When school stress becomes a matter of life and death

China's high student suicide rate is linked to exam pressure

Richard Vaughan

It has been lauded by politicians and educationalists for its performance in international school league tables, but China's high-pressure school system has been heavily criticised for contributing to increasing numbers of teenage suicides.

Shanghai and Hong Kong consistently score highly in the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings, but China's wider education system was criticised last week for the link between its test-oriented culture and students taking their own lives.

According to the 2014 Annual Report on China's Education, known as the Blue Book of Education, nearly all the cases of student suicide analysed by the researchers were associated with the heavy burden of exam pressure.

The report, published by the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a not-for-profit organisation made up of education professors and experts in Beijing, investigated 79 student suicides in 2013. Almost 93 per cent were linked to arguments young people had had with their teachers, or to an inability to deal with the stress of exams.

Cheng Pingyuan, the professor at Nanjing Normal University who led the study, believes that it demonstrates a clear link between school and exam stress and teen suicide.

"The pursuit of high test scores not only brings pressure to students but also to teachers, making the relationship between teachers and students worse, especially when students perform poorly in exams, which finally leads to some students' suicides," he writes.

Ministers in England have long pointed to China's prowess in subjects such as maths and science as evidence that its system is worth imitating. In February, education minister Elizabeth Truss led a delegation of teachers and education experts to Shanghai on a "fact-finding mission" to investigate why Chinese schools so significantly outperform their English rivals.

But the publication of the Blue Book last week revealed a different story, highlighting the case in May last year of a 13-year-old boy from Nanjing in Jiangsu province, who hanged himself after he failed to finish his homework. Another incident involved a teenage girl in Sichuan province who took her own life when she learned that she had not passed her university entrance exams.

The study underlines growing concern in China around suicide, with state media reporting that it is the biggest cause of death among people aged between 15 and 34. Approximately 287,000 people kill themselves in China every year, accounting for 3.6 per cent of all deaths in the country, according to official statistics.

South Korea, which is also among the top-performing countries in education rankings, has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The death toll among 15- to 24-year-olds doubled between 2001 and 2011.

A survey in February by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation, which is affiliated with the finance ministry, reported that just over half of South Korean teenagers had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past year, with more than 40 per cent citing school pressure as the cause.

Jieyu Liu, deputy director of the Soas China Institute at the University of London, said her own experience as a student in China was affected by an overemphasis on exam results.

"I went to a highly selective school and they always used tests to rank you, and they would put your names on the wall as a type of public shaming. If you dropped from first to tenth, you would feel pressure from your peers and your teacher."

Education in China, Dr Liu added, took on even greater importance because there was no comprehensive health care or welfare, as in the UK. Parents who fear vulnerability in old age therefore put pressure on their children to go to a good university and find a decent job.

The Blue Book reports that 63 per cent of the suicides examined took place between February and July, when students take important tests such as the high school and college entrance exams. The college entrance exam, or gaokao, carries the greatest pressure, because it represents students' only chance of getting into university.

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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