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China gears up for 12-year compulsory education

ZHAO YAN and LI HONGWU | 2020-09-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pupils run on the playground at a primary school in Longnan, northwest China’s Gansu Province, on August 31, 2020. Photo: XINHUA

The history of compulsory education in China reveals that universal education and compulsory education are supplementary in the development of basic education. The goal to universalize compulsory education entails the promotion of universal education, while to ensure the effective implementation of universal education, laws and regulations are essential to define its compulsory nature. Extending from elementary to secondary schools, the popularization of compulsory education in China over the past 100 years has shown obvious historical and periodic characteristics. 
Centennial course of popularization
Starting from the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the popularization of compulsory education was proposed by reformists who were subject to the profound influence of the eastward transmission of Western learning. In 1898, renowned politician and educator Kang Youwei offered an introduction to the universalization of compulsory education in Germany and Japan in a memorial to the throne to request that more schools be founded. After examining Japanese education, Liang Qichao, also a prominent politician and educator, published two articles on the policy and aim of education, respectively, calling for efforts to popularize compulsory education in China. 
In response to widespread debates about the issue, the Qing government announced the Authorized School Regulations, in which compulsory education was defined as primary education. This was the first instance in modern times in which the Chinese central government carried out five-year compulsory education at primary schools. However, problems abounded in the implementation process. 
To remedy this, the Qing court released Changes to Regulations on Primary Schools, allowing students a choice between a full-length five-year education with a reduced course load and a four- or three-year elementary education with even fewer courses. 
After the Republic of China (ROC) was founded, the ad hoc Ministry of Education enacted decrees and statutes for schools of all levels and types from September 1912 to August 1913, building a relatively complete educational system. The ministry defined primary education as seven years of junior and senior elementary education, with four-year junior elementary education being compulsory. 
In the early 20th century, the rise of the New Culture Movement came with new educational philosophies, which set the stage for the reform and popularization of primary education. In November 1922, the Beiyang government (1912–28) issued an act to reform the school system, shortening the length of elementary education from seven to six years. The junior-senior division within elementary school was retained, along with four-year compulsory junior elementary education. The general secondary education was lengthened from four to six years, divided into junior and senior levels. Eventually, a system comprising six years of primary education, three years of junior secondary and three years of senior secondary education took shape. The new system was more practical, logical and favorable to the universalization of primary education, so it continued to be adopted for many generations. 
During the Nanking National Government period (1927–48), the 1922 educational system was modified slightly to adapt to the political situation, but the basic framework remained unchanged. However, the nation as a whole was still struggling to implement four years of required primary education. 
In May 1928, the University Council (daxue yuan), which was charged with national academic and educational affairs, convened the First National Educational Conference, ordering to enforce compulsory education on the national level and set up compulsory education commissions at the central, provincial, municipal and county levels. 
In September 1929, the Ministry of Education, established in lieu of the University Council, formulated regulations and implementation plans for national compulsory education and adult supplementary education. They set a clear goal to universalize four-year compulsory education by the end of 1934. 
In 1930, the Second National Educational Conference extended the schedule for completing compulsory education popularization to 20 years. In August 1935, the Executive Yuan (xingzheng yuan), the supreme administrative organ of the ROC, ratified and promulgated an outline of interim measures for the implementation of compulsory education drafted by the Ministry of Education. It was planned that four-year compulsory education should be popularized nationwide in three stages. 
In March 1940, the Ministry of Education released an outline for carrying out national education. A new system was proposed, integrating compulsory education for children with supplementary education for ordinary people who were unable to go to school. Nonetheless, Japanese aggression continually disrupted the popularization of elementary education.  
At the same time, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region, where the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was based, was carrying out five-year compulsory primary education. On Nov. 24, 1937, the border region commission of the CPC first put forward a universal, compulsory and free education policy in its administrative plan. In 1939, the educational office of the border region government specially drafted provisional regulations on mandatory education. In March and December 1940, successively, the government released interim regulations for the implementation of universal and compulsory education in the border region.   
