Pressure of exams eased;Briefing
Just as before the Cultural Revolution, days at Zhi Xin middle school begin with morning exercise and end with pupils sweeping up to make their campus spotless.
As in the past, students gather round a wall of blackboards to write and illustrate poems and short stories. The work of each form is judged in monthly competitions. No graffiti ever appears on these boards, or elsewhere on the campus. "If we did that, or wrote about June 4 (1989, the date of the Tianamen Square uprising), we'd never go to university," said pupil Fanny Cheng.
But Chairman Mao would not approve of how these students spend their days. Academic life is focused solely on the exams they must pass to progress to the next level of education. Mao believed exams were pointless.
Zhi Xin school, in the southern province of Guangdong, is a haven of green and tranquillity in the pollution-choked city of Guangzhou. But close to 1,800 students attend the school, with up to 48 students in each class.
Many speak almost fluent English, the key foreign language since the late 1970s when it replaced Russian.
As one of Guangzhou's top schools, pupils and teachers are expected to achieve top results, to maintain its ranking. Nearly all will go to university. Pupils said they had to complete around four hours' homework a day.
Teachers are proud of their school, but one said that the exam pressure means: "We cannot use our imaginations to teach our pupils, or train them to use their imaginations. " Exams have become so tough that a leading professor only achieved 70 per cent in the latest public exam in Chinese for 18-year-olds.
There has been an unprecedented discussion in the local media about excessive pressures.
Competition is intense for a limited number of places in upper secondary and tertiarylevels. In Guangdong province,5 per cent of young people can attend tertiary institutions. But in the country as a whole it is less than 1 per cent. Around 40 per cent will leave school at 15 or 16.
In Zhi Xin, to progress to upper secondary level, they must pass six subjects: Chinese, maths, English, physics, chemistry and politics. They also have to pass a PE test, including shot-putt and skipping - the latter requiring 200 skips to a minute.
But Guo Hong of the education department said there were plans for reform. From next year, university entrance exams will be cut to three subjects - Chinese, maths and English, and either one or two subjects of a student's choice.
Unlike previous generations, these pupils are not cut off from the outside world. In one senior form, all had seen the film Titanic before it was released in China as they can buy pirated copies of the West's latest films and albums.