Alice Xu’s worries about the education prospects of her nine-year-old daughter have caused sleepless nights over the last few days, and got so bad that the Shenzhen resident took herself to the doctors after hearing that fewer than half the children in the city are admitted to public secondary schools after completing the nine years of compulsory education.
“The doctor told me I’m not alone and that he had seen many patients like me who are anxious,” said Xu, who herself is a middle school teacher, teaching children aged between 14-16.
Her experience, and the experiences of other middle-class parents in China’s hi-tech capital threatens to tarnish Beijing’s plan to turn Shenzhen into a model city by 2035.
Xu moved to Shenzhen in 2005 as a young graduate, and has enjoyed the prosperity offered by the city’s rise. She now earns around 200,000 yuan (US$28,000) a year. Like many other citizens, she has always put her daughter’s education at the top of her priority list, given the common understanding that it is the only way to move up the social ladder in a highly competitive Chinese society. That meant paying 720 yuan (US$101) per hour for a one-on-one maths tutor for her daughter.
But despite her best efforts, the reality is that her daughter has more than a 50 per cent chance of failing to gain entry into an affordable and good-quality public school between the ages of 16-18 after completing her mandatory education.
According to official data, only 35,000 students in Shenzhen out of a total of nearly 80,000 were accepted into local public secondary schools last year for education from 16-18, putting them on a path that would allow them to take the rigorous gaokao college entrance exam.
This leaves many forced to turn to expensive private secondary schools, and in some cases overseas establishments, while some leave Shenzhen to attend schools in their parent’s hometown with local authorities tending to focus on recruiting students who are born locally.
But taking into account private secondary schools, the chance of a child earning a place in a public secondary school would only rise to around 57 per cent. That would be just below the national average, but well behind the 86 per cent achieved in Beijing and the 69 per cent in neighbouring Guangzhou.
Shenzhen’s problem stems from its meteoric growth from a small fishing village of a few thousand in the 1980s to a city of 13 million, fed by a continuous inflow of domestic migrants, with the number of secondary schools failing to keep up with the expanding population.
The problem is also set to get worse as Shenzhen’s preschool system is already straining under the pressure of the city’s high birth rate.
So, while Shenzhen is grabbing headlines for its impressive economic growth having grown bigger than neighbouring Hong Kong, and for being the home of prominent technology firms Huawei, Tencent and DJI, it is lagging in providing basic public services such as education.
The city has 344 primary schools, well below the 961 primary schools in Guangzhou, which has a comparable population of 15 million, according to official data.
Guangzhou also has more primary school teachers – 44,749 compared to 27,795 – indicating its students are also receiving a better quality education.
One government official, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said the municipal government does not support building new secondary schools because “it won’t be seen as a political achievement”.
“No district government in Shenzhen is willing to provide free or cheap land to build secondary schools,” the official said. Instead, land is often reserved for property developers or hi-tech projects that can boost local financial revenues and the political futures of the officials who support the projects, he added.
I don’t agree with the idea that more teachers automatically yields “better quality education.” Lots of evidence against that.
New York City has 2x more teachers per student than Guangzhou. Nobody says its schools are particularly good.