From 1937 to 1939, the Party committee, government and educational office laid down plans, statutes, regulations and measures seven to eight times to promote and universalize five-year compulsory primary education, thus accelerating the development of elementary education in the border region, sending qualified students to secondary schools, cultivating excellent teachers alongside a number of knowledgeable and educated local cadres. However, that was merely an attempt of the CPC’s regional governance. The range of compulsory education popularization covered only 29 cities and counties in the border region, benefiting 43,625 pupils at the most. 
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese society entered a period of peaceful and stable development. This created a favorable environment for the universalization of compulsory education. 
In 1951, the First National Primary Education Conference set a goal to enroll 80% of school-age children nationally on average from 1952 to 1957 and to make primary education universal within ten years. 
In the same year, the Decision on Reforming the School System released by the Government Administration Council (zhengwu yuan) kept the basic framework of six years of primary education, three years of junior secondary and three years of senior secondary education.
In 1958, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council clarified the tasks of eradicating illiteracy, popularizing primary education, building middle schools for each rural agricultural cooperative and enabling most preschoolers to attend nursery and kindergarten. 
In the 1960s and 1970s, universal education was gradually extended to secondary education, villages replaced agricultural cooperatives in running middle schools, and a batch of vocational technical schools, pedagogical schools and secondary technical schools were founded. 
After reform and opening up, in December 1980, the central government released a decision on issues concerning the popularization of primary education, requiring that the historical task of universalizing primary education should be fundamentally realized, and areas where conditions permitted should popularize secondary education. 
In December 1982, Article 46 of the newly amended Constitution first legislated the popularization of compulsory primary education. In May 1985, the Decision on Reforming the Educational System released by the CPC Central Committee clarified the need to implement nine-year compulsory education step by step. In April 1986, the Compulsory Education Law was enacted, bringing China in line with most countries in the world in the universalization of nine-year compulsory education.
Paving the way 
Following the promulgation of the Compulsory Education Law, governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities successively formulated measures for the implementation of compulsory education based on local realities. 
By January 2001, the strategic task of universalizing compulsory education was basically fulfilled on a national level. However, there were gaps between eastern, central and western regions, and the progress was uneven between counties within the same region and between urban and rural areas. 
Therefore, the Ministry of Education issued Several Opinions on Further Promoting the Balanced Development of Compulsory Education to provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in May 2005, urging efforts to vigorously advance the balanced development of compulsory education in urban and rural areas. 
With the unrelenting efforts of the people and governments of all levels, China fulfilled the strategic goal of popularizing nine-year compulsory education in all aspects in November 2011, laying a solid foundation for building a strong power in education and human resources. 
In 2013, the Education Inspection Committee of the State Council started evaluating the balanced development of compulsory education in counties. By the end of 2018, 92.7% of counties (cities and districts) around China met the qualifications for balanced development, and a total of 2,717 counties and 16 provinces (municipalities and autonomous regions) passed the assessment. Some regions even realized high-quality balanced development. The way has been paved for the popularization of 12-year compulsory education. 
In recent years, governments at all levels have increased financial investment and logically allocated educational resources while establishing long-term management mechanisms and mechanisms for the joint development of schools to narrow the gap between schools in urban and rural areas. 
In the meantime, the Education Inspection Committee of the State Council has conducted supervision and evaluation to promote and ensure the high-quality balance of compulsory education in counties. These measures will lay solid groundwork for the popularization of 12-year compulsory education. 
While gradually implementing 12-year compulsory primary and secondary education, it is necessary to terminate the division of junior and senior high school and to elevate secondary vocational technical education to higher vocational education, so as to build an educational system based on compulsory primary and secondary education and characterized by the synchronous development of general education, vocational education and pedagogical education. 
Zhao Yan and Li Hongwu are from the School of Education at Shaanxi Normal University. 
edited by CHEN MIRONG