Why China’s Tiger Mums (and dads) are resisting its ‘less homework’ policy

Authorities say youngsters are weighed down through excessive homework and extra classes amid intense competition among parents to help their children ‘get ahead’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 11:45am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 11:28pm

“Dear Ministry of Education, please don’t reduce the schoolwork burden on our children.”

This is the title of an article that has been widely shared on Chinese social media in recent weeks after education authorities instructed primary and middle schools across the nation to reduce the pressure on pupils and regulate the out-of-school-hours tutoring market.

Since the order was issued late last month, parents in big cities have been discussing heatedly whether to let their children have a more relaxed and happy lifestyle as the education authorities advise, or give them large amounts of homework and send them to extra classes in their spare time to learn subjects such as English, mathematics and Chinese language.

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In line with the authorities’ order, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, many junior high school headmasters have proposed that pupils should not have to complete their homework if they cannot finish it by 10pm. 

Neighbouring Jiangsu province has also adjusted school start times for pupils, allowing youngsters to begin classes from 7.20 to 8am. Previously, school could start as early as 7am, Xinhua reported. 

But China’s Tiger Mums and Dads believe the move to lessen the schoolwork burden on their children is a bad idea. 

“Deep down inside, I really want my son to have more time to play, too, but I have to remind myself to be rational,” said Qian Min, the father of a primary school pupil in Shanghai’s Xuhui district. 

“To qualify for admission into a key junior middle school, he has to study hard now. Only by entering a key junior middle school can you go on to study at a key high school. Then you can go to university. There’s no other option,” he said. 

His son studies at a state school, but over the past two years has also attended four classes in his spare time – two for maths, one for English and one for writing Chinese compositions. The boy’s eyesight has deteriorated due to his heavy homework and he admits he has little time for his main hobby – reading books.

“Those extracurricular classes and homework are boring. However, I must be persistent for the sake of a bright future,” the boy said. 

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Mainland Chinese primary and middle school pupils spend an average of 2.82 hours doing their homework each day, about three times the global average, Wang Guoqing, a spokesman for the political advisory body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said earlier this month.

A study by the OECD in 2012 found 15-year-olds in Shanghai spent an average of 13.8 hours every week on their homework, longer than all other countries and regions surveyed. 

Russian children followed with 9.7 hours and Singapore youngsters clocked an average of 9.4 hours. Pupils of the same age in the US spent 6.1 hours a week doing their homework, while Hong Kong students recorded six hours, according to the study. 

However, OECD global education rankings suggest many countries and cities with a lower burden of homework consistently surpass or perform just as well as China. 

Canadian pupils, for example, spent an average 5.5 hours on their homework, the survey said. 

In the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey in 2015, Canada was ranked seventh among 69 countries and regions in science, 10th in mathematics and 2nd in reading. Pupils from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Jiangsu in China ranked 10th in science, 6th in maths and 27th in reading. 

Fan Xianzuo, an education professor at Central China Normal University in Wuhan in Hubei province, said the authorities have been discussing reducing the burden on pupils for more than two decades, but ironically their workload has actually increased over the years. 

“As long as the university entrance exam is the only way for students to get admitted, parents will force their kids to put all efforts into studying,” said Fan. 

Chinese schools told to cut homework

Strong demand from parents has boosted the market for after-school tutoring in China. 

But many tutors merely focus on teaching pupils how to perform well in exams, rather than aiding the wider educational development of the child, according to a circular issued by the education ministry along with three other central government departments at the end of February.

“They have brought additional heavy homework for pupils and have increased financial burdens on families. There is a strong public outcry [against these institutions],”the circular said.

Reducing the workload on children was also a catchword at the meetings of the national legislature in Beijing earlier this month, with many delegates calling for reduced homework for young students.

One area the authorities have pledged to crack down on is tutors teaching children topics way too advanced for their years and holding competitions on academic subjects. 

Many primary school pupils taking extracurricular classes are taught subjects aimed at older-grade students. Academic competitions are valued by parents in big cities as children performing well are rated highly by top middle schools, many of them privately-run, when selecting students.

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Education professor Fan said making real efforts to raise standards at all state primary and junior middle schools would lessen the need for cutthroat competition to get into academically higher achieving schools. 

If all schools have a high teaching standard, young pupils will not need to compete for a place in key middle schools at a young age, said Fan.

Zhang Duanhong, an academic at Tongji University’s Higher Education Research Institute, agreed, adding that overloading children with extra homework was not the answer to raise standards. 

“Parents think if their children learn less at school, they must learn more out of school so they can catch up with their counterparts in other schools,” said Zhang. “If more parents hold this unreasonable belief, it’s more difficult to reduce the burden on children.”