An advertisement for education reform

Mainland children had to sit through lengthy commercials to watch a compulsory CCTV learning programme. Unsurprisingly, this became a flashpoint for criticism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 7:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 2:29pm

Tens of millions of children on the mainland have been taught a wrong lesson after being forced to sit through lengthy commercials to watch a compulsory CCTV learning programme as part of the annual ritual to mark the opening of school. Unsurprisingly, this became a flashpoint for online criticism. Although the state media has rightly apologised for the blunder, there is bigger lesson to learn.

It is not difficult to understand why the row has triggered more than reflections on lengthy TV advertising. Since 2008, watching CCTV’s First Lesson has become mandatory, with families required to submit an online picture as proof of watching. This year, children and parents stayed tuned at 8pm on September 1 as ordered, but only to find commercials about after-school tutoring, stationery and home appliances for up to 12 minutes.

China’s children ordered to watch Saturday night television … and then made to sit through 12 minutes of advertising

Those who are unfamiliar with education in China may find the mandatory viewing oppressive. But it is the mainland way of getting children ready for school. This year’s theme was about pursuing dreams and creating the future. But the message was drowned out by an avalanche of negative feedback. The ads from after-school and online learning bodies have been criticised as inconsistent with the reform to get rid of excessive tutoring. The choice of celebrities and idols in the programme has also fuelled concerns over the influence on youngsters. Although the broadcaster’s advertising unit swiftly apologised for the long commercials, critics said a higher CCTV authority and the Ministry of Education should be held responsible for the series of problems flagged by the public. Arguably, CCTV and the ministry are playing the role of a teacher at home. Any teaching failure will not just undermine the education sector’s image and integrity, but also adversely influence the ones taught.

To what extent can a once-a-year TV programme induce changes among pupils shall continue to be a matter for public debate. But there is more to education than rote learning and indoctrination. The move towards a knowledge-based economy makes innovation and creativity all the more important in China’s ultra-competitive education system. The episode has taught a greater lesson on the need of a more comprehensive education reform.