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The "China winning the school race" headlines are misleading

There’s been a flurry of headlines recently about China holding the world-wide top spot for education, with various puns on the words “race”, “first” and “class”.

These are misleading, to say the least. The articles all cover the same set of results from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Shanghai was assessed for the first time this year, and came out number one in all categories. Congratulations to Shanghai.

Shanghai certainly appears to be offering a very high-quality education to its students, which is great. Hong Kong also did very well in this year’s assessment, and media outlets have covered that too. But if you asked me to name the two least typical cities in China, I would without a doubt say Shanghai and Hong Kong. To be honest I can think of some good arguments for not including “Hong Kong” in “China” at all.

So China’s two wealthiest, most modern and cosmopolitan cities have had huge success with their education reforms over the last decade. But the education situation for vast swathes of the country is just nothing like this at all.

Local governments are struggling to employ professional teachers in rural areas, and the prospects for their unqualified substitutes are bleak. There are incidents of students attempting suicide every month (I’m not going to speculate on the reasons for these, but something is going wrong). Rural schools are so low on funds crazy stuff starts happening.

Aside from the extreme examples, there are some general points to be made about what’s lacking in China’s education system. One glaring flaw is sex education in China, which seems to be doing little to change unhelpful attitudes in society. Another problem is that whilst China does extremely well in pushing its students hard and getting a huge population through its education system, the quality of that education seems to vary massively. There often seems to be a “work harder, not smarter” feel to it all.

I’m certainly not trying to bash China here and deny the success in its education reforms. But I’m looking forward to the day when media headlines involving China can offer more nuance than “China is improving rapidly” and “China is a terrible authoritarian state”. These recent headlines have done little but add to the tally for the “improving rapidly” category.

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