Intense competition is a way of life for schoolchildren and students in Taiwan.
Until recently Hsyoulang Elementary School, in a suburb of Taipei, was in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest primary school. That was when it had 12,000 pupils aged 5-12, including several kindergarten classes.
Now a rapidly declining birth rate has reduced that number to just under 8,000, yet the Hsyoulang school still covers a huge area, the size of a small university campus with several blocks of four-storey buildings built around grassy quadrangles. Pleasant enough, but chaotic at playtime, and pupils and teachers alike complain of lack of space despite a massive playground the length of two football pitches, on which at least seven classes are playing games.
There are several courtyards and a number of smaller play areas for younger children, and two swimming pools. But virtually every area seems to be in use, and it is difficult to tell how many classes have been crowded out.
Mammoth primaries are not unusual in Taiwan, where compulsory schooling starts at age six. Schools of 2,000-3,000 pupils are common and there are more than 100 elementary schools and a similar number of middle schools of 3,000-plus pupils, according to the ministry for education (MOE).
The authorities claim this is due to land scarcity, but critics say larger schools were traditionally easier to control by the government, which feared teacher dissent during 40 years of martial law that was ended in 1987.
The main goals of the Kuomintang (Nationalists), who have ruled Taiwan since 1949, were political stability and the promotion of Confucian ethics, so textbooks tend to stress loyalty, obedience, patriotism and filial piety rather than individual development.
So strong is the reform wave among teachers, however, that some elementary schools, including Hsyoulang, built in 1976, constantly push against the limits. Dr Chen Long-an, director of the Centre for Creative Education at Taipei Municipal Teachers' College, has held more than 200 training sessions for teachers in promoting creativity in children. And, he says, the demand has come from teachers themselves.
Elementary schools these days are less rigid. Several small privately-run experimental schools have sprung up, sometimes illegally, teaching completely open curricula, including Western child-centred approaches.
But the old system has not yet disappeared.Under martial law, the MOE not only dictated the curriculum (elementary schools still follow a national curriculum), but gave teachers little freedom to choose the material they taught. While the authorities' tight hold is loosening as Taiwan achieves democracy, the curriculum subject goals and hours of teaching are still dictated by the MOE, and all textbooks standardised and published by the National Institute of Compilation and Translation.
In response to teacher pressure, a law was passed two years ago to allow teachers to develop teaching materials for first grade which can then be approved by the MOE. It is a small move, but one that has allowed teachers to think actively about what should be taught throughout elementary school. Teachers hope the rules will be relaxed for other grades shortly.
Administering Hsyoulang, with its Pounds 50 million budget, some 300 teachers, and 176 classes (30 for each year group), is daunting. Principal Jan Cheng-hsing, 56, works an 11-hour day as a matter of course. He is widely respected by teaching staff, who consider him a good leader.
"Without such strong leadership, how could such a school like this function?" says one maths teacher who has taught there for 15 years.
And many researchers from overseas have had to conclude, sometimes grudgingly, that such large primaries can function well if their management is good.
Mr Jan admits he only knows the names of a few pupils: "Those who are outstanding in some way in performance, or those with particular difficulties such as divorcing parents."
If he wants to address the whole school, he has to do it in the playground using a microphone. The assembly hall holds "only'' 2,000, including several hundred in the galleries.
The school maintains a sense of community through strong class-teacher cohesion with the pupils. Interestingly, there is no sense of a rigid disciplinarian approach here.
Not surprisingly, class size is a major issue at Hsyoulang, which has an average of 40 pupils to a class. Some 2-3 per cent of pupils who fall behind attend special supplementary classes staffed by specially-trained teachers. But these classes contain 60-70 pupils each. The problem, says Mr Jan, is government funding for special classes. "We do not have enough for the students who are falling behind academically. We plan more of these classes."
Meanwhile, a class of 70 to help slower learners is better than nothing at all, he believes, and often teachers will stay behind to help pupils, and in the higher grades more able pupils will help those lagging behind.
The government has budgeted Pounds 542.5 million for educational reform for 1998, mainly to reduce the number of students per class and improve teacher in-service training. Mr Jan hopes to reduce some of the earlier year groups to 37-35 per class in the next school year. In Taiwan, three-quarters of all elementary schools have class sizes of 36 and above, and more than half have 41-49 pupils, according to MOE statistics.
One reason why Hsyoulang and its fellows are so big is because people want to go to them. In some primary schools, the largest classes are the ones taught by what are considered to be the "best'' teachers by parents and students.
Hsyoulang is sought after in its predominantly middle-class catchment area because of its modern outlook, and extra-curricular activities. Classrooms are bright, well-equipped, and there is a vast array of non-academic activities going on all around the school.
One teacher said: "We do not wish to be famous in Taipei because of our size and because parents want their children to come here. We should be famous because of the way we allow the children to develop."