How a school designed for 1500 pupils ends up with 5315

From Chongqing Evening Paper

“Live in famous house, study in prestige school” is the real estate advert that attracted Li Lin to buy an apartment in this “famous” Zhongbo Community 4 years ago. After the spring festival, he planned to transfer his son to the promised prestige school but almost got rejected because the school is severely overcrowded.

Located at the busiest area of the county with a view of the Long River, Zhongxian Experimental Primary School was designed to enroll 1500 students, yet it had a total of 5315 pupils on board now, exceeding the standard by 254%.

Li Lin stumbled upon this advert during the spring festival of 2006, which said when you buy an apartment in Zhongbo Community, you can get your children into the experimental primary school of the county. He soon consulted the sales staffs of that community, who reassured him that the deal was discussed and passed by the county government, and the school was so elite that one may not make it even through guanxi (relation). So Li Lin took out his savings and placed his order.

Besides Li Lin, there are 86 more families that hit the same snag. Though the school agreed to accept their children under the pressure that it was promised by the developers and recorded in the government document, parents now began to worry about their children’s safety and study environment in such overcrowded school.

The reporter visited the school on March 11th. Above is what he saw in Class 3 Grade 4, where 87 students filled up the 50 m2 classroom with 10 rows and 9 columns. Pupils in the first row sit right next to the teaching stand, with the blackboard 1.5 meter away. Children in the back even jammed the broom corner of the classroom. With about 30 cm space between rows, some children find it difficult to move about.

10-year-old boy Lie Yunchuan sits at the very first seat by the door, his 65 kg body couldn’t fit into the 30 cm space, but if he pushes the desk forward he will block up the front door. Moreover, he cannot see the notes on the other side of the blackboard since he seats at an angle less than 30 degree against the blackboard.

Overcrowded classroom also troubles teachers. With so many students to lecture at a time, speakers help a lot but obviously not enough — 30% of the teachers suffer from pharyngitis because they have to raise their voice so that they are heard by the whole class, according to vice-principal Chen Shixiang.

“Can’t take no more, truly no more.” Mr. Fang, principal of the school explained, “The school was designed for 1500 students, but now we have 5315 already with 10 classes each grade and 66-87 each class. The standard number of a pupil class is 45, we break it all.”

Mr. Fang became principal of the school 14 years ago when the schoolyard covered less than 7,000 m2. Today the land was tripled but the area per capita is only 3 m2, far below the 20 m2 per capita standard. The scale of the school is no match with the bulge of the students.

The staggering situation place certain threats to Mr. Lei, another vice-principal in charge of student safety. He had considered an early retirement since he couldn’t sleep most of the time worrying about the safety of the students especially after the stampede happened in a Hunan school. To avoid tragedy, he implemented 3-period-to-dismiss policy for both noon and afternoon off, in addition, he also assigned 169 teachers to different points in corridors and stairways to help diverge the flow during “rush hour”.

As for morning exercise, some classes have to do it every other day, since playground and corridors can’t take all of them. At gym class, multiple programs will take up the same sport field.

Real estate package, guanxi note and investment bait are the 3 prime mountains that corner the school into the status quo, according to principal Mr. Fang, who complained that a whole closet would not be able to contain all the guanxi notes he received since 2007 as he grabbed out a handful of notes on which wrote recommendation for enrollment from different known or unknown persons.

School as part of real estate package
Eagle Valley of Zhongxian county used to be rural and quiet 5 year ago, but since the arrival of a Guangdong real estate company it became one of the busiest area in the county.

To fuel up the trend, the government held a meeting and came to agreement that the community should set up a branch of the elite Experimental Primary School, so as to push the property sales of the Zhongbo Community. The minutes of the government promised the community that property owners’ children can study in the branch school, and the community conveyed the promise to their potential buyers. Adverts saying “buy fine apartment, study in elite school” were seen everywhere in the city.

However, construction of the promised branch school never finished, and other commodity buildings started to grow on some of the planned school land. Developers explained that the construction was hampered by the new national private education policy enacted in 2007, but getting admitted to the Experimental Primary School was guaranteed by government minutes.

