Tough fight for places among tiny elite
Students are not seen as individuals but as statistics on a conveyor belt of examinations and rote learning. At each stage, narrowing gates push many off the conveyor belt until only a tiny elite reach the holy grail: Taiwan National University (TNU).
Pauline, Ruth and Daisy are lucky. They have made it to Taipei First Municipal girls' school - not one of the top secondary schools but the top. Some 30,000 girls sitting the examination to enter senior high school put this school as first choice in pursuit of the best education they can get. Only 1,200 make it.
The gates will get narrower. In July, more than 120,000 students around the country will sit the all-or-nothing Joint University Entrance Exam (JUEE) determined to enter TNU or another elite university. Only 50,000 will pass.
Some of those who fail may enrol in a cram school for a year and try again. And it is easy to see why competition for First Municipal is so tough. About 40 per cent of the TNU intake comes from this and its equivalent boys' school.
"It's not a healthy situation for 40 per cent to come from just two 'star' schools," said education minister Dr Wu Jin. "We need different kinds of people to run the country."
Even though Pauline, Ruth and Daisy are the nation's academic elite, they said that 40 out of 48 students in their class regularly attend outside cram schools two or three times a week after school. "We go to cram schools so that we can deal with exams." said Pauline. "In class you understand the teacher's explanation but in cram school you practise."
The government estimates that more than one million students attend 3, 000 private profit-making cram schools or bushiban after school or during vacations, and that is a conservative estimate.
At the First Municipal girls' school, students attend crammers for mathematics and science. They worry that boys with whom they will compete in the dreaded JUEE will be stronger in science and maths. And science degrees at university carry higher status. Two-thirds of the girls at the school are in the science stream although not all are confident about their aptitude for those subjects.
Ruth said she depends on cram schools to keep up her high score. Daisy does not. She said her parents do not have the money. There is the rub. Three months of English tuition, twice a week for about four hours, would cost around Pounds 200. Books and teaching materials can cost a further Pounds 100. With more than one child or with a child taking several bushiban courses, cramming can make education expensive, even though the school system is free.
Cramming is not confined to the junior high school and senior high school years. Even at grades 5 and 6 (age 11 and 12) parents send their children to bushiban.
Candy Chiang, who teaches English at a private kindergarten, said: "The problem is parents compare. When they find out that other parents are sending their children to bushiban earlier, they get worried and do the same".
Exam pressure is considered worst in junior high school (age 12-15) when there are many subjects to learn. University entrance students choose between science and social science and drop some subjects.
Private junior high schools are gaining in popularity because of a better teacher-student ratio and perception among parents that they are more successful in getting students into academic senior high schools. In reality, many of these schools are nothing more than full-time cram schools.
It is another two years before they sit their university entrance exam. And some of them already admit to being apprehensive. The students complain most about not getting enough sleep because of revision pressure.
The situation is very similar to the "exam hell" of Japan and South Korea but many insist it is worse because the gates are narrower.
"Less than 20 per cent of our young people will be admitted to four-year university courses. That's low compared to 35 per cent in Japan and 30 per cent in South Korea," said Dr Lee Yuan Tseh, a nobel laureate in chemistry and chairman of the Council for Education Reform, which presented its findings to the president in December after two years of deliberations.
At university, everyone agrees the pressure eases, but few enjoy their time there because the subject studied depends more on exam scores than on personal choice.
"If a student wants to be an electronics engineer and cannot get a high enough score to study the subject at TNU, he would rather stay at TNU and do mechanical engineering (which requires a lower score) than go to another university," said Dr Wu. "That's not necessarily the best thing for him or the country."
Educationalists in Taiwan believe that the country's high international scores at maths and science are due to the rigorous exam-orientated training in junior high schools. At 15-plus, international comparisons are skewed since they only take into account the top 30 per cent who make it into the academic stream, most of them specialising in the sciences.
"We do perform well on international comparisons", said Dr Wu, "but should we be proud of it? We would like to have well-balanced training for students and they are not receiving it. We are only repeatedly drilling them to be professional exam-takers in those subjects."