Tang Wanyuan, the father of a sixth grader in Beijing, said he has not paid much attention to the Communist Party’s decision to ban the practice of putting the elite pupils in special classes. Like most young parents, he has little faith in such initiatives.
The resolution of the Central Committee’s third plenum earlier this month said that educational authorities should no longer designate elite classes or elite schools for pupils who outperform their peers, or come from privileged families. The move was part of an effort to address inequality in the access to quality teaching.
“These schools are almost certain to continue operating the way they have, only under a different name such as ‘model schools’ or ‘schools with special characteristics’,” Tang said.
“If anything, parents want transparency over enrolments at elite schools. That way we’ll know what chance, if any, we stand of having our children admitted. Parents want policies that don’t cause more stress for us.”
Tang is more concerned about where his son will attend middle school, where standards of teaching differ tremendously.
As well as banning elite schools and elite classes at public schools, the Central Committee said that primary and middle school principles and teachers would be rotated to different schools to tackle inequality.
The move comes amid rising public discontent and a perception that elite schools have become a privilege for the rich and powerful, especially in major cities like Beijing.
Pupils from underprivileged families are either forced to pay huge fees or take expensive extracurricular classes to compete for a place at elite schools.
Under mainland law, primary school and the first three years of middle school are free of charge. But demand for places at elite schools is so high that a place can cost parents a one-off fee of 250,000 yuan (HK$316,000) or more via shady deals in which fees are paid for “rights” to choose a school, according to an independent study led by Beijing educator Wen Feng.
Professor Chu Zhaohui, a research fellow at the National Institute of Education Sciences, said that the party took the unusual step because worsening inequality in access to schooling on the mainland threatened the party’s aspirations for “a harmonious society”.
However, Chu said that regulators were to blame for the phenomenon because they often granted elite schools a disproportionately larger share of funding for facilities, equipment and experienced teachers, often at the expense of other public schools.
“If authorities are serious about rectifying this inequality, then they should just stop favouring elite schools with public funds,” Chu said.
Chu said that the existence of elite schools was not the issue. Rather, it was about how much those in powerful positions were willing to address the privileges they had reserved for themselves.
Beijing Institute of Technology Professor Yang Dongping, a staunch critic of elite schools, said that the plenum’s high-profile ban was simply aimed at reaffirming a clause in the 2006 Education Law.
He said that reckless development of elite schools, particularly in the larger cities, was a result of the growing privileges that the elites had reserved for themselves. And the elite schools were keen to retain their status by reserving places for pupils from elite families, such as the grandchildren of Politburo members.
As a result, many regional school regulators failed to abolish the elite school system, as they promised last year, Yang said.
“What authorities have said is one thing and how they’re going to deliver their promises is another,” he said.
Even while many elite schools no longer received a greater share of public funds, they could still use their status as cash cows as each school place was worth hundreds of thousands of yuan.
Wang Xiong, a senior history teacher from the elite Yangzhou Middle School in Jiangsu province, said that he was still sceptical over how effectively regulators would carry out the initiatives without specific policies.
Wang said that a ban on elite classes could not be justified by the need to address inequality, because pupils had different needs in an individualised learning environment.
The rotation of school principals and teachers would have limited effect to rectify inequality without deciding to what extent teachers would rotate either within an entire city or just within a district, and what oversight will be in place for such rotations.
“Principals and we teachers are not at the core of the problem,” Wang said. “In fact, it seems that we’ve been denied a say in such important issues.”