At the absent of the branch school, property owners of the community pushed their kids into the mother school. Owner Ms. Wang said: “(we don’t have choice) if we don’t buy the house in Zhongbo Community, our children wouldn’t be able to study in town, let alone being admitted to the experimental school.”

In the school office, reporter found a pile of “School Register Form” stamped with Chongqing Zhongbo Real Estate Development Ltd.

Vice-principal Mr. Lei said the school had to admit all those children registered on the form just because their parents bought an apartment from the company. They had admitted over 80 children from the community in the spring, and expected to get more in autumn.

Guanxi, relation pressure
The reporter counted the notes, roughly there were 38 guanxi notes in 2007, 15 for the January of 2009 and 119 guanxi calls that occupied 20 pages of record. The notes came in different forms, envelope, cigarette pack, notepad, sticker, name card and even menu. Some were hand wrote, others printed. As for the content of the note, mostly it didn’t recommend the writer’s own relatives rather it ran favor for friend’s friend, or relative’s relative. Mr. Fang kept all those notes in record for fear of neglecting or displeasing any big cats.

Principal said the beginning of school year was the most tiresome period, because people with some kinds of guanxi will jammed his office requesting for enrollment. There was a time when Mr. Fang was receiving some visitors and a cadre of the county called to recommend his relative’s child to the school, Mr. Fang explained the situation of the school to the cadre, who cut off the phone saying “forget it if you can’t do it”. Simple like that, Mr. Fang displeased the county cadre.

Handling the balance also adds up to Mr. Fang’s headache. Students’ performance is important, so is the relation behind them. To admit one and turn down another, he has to discuss with the board. Simply put, to those recommend multiple students at a time, the school admits only one of students; to those present gifts and dinners, reject directly; and for more complicated cases, let examinations draw the line.


School as investment bait
Among those guanxi notes, some are printed out into the form of recommendation letters or confirmation letters. The school has to admit the recommended students as the recommendation letters request, because they are from important corporations in the county.

In Zhongxian, education is a business card of the county, and as the elite school, the Experimental Primary School is regarded as a valuable asset to attract investments and in the end boost the economy. Therefore, the school is obligated to admit the children whose parents work for those important corporations invited by the county.

As a deputy of the county, Principal Fang urged for more school construction in the city for years, and he proposed building 2 more schools that can take up 1500 students each this year.

In fact, Experimental Primary School is not the only overcrowded primary school in Zhongxian county. The second and fourth primary school also suffer the same problem. The fourth primary school can only take 300 students 10 years ago, according to its principal Du Yulian, now there are 2,700 students studying on the approximately 13,000 m2 school land, and the number will exceed 3,600 in three years.

Comment of the Evening Paper, by Yang Guangzhi
What happened in Zhongxian is a lesson for us. When real estate decides regional finance, it has a say on the region’s GDP; so regional government returns developers’ favor by offering elite educational resources as added value to property sales and investment. It is ok if it is all for development’s sake, but when elite educational resources have to compromise for money, influence and relation (guanxi), how far can fair education goes? Education should not be the maid of development.

  1. Why are Chinese so obsessed with “prestige”, “name” and “face”? When it comes to education, the mentality of form over substance is destroying learning in this country. People have forgotten the love of learning. And they have certainly lost the capacity to follow their hearts and follow their calling in life. No, let’s just get “prestige”. The name on the certificate is everything, knowledge and understanding nothing. This is credentialism at its worst. It’s also pure ego in action. People want to be pumped up with status and prestige. It has created a society where ability runs second to guanxi, corruption, and superficiality. And let’s not even get started on the obsession with tests. Such is the focus upon exams, that the entire curriculum is based on the test, and not upon obtaining knowledge, wisdom, an skills.

    I understand why parents are obsessed with the name of the school, because there are few options for challenging the system. If you choose a school based on the programmes and the teachers, and forget about “prestige”, you can ruin your kid’s future, regardless of the fact that their actual education might be much better.

    I’m glad I’m Australian. Where I come from there is far less of this nonsense. Although name counts for something, ability and passion count for more in the long run. And that is the way it should be.

