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Chinese education: How do things work?

Updated Friday, 30 August 2019
How is education structured in China? This article explores...

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Market street in China displaying Chinese flags.
The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. It has an area of 9.6 million square kilometres with two thirds of the country covered in highlands or hill regions. A nation of geographical and cultural diversity, China’s population in 2005 was 1.314 billion. Over the last decade China has seen accelerated urbanisation but the majority of the population remain in rural areas (56% in 2006). Official data identifies 56 different ethnic groups in China, but one group - the Han - accounts for just over 90% of the population.

Education in the Communist state 

Education has been highly valued in China since classical time: traditional Chinese philosophy emphasises education above other values. This focus on learning continues to be important in Chinese society today; a high standard of education is associated with higher social status and the vast majority of parents have high expectations for the educational achievements of their children.

This, together with the introduction of the one child policy, leads to parents making great sacrifices in order to ensure that their children receives the best possible education. Parents - and entire families - place their hopes in the educational success of their single offspring. The children are aware (perhaps too aware) of the responsibility on their shoulders and the importance placed on their educational achievements.

Almost forty years after the founding of the People’s Republic a policy of reform was adopted opening China to the outside world, and with it, education entered a new era. The 1986 Compulsory Education Law of the Peoples Republic of China was a major initiative, aiming to decentralise control of education and enrol the millions of children not attending school at that time. These children included those in rural areas, girls, and those from minority ethnic groups. The Act guaranteed the right to at least nine years of education for all school-age children (six years of primary and three years of lower secondary education) and placed the management of primary and lower secondary schools at district or county level.

How is education structured in China?

China describes its education system as having four components; basic education, occupational education, higher education and adult education. Basic education comprises pre-school education, six years of primary schooling; three years of junior secondary schooling and then three years of senior secondary schooling.

The numbers involved are huge: 192,000,000 children enrolled in over 400,000 primary and secondary schools with 10,000,000 teachers.

Pre-school education is becoming increasingly important in China. In urban areas, pre-school education is mainly provided through kindergartens. It may last one, two or three years and may be full time, part-time, boarding or on an hour-reckoned basis.

In recent years there has been a focus on pre-school education in rural areas, particularly those that are remote, poor or with a large ethnic minority population. Here pre-school education is mainly nursery classes with additional seasonal kindergartens; but other types of provision, including play groups, mobile centres, and mobile services called "caravans" can be found.

Primary and Secondary Education

The development of primary education in China over the last sixty years has been a formidable achievement. In 1949, enrolment rates were around 20 percent of school-age children; today they have reached over 98%. Each child reaching the age of six is required to enter primary school; just occasionally this may be postponed to seven if a school place is not available.

At the end of their six years of primary schooling, children pass automatically to the nearby junior secondary school. Numbers in junior secondary schools have increased considerably over the last twenty years and in 2006 the proportion of primary school graduates continuing their study in junior secondary schools (including vocational schools) reached 97%.

At the end of their junior secondary education pupils must sit and pass an entrance exam to continue to senior secondary school. Those pupils who wish to continue their education but do not pass the exam for the senior secondary school are able to continue their education at a vocational school. These offer two to four year skills-based programmes, in areas such as farming and technical jobs.

Chinese schools operate a two-semester year of about nine and a half months. Semester one begins on September 1st and semester two, after the Spring Festival holiday, starts on March 1st. A further holiday period comes during July and August.

The primary school curriculum consists of Chinese, mathematics, physical education, music, basic science, history and geography, combined with practical work experience around the school campus. All primary schools are required to offer courses on morality and ethics and English is often introduced in grade four.

The content of the curriculum relates to daily experience, social development and technological innovation. It is based on the four pillars of learning:

“learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.”

At secondary level, the academic curriculum includes Chinese, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, English, history, geography, politics, music, fine arts and physical education. Some junior secondary schools also offer vocational subjects.

Over a third of the curriculum in a junior secondary school is devoted to Chinese and mathematics whilst at senior secondary level over half of the teaching is concerned with science and mathematics.

Throughout compulsory education, students are required to take end-of-term exams and tests (or check-ups) at the end of each semester, school year and before graduation. In primary schools, the Chinese language and mathematics are the required examination subjects for graduation, while the other subjects are treated as ‘checkup’ subjects - where progress is measured, but not considered essential for graduation. In secondary schools, the subjects upon which graduation depends are determined locally.

At the end of senior secondary schooling, pupils who wish to go to university need to sit the national college entrance examination. This usually takes place in June. Over three days, pupils experience an intensely gruelling and stressful experience. Over eight million pupils compete for places at prestigious universities, but only around 40% can be successful, so psychological pressures on pupils and parents are immense.

The exam consists of compulsory papers in Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language (usually English). In addition to a selection from the six optional subjects - physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography and political economy that will be included.

It's not just parents and pupils who experience the pressures of the exams - teachers do as well. Their reputations depend on the number of their pupils who succeed in the exam; consequently all their teaching is focussed around preparation for this exam.

There are plans to introduce a greater range of question styles in the examination and to take students’ previous performance into account in university selection. However the sheer size of the system makes it difficult to see how change will be rapidly achieved.

Teaching and learning

In most Chinese schools students will be mostly learning through listening, note-taking and reading the textbook. Activities such as problem solving, critical analysis, collecting evidence and experimentation are rare, and there is little emphasize on study skills in many schools.

However, over recent years the government has been encouraging the use of new approaches which place the pupil at the centre of classroom activity, with more interaction between staff and students, and use of new technology.

Twenty years ago there was an enormous shortage of qualified teachers in China. Today, most teachers have had appropriate training and teachers tend to be younger - most under 45 years old.

Official pupil teacher ratios are favourable - 19:1 for primary schools, 17:1 for junior secondary schools and 18:1 for senior secondary schools.

In urban areas, good quality schools - known as key schools - manage to generate funds by recruiting students from outside their school district and charging fees.

These key schools are able to attract good students and good teachers by paying them bonuses. A teacher in an urban school may earn three times the salary of a teacher in a rural province. These differences result in a massive flow of competent teachers from rural to urban schools. The biggest challenges for the education system in China today centre around improving standards in rural schools and there are a number of innovative schemes to encourage pupil attendance and incentivise teachers to work in these institutions.

Further reading & weblinks

Education in China; ICT in Teacher Education
from Case Studies from the Asia Pacific Region
Feng-chun Miao

The organisation and structure of teacher education in the Republic of ChinaPaper presented to International Council on Education for teaching, Rome 1982 by Kuo and Wei-Fan

Basic Education in China
Ministry of Education, People’s Republic of China

Find out how you can twin your school with a school in China at BBC World Class

UNESCO Education For All
The Dakar Framework
Education For All Fast Track


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