You couldn’t make the headline up: “Riot after Chinese teachers try to stop pupils cheating” (Telegraph). Yes, in the country held up as a model of educational attainment there are problems of the most fundamental kind. The pressure on students to perform well in the “gaokao” examinations which open the way to China’s elite universities appears to have resulted in cheating in the exam hall.
What is particularly shocking about this story is the apparent acquiescence of the invigilators in industrial scale misconduct. The scandal erupted in the city of Zhongxiang in Hubei province where the performance of students had attracted the wrong sort of attention from the authorities. Suspicions were aroused by students each year winning a disproportionate number of places at the country’s elite universities: “Last year, the city received a slap on the wrist from the province’s Education department after it discovered 99 identical papers in one subject. Forty five examiners were “harshly criticised” for allowing cheats to prosper.” New external invigilators were drafted in an effort to stamp out the cheating. “The invigilators wasted no time in using metal detectors to relieve students of their mobile phones and secret transmitters, some of them designed to look like pencil erasers.” The twist in this tale is that students and parents – far from feeling chagrin at the discovery – were furious. An angry mob surrounded the school chanting: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”
The situation is beyond extraordinary and casts our examination issues into sharp relief. The pressure on young people in China is clearly unbearable. A report in the “Washington Post” suggests the Chinese government is acutely aware of these issues and is undertaking a series of reforms aimed at countering the culture of teaching to the test. The Chinese Ministry of Education has engaged in numerous systemic reforms over the last few decades aimed at limiting the impact of testing on teaching and learning. “However, due to internal and external factors, the tendency to evaluate education quality based simply on student test scores and (university) admissions rate has not been fundamentally changed,” says a document from the Ministry. “These problems [of evaluation] severely hamper student development as a whole person, stunt their healthy growth, and limit opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.”
Now this is the thinking of the Ministry of Education in the People’s Republic of China. The contrast with the direction of education policy in our country is stark. Whilst China seeks to establish a more balanced approach to education apparently oblivious to its standings in the PISA tables, our government is determined to increase reliance on terminal examinations at every stage of education because of the PISA tables. The notion of teaching to the test sadly is inevitable when students are faced with the one stop shop presented by the end of year exam. And the pressure on students who have to achieve ever higher grades to win coveted places at universities is increasing every year.
I am somewhat bemused at this topsy turvey state of affairs. China seeking a balanced holistic approach to education and England moving inexorably to a traditional diet of examinations all in the name of standards. Whatever next? China becoming a democracy?