Chinese bureaucrats have invented a new buzz phrase - "quality education"- to describe a system that will produce a thinking but politically-correct people for the next century.
The ministry of education has set out five areas of school reform in its plan Revitalising Education for the 21st Century, recently ratified by the State Council. The plan includes encouraging children to spend nine years at school, eliminating illiteracy, and cultivating talent through curriculum and assessment reform. Strengthening moral and psychological education, improving the kindergarten sector and increasing opportunities for ethnic minorities to come to cities to study are also on the agenda.
Mrs Zhu Mu-ju, assistant head of basic education at the ministry, said the goal of establishing compulsory schooling had largely been achieved, with registration in primary schools now reaching 98.9 per cent. "The challenge we face is improving the quality of education," she said.
The first goal is to ensure that all pupils can finish the nine-year programme. "Because the curriculum is not reasonable, some students drop out, the subjects being useless or too difficult," she said.
"We need to reform the way of learning. In the past teachers force-fed students. The timetable was fixed by the government. There has been no time for all-round education."
Assessment methods should also change, encompassing class work as well as end-of-term exams.
School management is being reformed and decentralised with greater co-ordination between central and local government, and schools. "Curriculum reform should not only be made by specialists. It will only really happen in schools and among teachers," said Mrs Zhu.
But she admitted that limited places in upper secondary school and higher education have fuelled competition and created an exam-oriented system. There are 200 million children in China's primary and secondary schools, but only 3 million at tertiary level.
The government lacks funds for more places and rural schools are very basic with low teaching standards. It is falling short of its target of 4 per cent of GDP to be spent on education by the end of next year. Currently it spends only 2.5 per cent.
"Because of economic problems the finance ministry will not agree to increase spending on education," said Mrs Zhu.
Not all the reforms already introduced are working as intended. For example, the ministry scrapped unified exams for secondary places - the equivalent of the 11-plus - to reduce pressure on primary children. Instead, pupils should enrol at their nearest school. But now the over-subscribed "key schools" (elite schools which attract the best teachers) set their own admission tests and charge annual fees of around pound;460, equivalent to about half a year's salary for the average worker. Pupils can also gain places in better schools through teacher recommendation, opening the system to corruption.
"Because the funding for education is very limited we have to allow key schools to make charges," said Mrs Zhu. Random fee collection in rural areas is illegal, but still occurs. "China is so big that we cannot notice every problem at once," she said.
Reform of university entrance exams is intended to reduce pressure on pupils. This year they will sit three compulsory papers - Chinese, mathematics and English - instead of five. The universities they apply to will set only one general paper.