulsory education years.

"To link primary or middle school enrollment with the 'Olympic math' class or other certificates for special talent is against the intention of the Ministry of Education," she said.

Professor Yang says compulsory education mainly falls under the jurisdiction of local educational authorities. "Local authorities have taken quite a few measures to stop schools from selecting students, but most of the measures do not have long-term effects."

Yang posted a proposal on his blog, calling on the authorities to bridge gaps among schools so as to achieve a balanced development of schools in the same areas.

He also urged local authorities to strictly follow the Law on Compulsory Education and prohibit schools from selecting students and taking enrollment fees.

China has about 107 million primary students, of whom about 40 percent are in urban areas. As for about 67 million primary school students in rural areas, Yang says: "It's a totally different story."

"The key problem there is to prevent rural students from dropping out and rural compulsory education from withering" due to insufficient funding, he says.

Sun Yunxiao, a researcher on child education for 37 years, says China's children now enjoy greater material comfort than their parents' generation, but they are more emotionally fragile. "They feel very much stressed by academic pressure."

"Childhood in China, in general, is becoming increasingly unhappy," says Sun, who is also deputy head of the China Youth and Children's Research Center.

A fair number of surveys found that China's primary and secondary school pupils were slaves to homework and after-school classes.

Every two out of three primary school students in Beijing don't get 10 hours of sleep, as required by the Ministry of Education, according to a blue paper released by the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences in March. One third of them also said they did not have enough sports time.

Sun says the load on students was not just a problem of education but was also a social problem. "Academic pressure is a result of increasing employment pressure and the public worship of high academic credentials."

A total of 5.59 million students graduated from universities last year. About 1 million of them were still struggling to find a job by the end of 2008, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences last December.

Another 6.11 million college graduates will enter the job market this year.

"Intense competition in the job market has panicked the public," Sun says. "Most Chinese parents believe that high academic credentials mean greater job opportunities. Therefore the competition for prestigious universities was brought forward from high school to middle school, primary school, and even kindergarten."

Xu Xiangyu doesn't know anything about this. But he has stopped complaining to his mother about the math class.

"I don't think she cares how I feel," says the boy, who loves detective stories and martial arts and is now obsessed with British author Diana Kimpton's "Cracking Codes."

He doesn't realize his mother is struggling, too.

"I really don't know whether I should let him quit or continue to push him," Huang says. "In Britain, his teacher said he is a math genius. But here his math teacher said he is just mediocre."

Xu sometimes tells his mother that he missed his school in Britain, where he found all the classes interesting and his only after-school class was football.

"I miss the school, too. At least he was more relaxed and confident there," Huang says.


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