Once again the gaokao has rolled around on the academic calendar. The college entrance test is an annual fixture for final-year school students in China, generating examination jitters across the country (for an explanation of the horrors of the test, see WiC19).
Every year the gaokao is controversial, with detractors arguing that the single-track approach to university entrance puts students under too much stress.
Regrettably, student suicides during gaokao season are not uncommon. On June 7 this year, the first day of examination week, one student who was due to repeat the exam jumped to his death instead.
The test is also lambasted for placing too much emphasis on rote-learning, rather than a more multi-faceted education. Studying for the test can be rather a formulaic exercise too and one school in Anhui province has turned this principle into profit.
Maotanchang started life as a temporary educational sanctuary for students fleeing to the mountains when the Japanese invaded during the Second World War. Nowadays it is described as a “gaokao factory”, delivering thousands of students to examination halls every year. CNS, a state-run news service, claimed the school was sending nearly 20,000 hopefuls to their gaokao fate this year, and one photo shows parents lining the streets several rows deep and waving flags of encouragement as buses shuttle the teenagers to the exam centre.
Sixth Tone reports that over 10,000 families rent property in the town each year to help their children attend the school. The influx has pushed apartment costs as high as those in Beijing or Shanghai. The tuition fees are steep as well: the New York Times reports that a year at Maotanchang can cost as much as $8,000, depending upon how much time the students need to spend preparing for the exam.
The school delivers, however. The People’s Daily claimed in 2014 that 80% of the school’s students pass the gaokao, and that 90% of those enter “top tier” universities.
These scores are almost as important to the school as they are to the students themselves. Teachers are paid bonuses based on pass rates, encouraging educators to drill the curriculum a little deeper into students’ heads. Of course, sometimes the model encourages teaching methods that many would consider abusive, with Dickensian punishments like knuckle-rapping and poor performers being forced to stand for hours on end. Students start class at 6.30am and finish at 11 at night with little time for rest during the day. Classes are held seven days a week.
The New York Times noted that the school’s dormitories are designed without power sockets, limiting the chances of distraction from study. The purge on entertainment extends to the local town as well, where there are no internet cafes or video arcades (common elsewhere in China). An internet café did attempt to open up nearby but the parents organised a boycott and it soon closed down.
Although Maotanchang’s residents seem to live a circumscribed life for the sake of the school, the rest of the town’s economy thrives on its contribution. According to Business Insider, fiscal revenue is nearly four times that of neighbouring districts. With the students and their families swelling the population roughly tenfold, it isn’t hard to see where that financial stimulus is coming from.
Rather like the examination system that it caters to, Maotanchang has come in for scrutiny in the media, including the formidable People’s Daily. It has likened the school to a Foxconn factory in the scale of its operations, the quality of its “product” and the secrecy of its management model. “How Maotanchang achieves its dazzling results is not made clear, but it is not hard to guess,” the newspaper intoned, before stating rather more bluntly that the school violates the Protection of Minors Law, as well as a number of educational regulations.
But the newspaper first made these allegations in 2014 and this year the school still processed another huge cohort of students.
For pupils and parents alike, the costs of enduring an education at Maotanchang are outweighed by the risks of failing to get into university, particularly when they aspire to get into an elite college.
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