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English out, Xi Jinping Thought in at Shanghai schools

China mixes ideology into educational reform drive

Chinese authorities look to lighten the load on children while keeping them loyal to the Communist Party.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- School children here returning to class next month will be pleased to find that they will no longer need to remember the intricacies of English spelling. But all will not be fun and games: "The Communist Party leads all forms of work in China" may be one of the phrases of President Xi Jinping that they are required to commit to memory.

A new textbook on "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" will be required reading in Shanghai elementary, middle and high schools starting in September, for classes on morality and the rule of law in lower grades and ideology and politics for high schoolers. Students will likely be expected to memorize notable quotes from the president.

Meanwhile, the city announced last week that primary schools should administer final exams for only math and Chinese for students from third through fifth grade, removing English from the list. City authorities also banned midterm tests for these grades, limiting exams to the end of the year only.

The changes in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, are likely to be a sign of things to come elsewhere. The central government is cracking down on the education industry to address inequality and skyrocketing costs, and efforts to reduce the burden on children -- like Shanghai's testing cuts -- also offer an opportunity to adjust what they learn.

China's education ministry said last month that the Xi Jinping Thought textbook is to be introduced in schools nationwide starting this fall.

Beijing on Monday announced a ban on the use of unapproved foreign textbooks in primary and junior high schools. With the ideological conflict between the U.S. and China likely to drag on for years to come, authorities apparently aim to instill positivity toward the Communist Party among young people, as well as nip any potential for Hong Kong-style activism in the bud.

There are also more practical issues at hand. Xi's government has expressed concern about cutthroat exam competition taking away free time after school and placing enormous pressure on younger students. The exorbitant costs of after-school cram schools and household tutoring are discouraging families from having more children.

Authorities have put the industry under tighter scrutiny. In June, 15 private tutoring companies were fined for misleading consumers.

Last month, the government halted approvals of new tutoring businesses and required existing providers to register as nonprofits, and has barred these companies from raising capital on the stock market. Going forward, authorities will set standard tuition rates and oversee prices.

The stricter oversight is intended to address not only stubbornly low birthrates, but also educational inequality.

"I want my child to go to university in a big city like Beijing or Shanghai in the future, but under the current education system, the costs are so high that that's impossible," said a 29-year-old homemaker with a child in third grade in the Jiangxi Province city of Yichun.

"Families who escaped rural poverty may be pushed back into poverty by skyrocketing education costs," said Yao Yang, an economics professor at Peking University.

Yet the new policies have been met with an icy reception from many parents and caretakers.

"Even if schools cut down on testing, that won't make the entrance exam competition go away," said a 38-year-old homemaker surnamed Han living in Shanghai, where families' focus on education is especially intense. "And even if cram schools are regulated, that would just mean more time with household tutors."

Han has a child in second grade and spends about 70,000 yuan ($11,000) a year on cram schools and tutors. The average annual salary for an office worker in Beijing last year was roughly 120,000 yuan. Families with higher incomes can afford a higher-quality education for their children, and how much the government can do to change this is unclear.

There are also concerns that the planned reforms risk undermining the education system that has helped to drive China's growth and active startup scene, and potentially weakening the country's edge in the global race to cultivate talent.

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