Zhang Xiuxiu, a 13-year-old girl from northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous District, committed suicide on July 10, after being turned down by the local school of her choice.
Zhang's father returned home to find his daughter lying dead on the sofa. She had drunk a bottle of pesticide.
Zhang failed to achieve good results in her middle school admission exams, meaning she was unable to attend any of the local “key schools” unless she was able to pay fees totaling 100,000 yuan (US$12,077).
Key schools are those with the best reputation, teaching staff and facilities, which send their students to the top universities in the country.
“Dad and mom, I regret my failure to achieve good marks in the exam and cannot attend a key school without paying them too much money. I know you cannot afford such sums. The last choice left for me is to end my life and save the money for you,” wrote Zhang in the letter left for her parents before consuming the poisonous liquid.
“Zhang was a victim of the current education system, which forces students and their parents to struggle for entrance to key schools, said one teacher (who declined to be named) from Zhang’s primary school.
“The parents and their children are engaged in fierce competition for places at key schools,” she added.
“The competition for places at key schools is even more relentless and ferocious in Shanghai,” said Yang Xiaowei, an education expert from East China Normal university.
“It is a cruel war without the smoke of gunpowder,” said Zhang Xiang, a 34-year-old Shanghainese working in a foreign firm.
Yet Zhang Xiang is a clever strategist in this “war.” When she could not find a key school for her 12-year-old son in the neighborhood, she moved to the Pudong District.
The current policy did not allow students to choose a school outside the districts where they lived unless they were excellent enough or parents wealthy enough to afford the expensive fees.
Zhang Xiang was successfully registered as a Pudong citizen after buying a one-million-yuan apartment in the area last year, at a time when property prices were rocketing.
Other parents turn to the Hukou, or household registration system, for help. Initiated in 1958, China’s Hukou system classes people as rural or urban residents and requires them to live and work in their places of permanent residence. The system also applies to schools.
“The Hukou identifies the residential addresses of students, determining which schools will take them,” said Lu Fangting, a middle school teacher from Luxun School. “They will attend neighboring schools, in accordance with their Hukous.”
Wang Ye, a salesman whose Hukou is registered in the Yangpu District, managed to shift his 13-year-old son’s Hukou to the Hongkou District where there were more key schools.
According to a survey conducted by the Shanghai Education Bureau, 35.59 percent of parents choose not to send their children to the nearest school.
Yet even such steps as Zhang Xiang and Wang have taken do not ensure their children will be permitted to enter key schools. Other parents take an alternative approach, buying their children permission to enter key schools by making large donations.
In Shanghai, such donations range from 6,000 yuan to 180,000 yuan.
“Key schools only enroll two kinds of students — the most talented and the rich,” said Yan Danhua, an editor with the Shanghai Middle School Students Journal. “If you are one of the top 10 students in your school, you may have the chance to be enrolled. Otherwise, you need wealthy parents who can make huge donations to the key school.”
East Yanhan School, one of Shanghai’s key schools, plans to enroll 300 students in 2005. In addition to the 200 top applicants, 100 other candidates will be allowed to buy their way in. “Most applicants will be shut out of their school gates,” said Yan.
“China has adopted an elite education system throughout the last century,” said Yang Xiaowei. “During the 1950s to the 1970s when the country’s economy remained weak, the government had to concentrate its tight education budget on a few schools, with the majority of money, teaching resources and facilities assigned to a small number of middle schools designated by the country’s education bureau as ‘key schools’.”
There are about 33 key high schools in Shanghai. The number is dwarfed by the 159,000 students who will attend high school.
“It is our dream to enter key schools, but the thresholds of the schools are high enough to trip most of us up,” said Zhang Yue, a student from Shanghai Tianjiabing Middle School.
While enjoying more favorable policies and funding support than ordinary schools, key schools can also pocket an abundance of donations every year.
“Ordinary schools cannot compete with the key schools. Their conditions are deteriorating. The stronger get stronger while the weaker get weaker,” said Yang. “Students are the victims of the unbalanced development of key schools and ordinary schools. China adopts a nine-year compulsory education policy which endows students with the same rights to be educated, so their opportunities to receive high quality education should be fair too. Yet if they are poor, they have less chance.”
The year 2004 witnessed a big change in the education system, when Shanghai abolished the category of key schools and the government began trying to narrow the gap between key and ordinary schools. Yet, in reality, key schools show no sign of disappearing.
“We have a long way to go to narrow the gap,” said Kong Yingying, an education expert from a research centre at the Shanghai Education Bureau.
“It is a complicated task because a large number of ordinary schools are struggling to survive, having long suffered from a lack of funding, high-quality teaching resources and good students. The key schools enjoy better reputations and many other advantages compared to ordinary schools,” said Kong. “Therefore, in the future, the key school rush will continue.”
(Shanghai Daily August 2, 2005)