The development of primary education in so vast a country as
China was a formidable accomplishment. In contrast to the 20-
percent enrollment rate before 1949, in 1985 about 96 percent of
primary-school-age children were enrolled in approximately 832,300
primary schools (see
table 10, Appendix A). This enrollment figure
compared favorably with the record figures of the late 1960s and
early 1970s, when enrollment standards were more egalitarian. In
1985 the World Bank estimated that enrollments in primary schools
would decrease from 136 million in 1983 to 95 million in the late
1990s and that the decreased enrollment would reduce the number of
teachers needed. Qualified teachers, however, would continue to be
Under the Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education, primary
schools were to be tuition-free and reasonably located for the
convenience of children attending them; students would attend
primary schools in their neighborhoods or villages. Parents paid a
small fee per term for books and other expenses such as
transportation, food, and heating. Previously, fees were not
considered a deterrent to attendance, although some parents felt
even these minor costs were more than they could afford. Under the
education reform, students from poor families received stipends,
and state enterprises, institutions, and other sectors of society
were encouraged to establish their own schools. A major concern was
that scarce resources be conserved without causing enrollment to
fall and without weakening of the better schools. In particular,
local governments were warned not to pursue middle-school education
blindly while primary school education was still developing, or to
wrest money, teaching staff, and materials from primary schools.
Children usually entered primary school at seven years of age
for six days a week. The two-semester school year consisted of 9.5
months, with a long vacation in July and August. Urban primary
schools typically divided the school week into twenty-four to
twenty-seven classes of forty-five minutes each, but in the rural
areas the norm was half-day schooling, more flexible schedules, and
itinerant teachers. Most primary schools had a five-year course,
except in such cities as Beijing and Shanghai, which had
reintroduced six-year primary schools and accepted children at six
and one-half years rather than seven. The primary-school curriculum
consisted of Chinese, mathematics, physical education, music,
drawing, and elementary instruction in nature, history, and
geography, combined with practical work experiences around the
school compound. A general knowledge of politics and moral
training, which stressed love of the motherland, love of the party,
and love of the people (and previously love of Chairman Mao), was
another part of the curriculum. A foreign language, often English,
was introduced in about the third grade. Chinese and mathematics
accounted for about 60 percent of the scheduled class time; natural
science and social science accounted for about 8 percent.
(common spoken language, see Glossary) was taught
in regular schools and pinyin romanization in lower grades and
kindergarten. The State Education Commission required that all
primary schools offer courses on communist ideology and morality.
Beginning in the fourth grade, students usually had to perform
productive labor two weeks per semester to relate classwork with
production experience in workshops or on farms and subordinate it
to academic study. Most schools had after-hour activities at least
one day per week--often organized by the Young Pioneers--to involve
students in recreation and community service.
By 1980 the percentage of students enrolled in primary schools
was high, but the schools reported high dropout rates and regional
enrollment gaps (most enrollees were concentrated in the cities).
Only one in four counties had universal primary education. On the
average, 10-percent of the students dropped out between each grade.
During the 1979-83 period, the government acknowledged the "9-6-3"
rule, that is, that nine of ten children began primary school, six
completed it, and three graduated with good performance. This meant
that only about 60 percent of primary students actually completed
their five year program of study and graduated, and only about 30
percent were regarded as having primary-level competence.
Statistics in the mid-1980s showed that more rural girls than boys
dropped out of school.
Within the framework of the Law on Nine-Year Compulsory
Education and the general trend toward vocational and technical
skills, attempts were made to accommodate and correct the gap
between urban and rural education. Urban and key schools almost
invariably operated on a six day full-time schedule to prepare
students for further education and high-level jobs. Rural schools
generally operated on a flexible schedule geared to the needs of
the agricultural seasons and sought to prepare students for adult
life and manual labor in lower-skilled jobs. They also offered a
more limited curriculum, often only Chinese, mathematics, and
morals. To promote attendance and allow the class schedule and
academic year to be completed, agricultural seasons were taken into
account. School holidays were moved, school days shortened, and
full-time, half-time, and spare-time classes offered in the slack
agricultural seasons. Sometimes itinerant teachers were hired for
mountain villages and served one village in the morning, another
village in the afternoon.
Rural parents were generally well aware that their children had
limited opportunities to further their education. Some parents saw
little use in having their children attend even primary school,
especially after the establishment of the agricultural
responsibility system (see Glossary).
Under that system, parents
preferred that their children work to increase family income--and
withdrew them from school--for both long and short periods of time
(see Agricultural Policies
, ch. 6).
Data as of July 1987