Hua Luogeng, one of the leading Chinese mathematicians of the last century, never finished middle school because of poverty and illness. But that didn’t stop the universities of Tsinghua or Cambridge asking the scholar to teach.
Hua’s talent helped him to produce seminal work despite serious obstacles.
Today his name is attached to an extra-curricular maths competition that parents use to help their children get into better schools.
The private training needed to compete for the Hua Luogeng Golden Cup can cost tens of thousands of yuan, even though the competition costs just Rmb50 to enter.
Now, to parental consternation, the finals of the cup have been suspended, and possibly cancelled, due to new regulations aimed at reducing the financial and academic burdens on school children and their families.
“In recent years some outside education agencies have been carrying out exam-orientated training… this affects the normal teaching order in schools, overloads the children and has strong social repercussions,” the new policy announced.
The move is part of a wider campaign to make education a less stressful experience for children.
Many children do an average of three hours of homework a night, even in primary school, and families often feel compelled to pay for extra classes on top of that to help them keep up or get ahead.
This pressure to succeed has fostered an Rmb800 billion ($126.5 billion) industry in academic coaching, according to the Chinese Society of Education.
It claims that over 75% of the country’s 180 million primary and secondary students attend after-school classes – sometimes provided by the very same teachers who teach them during school hours.
Exasperation at this high-pressure education environment has been growing, even among those who readily participate in it.
Last year an essay by one frustrated mother went viral online, prompting others to share their frustration.
It was titled “What have I done wrong to deserve having to help my son with his homework?” The irate parent’s piece then bemoaned the huge amount of school work that children are given, and the subsequent need for parents to monitor that they are doing it and often help out.
“The whole building can hear my screams during homework time,” said one woman, responding to the article.
“I had a heart attack because the pressure was so great,” complained another dad.
The punishment can be severe for kids who fail to cope with the workload too: one unforgiving family from Sichuan tied their son to a cross and left him out on the street after he failed to complete his school assignments, the Chongqing Evening News reported.
The fear is that academic pressure is straining family relationships – and also exacerbating social inequality because only the better-off can afford the additional tutorial support needed to help children get ahead.
In December, the government issued another mandate instructing schools to “control the amount of homework” students are given so that primary school kids are guaranteed 10 hours of sleep (and nine hours for those in secondary school).
In addition it banned the practice of teachers offering private classes to pupils they classify as requiring extra help.
In response, several provinces have changed school hours or put new limits on the amount of homework given out.
Jiangsu, for example, banned homework for grades 1 and 2 and limited senior high school students to two hours of work a night.
Zhejiang has rolled back school start times. Previously many schools started lessons at 7 or 7.30am. Now they will start at 8am and later in the winter.
“My son used to get up at 6:20a.m. He needed to arrive at school before 7 a.m. So I had to get up at 5:45 a.m. to cook breakfast for him,” one mother told state television channel CCTV.
Chongqing and Liaoning have enacted similar changes.
But not everyone is happy with the new situation, including parents of children who spent months preparing for the Hua Luogeng Cup, who are angry that their money and effort might have gone to waste.
“The competition would have helped get my son into his first choice of middle school,” one mother told the Henan Business Times. “Now with it cancelled what does this mean for high school applications?”
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