Reports in the world’s media over the last few weeks have told of the immense burden being placed on young children by school tests in cities as far apart as Beijing, New York and Sydney. There was a common thread to the stories – children being robbed of their childhood and their health suffering because of the emphasis now placed on tests in schools.
University entrance exams, known as gaokao, took place in China this week and the Chinese press was full of stories about lengths to which families go for their children to succeed.
Gaokao nannies were in high demand. The nannies must have a college degree and be able to tutor students in their weak subjects as well as wash clothes, cook meals and do the housekeeping. Well-off families employ domestic service agencies find gaokao nannies.
Rentals are at a premium close to the examination centres, because well-off parents hire places so their children can rest between the exams which are morning and afternoon on both days. Police seized thousands of cheating devices in raids targeting those who produce and sell cheating equipment such as clear-plastic earphones, wireless signal receivers, and devices embedded in modified pens, watches, glasses and leather belts.
Such is the importance of the national exams in China that the start of the high-level summit meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a security organisation comprising China, Russia and countries of Central Asia, was even delayed to ease traffic congestion for students travelling to the exams.
The pressure to succeed in exams starts at an early age in China. Reports in The China Daily have told of kindergarten students in China spending hours each week on homework and getting less sleep than their peers in other countries.
One report said that there is little time for fun for China’s young children. It told the story of five year-old Xu Haohan in Beijing who spends an average of 90 minutes on homework each night, such as copying new Chinese characters learned in class, or doing arithmetic.
A kindergarten school president in Shenyang said that 60 percent of her kindergarten classes offer courses such as math and English, and only 40 percent of the time is spent on play activities. She said many parents adhere to “a starting line” philosophy in education. “Under the pressure of exams, no parents want their children to lose the competition at the starting line.”
China’s Ministry of Education is so concerned about the burden of excessive studies among kindergarten children that it has published guidelines to ease the situation. At the end of May, it posted a draft of its study and development guidelines for 3- to 6-year-old children on its website. It emphasizes the need to promote the physical, social and emotional development of young children and has eased academic requirements.
Liu Hong, mother of a 5-year-old, said the guidelines could be good news for parents like her. “I don’t want my son to work so hard at an early age. But the ‘starting line’ philosophy seems to influence every parent, and I feel there is nothing I can do about it,” Liu said. “If the guidelines really work to change people’s mind, my son might be able to lead an easier life.”
“The competition for a prestigious university seemed to start when my son went to school when he was 6 years old. Children compete for higher scores to enter a better middle school, then a better high school. And all this preparation is for today’s fight.”
A report on early childhood released in Shanghai found that children under 6 in China are low on sleep. They are among those who have the least amount of sleep and outdoor activities compared to peers around the world.
The survey of 14 countries found that Chinese children under the age of 6 sleep for an average of 9 hours and 15 minutes every day, lower than the global average of 10 hours and 9 minutes, ranking third last among the countries, which included Japan, South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The average time for outdoor activities for children under 6 in China was about 52 minutes, the least in the 14 polled countries, and only 25 per cent of the global average of 3 hours and 45 minutes.
The report told the story of three year-old Wan Qiqi who spends five hours a day learning English and French because her parents want her to be a global citizen. Wan said if she didn’t learn foreign languages, she would spend more time sleeping, playing with her pet dog and learning to draw.
Professor Ian Morgan of the Australian National University and leader of a study of myopia in East Asia published last month in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet says there has been an extraordinary rise in myopia amongst school leavers in East Asian cities over the past two generations caused by excessive studying.
“They’ve gone from something like 20% myopia in the population to well over 80%, heading for 90% in young adults, and as they age, this level of myopia will just spread through the population. It certainly poses a major health problem.”
Professor Morgan, who is also a member of Save Our Schools, said the problem is being caused by students spending long hours in class at school and doing homework which reduced the time spent outdoors.
“As a result of massive educational pressures and the construction of a child’s day, the amount of time they spend outside in bright light is minimised.”
He criticised suggestions that Australia should imitate East Asia education as “ridiculous” given that its problems are so obvious and increasingly widely recognised.
“Far from Australia needing to follow the East Asian lead, East Asia has a lot to learn from Australia, which has achieved high educational outcomes without a crisis of myopia.”
Extreme pressure placed on children from an early age to do well in tests is also a feature of the US education system with children required to do English and mathematics tests from grade 3 to 8.
The Washington Post has just published the results of a survey of 8,000 New York parents which found serious concerns about the impact of state-wide English and maths tests held during May on their children’s health and their learning. Parents reported that their children displayed physical symptoms caused by test anxiety, including tics, asthma attacks, digestive problems and vomiting. They also reported sleep disruption, crying, refusal to go to school and feelings of failure increasing as the tests progressed.
Nearly 80 per cent of parents reported that test preparation in class prevented their child from engaging in meaningful school activities. Nearly 90 per cent reported that the amount of time devoted to standardised testing in class is not a good use of their child’s school time.
Teachers, like parents, reported that students were anxious, stressed, nervous, exhausted, overwhelmed and suffered from headaches and stomach pains.
In Australia, the introduction of reporting of school results on the My School website has brought similar pressures surrounding the annual NAPLAN tests. A recent Sunday Telegraph report said that kids are being robbed of playtime. Educators were warning that an atmosphere of parental panic has arisen about the expectations on kindergarten and pre-school children since the introduction of national numeracy and literacy testing. It said that parental and teacher expectations have changed since the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008. Some schools are also contributing to a sense that children are “failing” kindergarten and becoming anxious about how they would perform in NAPLAN tests.
Educationalist Maggie Dent told the Sunday Telegraph that:
“It’s full-on, the pressure is coming from both parents and teachers. There is a perception we need to hurry up and get them smart. With the pressure to get literacy rates up implies what is happening in kindy is not good enough so we need to do more to hurry them up.”
She said that there has been a proliferation of early learning centres aimed at getting pre-schoolers ready for the pressures of kindergarten.
“It’s robbing children of their childhood and parents are wasting their money as children are not developmentally ready at that age for formal learning”.
Jenni Connor from Early Childhood Australia said many teachers felt pressured to do more.
“The whole idea of that first year of school is to be relaxed and enjoy school. I would still want children to be playing and doing creative art. Teachers may feel under pressure to relinquish good practice.”
An earlier report in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun found that pre-school children were being pushed into practicing NAPLAN tests at home by parents, four years before they have to do the tests. A private tutoring service said that it had observed greater demand for NAPLAN test booklets this year from parents of pre-school children.
Many schools are encouraging parents to buy NAPLAN test booklets for practice at home and many include them in book packs sold to parents at the beginning of the year. Test booklets are now big business with bookshops, newsagencies and even supermarkets marketing them to parents.
The pressure placed on young children to do well in tests is now just as much part of school life in Australia as it is in China and the United States. The “starting line” philosophy is spreading among families and schools under the pressure created by NAPLAN and My School.
The whole nature of education is changing before our eyes. The importance of creative play and fun in learning for young children is being pushed aside. Homework has become more important than outdoor play for many parents. It is indeed robbing children of their childhood and perhaps their health and well-being as well in the future.
As a Beijing child psychologist recently said: “Parents need to let kids be kids and enjoy their childhood, otherwise children’s imaginations and creativity may be nipped in the bud”.