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LAST WORD: Gao Kao Madness
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Gao Kao Madness

By Andrew Smith

BT 201505 03 Last word 20140519110543The Chinese education system is notoriously tough on students. For better or worse, it is one of the world's most intense systems, requiring a tremendous amount of time, effort and diligence in order to prepare pupils for adulthood. As with other systems in the Far East rigorous testing is one the major components. In order to be successful in their academic career Chinese schoolchildren need to excel at taking exams. The most important one of all is the prolifically difficult Gao Kao ('the big test') which high school students are required to take as a prerequisite to getting into university. This extremely taxing series of tests stretches over two or three days. During that time students are tested on everything from the three compulsory subjects - Chinese, mathematics and English - to history, politics and the natural sciences.

Given the importance of the Gao Kao it is hardly surprising that students endure a great deal of social, psychology and physical pressure. Many parents across the country invest thousands upon thousands of yuan on private tutoring and extra educational activities to increase the likelihood of their child acing the test and ultimately getting into a prestigious academic institution. Doctors in Tianjin have also noted a sudden surge in demand for birth control pills as panicking parents rush to get their daughters menstruation under control especially for this life-changing event. The Gao Kao's critics have suggested that the relatively high prevalence of psychological problems amongst the teenage population are related to the exam and the frequency of crucial tests at every level..

BT 201505 01 Last word hlAs one would expect there is always a strong incentive for students to try cheating their way through it. In fact it is common knowledge that good old fashioned plagiarism and even bribery of examiners are rife during Gao Kao season. The authorities are taking these issues increasingly seriously. There have been reports in recent years of schools using metal detectors and various other devices in order to sift out high tech cheaters who attempt to smuggle some electronic assistance into the exam hall. On top of that schools have also been known to pay big money for invigilators to be drafted in from other parts of the country to oversee the testing with an uncorrupted and impartial mindset.

Although these measures sound extreme to westerners there are good reasons behind it. At a high school in Zhongxiang, Hubei in 2013 a riot broke out after an external invigilator refused to take bribes. According to a report by the Shanghaiist, "The invigilator, surnamed Li, was in examination room number 10 when he confiscated a student's iPhone. After the exam, in his office, an examinations officer placed two stacks of cash in front of him in a blatant attempt to "resolve the matter privately". The money was marked with "10-6" - the seat number of the student in question. Li refused to take the money, and boy did he pay for it". As parents got word that Mr. Li had decided to stand by his moral compass, the angry mob decided to confront him. The report says that "at 5pm that day, after the last exam was over, Li was encircled by a mob of over 100 angry parents and students who refused to let him leave the school. The air was thick with tension and emotions were running high, students were screaming at the invigilator, accusing him of being too strict and taking away their phones. Some even alleged that he had groped female students during the security check, all of which fuelled the anger of parents who proceeded to attack Li. After over an hour, police came to escort the invigilator and his colleagues to their homes".

BT 201505 02 Last word 155036910Since this incident,the government has taken a tougher stance on the issue of corruption within the education system. In response, parents and students have had to create new innovative ways of getting around the system. Last year the Daily Mail reported that Chinese authorities have exposed some of the 007-style gadgets that students have been caught using to try and cheat their way through tough university entrance exams. Security staff in Jinlin, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces have revealed students using sophisticated radio vests in order to receive help from someone outside the hall. Pupils take pictures of the tests using a button-hole camera hidden in a pen or watch, then use a copper antenna loop stitched into their clothing to beam it out of the hall to someone sitting with a receiver". Another common, albeit less sophisticated method involves students using invisible ink to write answers all over their arms then shining a small ultra violet light over them during the test. This may all sound like complete madness but it highlights the fact that students and parents will go to extreme lengths to ensure that they succeed academically.

The obvious question that comes to mind is has the Chinese education system gone too far in enforcing such intense testing procedures? Some people, including teachers and government officials, have been calling for reform. They argue that more effort needs to be made in order to foster creativity and a more relaxed approach to educating young people. There are however still plenty of conservatively-minded Chinese people, particularly within the older generation, who believe that the tried and tested system of sorting the proverbial 'men from the boys' is still the best way to go in the 21st century. After all, they argue, it has helped to produce some of the finest mathematicians, engineers, computer programmers and physicists in the world. To them, if it isn't broken then it doesn't need fixing. They are of course just as entitled to their view as anyone else, but one does have to wonder how many more teenagers have to endure severe depression during an already difficult part of their lives and how many more invigilators have to be beaten by a mob of infuriated parents before someone says enough is enough.


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