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Teacher shortage hinders Xi Jinping’s dream to make China a great sporting nation

Those who do teach PE are on low pay and say their work isn’t valued as schools give priority to ‘more important’ subjects like maths and Chinese

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 1:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 11:34pm

As President Xi Jinping dreams of China becoming a great sporting nation, the reality in many schools across the country is that they do not have enough sports teachers because other subjects – and academic results – take priority.

The shortage of physical education teachers is a common problem at primary schools, high schools and even colleges, according to schools and government studies. And it means many young Chinese could be missing out when it comes to their sports education – learning about the value of fitness, teamwork and other life skills.

Teachers say many schools tend to allocate resources to other subjects that are deemed more important, such as maths or Chinese, while those who do get jobs teaching sport have limited room for career development and are poorly paid.

As part of the so-called Chinese dream of rejuvenating the nation, “advancing the cause of building a sports power” was included in Xi’s report to the 19th party congress in August. Under a national plan, Beijing wants one-third of the population – or 435 million people – exercising regularly by 2020.

But without enough teachers encouraging health and fitness in schools, it seems that plan is not exactly off to a flying start.

In eastern Zhejiang province, several physical education teachers said they were overloaded with students because the subject was considered less important and was chronically short-staffed.

Xia Liang, who teaches sports at Hangzhou Xuejun High School, said there were 7.5 teachers taking care of 1,800 students. He thinks there should be at least 10 sports teachers at the school.

“There are eight of us, but one is a member of management, so he doesn’t take a full teaching load,” Xia said. “Every school lacks PE teachers as far as I know – especially professional, qualified PE teachers.”

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A recent survey found there were 499 students to one physical education teacher at colleges and higher education institutes in southern Guangdong province, and they were struggling with an acute shortage of sports teachers. Results of the survey of 143 colleges and institutes were released by South China Normal University in November.

The shortage of teachers was estimated at about 10,000 for higher education institutes in Guangdong alone, an official from the provincial education department told Information Times last month.

In Shandong province, middle and primary schools were short by the same number – 10,000 – the government revealed a year ago. It issued a directive in December 2016 aimed at improving sports education within three years, promising better benefits for physical education teachers and more training opportunities.

Alan Chen’s high school in Jiaxing, Zhejiang, has 40 physical education classes but only six teachers to take them – and again, one of them is management so he does not have a full teaching load.

He said on top of classes, they often had to organise sports activities and train students for competitions outside school.

“It’s not just that the workload is heavy – often our work is not valued by the parents because PE isn’t important to them,” he said.

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Liu Dongfeng, a professor with the School of Economics and Management at Shanghai University of Sport, agreed that most parents and schools were focused on exams and did not pay much attention to physical education.

“Given this culture, schools often prioritise hiring teachers for major subjects such as Chinese and maths, and these subjects also absorb some of the teaching positions that should have gone to PE,” he said. “So the key issue here is to get people to change their attitude towards PE, so that they understand that exercise is of equal importance to maths and Chinese results.”

The other problem is luring graduates with sports majors into teaching when they can earn more and have a better career path doing different jobs.

Xia, the Hangzhou teacher, said more sports graduates were choosing to work for companies or start their own businesses.

“In comparison, being a teacher – especially in a subject that is not really valued – means accepting you will have very limited room for career development and really low pay,” he said.

Xia, who graduated from Beijing Sport University with a master’s degree, said he earned just over 4,000 yuan (US$615) a month. One of his classmates meanwhile started on a monthly salary of 22,000 yuan at a sports company in Beijing.

Meanwhile, fitness levels have been steadily deteriorating. Obesity among university students is rising as their fitness levels continue to decline, and a high proportion of them need glasses for short-sightedness, with more students wearing glasses from a younger age. Those are the findings of the General Administration of Sport’s most recent research on the fitness of Chinese of all ages, released in 2015.

The nationwide study found those aged seven to 19 scored lower on most of the fitness tests for the 2015 report than for the previous one in 2010.

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Changing diets and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle among the middle class has also seen a rise in childhood obesity in China. Peking University’s School of Public Health estimates 28 per cent of children aged between seven and 18 – or almost 50 million children – will be classified as obese or overweight by 2030.

Sports fan Xi has set the bar high with his ambitious goal for the nation, but Liu said it was more important to get the basics right first.

“Without adequate resources for school kids, it’s nonsense to talk about becoming a sporting power because the foundation is not there,” he said.