    1. The fault is not on parents’ side but government’s. I’m not sure why you are so assertive about the natural of Zhongxian Experimental Primary school and the parents’ decision to send their children to it. The prestige of that school may come from the quality of its programs and passion of teachers, and students may have chances to learn better than other schools in the area (at least before it becomes overcrowded). Prestige is often associated with quality and I don’t see anything wrong that people want to attend schools with big names.

      As for the job market today in China, where you graduated really doesn’t matter. What matter are skills and work experience. In China, people often say the college diploma is no more than just a piece of paper and unemployed grads from top universities like Tsinghua and Beida are not rare. I’m not saying students from prestige schools don’t have any advantage but such advantage mostly comes from the alumni network – half of seats in the central politburo being occupied by Tsinghua grads is an example.

      Now come back to the incident itself. I think the comment of the Evening Paper by Yang Guangzhi in the last paragraph hits the nail on the head. The local government used the school’s education resource as a bait to attract real estate developers, made a promise that the school couldn’t fulfill. As Yang pointed out, it’s really sad that “educational resources have to compromise for money, influence and relation (guanxi)” which should be carefully avoid in China’s process of urbanization.

      Yet another great translation from ChinaHush! Keep up the good work guys!

    1. The nigh-year primary plus middle school education is compulsory in China. Please search on “primary education china”.

  2. Also in Questioner’s defense, it doesn’t seem like any of the parents did their due diligence in scouting and researching the school. From the photos in the article the classrooms look like a mess, and a poor environment for learning. Nobody would equate “Prestige” with a school operating at 254% over capacity.

    I think this is just another example of Herd mentality in China.

    1. That could be a regional problem in Zhongbo Community. Due to the boom of real-estate sector but lack of continuous investment in primary education in Zhongxian county, other schools are suffering from the same problem as said in the article (one school grew from 300 seats to 2700 seats in 10 years). Parents haven’t done enough research indeed (we say that’s 人云亦云 in Chinese) but I see more fault on the local government’s irresponsibility in development planing – the investment on primary education wasn’t proportional to the increase of population in the area.

  3. @Wang Er

    Thanks for the follow up. I’m curious as to what the parents are doing to pressure government officials, land developers, and school officials to alleviate the overcrowding.

  4. awesome, I enjoyed it! It made me visualize great fun that my family had last year during our trip to Latvia and Estonia, when visiting Lappset playground with my kids and wondering all around those nice climbing elements, one of my brightest vacation memories.

  5. Blows my mind how anyone can think you can teach a 9 year old efficiently in a classroom of 60-70-80 and in this case 90 students. I know the basics of how it works later on. The teacher holds what we would call a lecture and sometimes there is 10 minutes of question time in the end. I can’t imagine how many kids are lost in this system (here is Wang Er’s talking point 1) and it’s a sad testament to how misguided the government’s education policy has been over the last decades. The average class size in China is no less than 60 so to make it in line with the newest ideas in teaching and paedagogics that we practice in Western Europe (around 20 pupils) it would mean that China needed to tripple the amount of primary schools. Of course that is beyond realistic so this is quite a pickle.

    1. As I have read, rural areas and cities are facing different problems. China is now in a rapid process of urbanization. Since there’s a huge influx of population from rural areas to urban and outskirts, a lot primary and middle schools in rural areas are actually having insufficient source of students, which, btw, is one of the reasons of the massive layoff of substitute teachers (民办教师) in 90s and in recent years as one of ChinaHush’s article reported. My aunt’s husband was one of the 民办教师 in a Hebei village, but he’s lucky to be promoted to a management position before the wave of discharging arrived. At the same time, schools in county-level cities and third-tier cities (the Zhongxian county should be one of them) are absorbing the most impact from urbanization that even there are regulations on capacity of a classroom (Hebei province, for example, limits the number of students to be no more than 45), such regulations are generally ignored in these area. However, I believe building enough classrooms is generally not the solution, but having enough qualified teachers. The government has made some favorable policies in training and certificating teachers but there are definitely still a lot more improvements need to be done, and the primary education problem is only a facet of the painful progress in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

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