Homework ban for Chinese pupils sparks backlash online

A government order banning Chinese schools from giving homework to young students has come under fire.
PHOTO: Reuters

An education authority in China is facing a backlash over its efforts to limit the amount of homework given to young students.

Shaanxi province’s Department of Education last week issued a directive that forbids schools from giving written homework to pupils in grades one and two (roughly ages 6-8) in the interests of their balanced development.

The department also banned schools from assigning more than one hour a day of homework to pupils from grades three to six (ages eight to 12), while students in grades seven to nine (ages 12-15) must not spend more than 1.5 hours on homework a day, it said.

The rule is a reinforcement of an earlier stipulation made by China’s Ministry of Education in September 2018, which seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears, with most schools across the country taking little notice.

Many online criticised the Shaanxi authority’s ruling, saying such measures are counterproductive for students given they face extremely competitive national examinations for school places in later years.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the topic has been viewed around 60 million times.

“Lazy parents will follow teachers’ requirements and follow the school teaching speed, while parents with ambitions [for their kids] will push them to study hard secretly at home,” commented one user. “There will be a big gap [between these two groups of students].”

In China, students complete nine years of compulsory education before sitting the senior high school entrance exam, or zhongkao, to win a senior high school place. To enter university, students must sit the national university entrance examination, or gaokao, in their third year of senior high school.

“Since the gaokao and zhongkao are there, why are the education authorities bothering to create a false scene for primary school pupils that studying is an easy thing?” wrote another person on Weibo. “If you really believe in the no-written-homework policy and don’t do any, I bet you will regret it in future.”

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The local government in Fuzhou, in the southeastern province of Fujian, last week also placed the same restrictions on pupils.

Earlier in February, Lu Yugang, director of the basic education department at the country’s Ministry of Education, appealed to parents not to put excessive academic pressure on their children.

“I remind you to put your kids’ physical and mental health first,” Lu said. “Arrange their study, life and sports exercises in a scientific and appropriate way so that they can grow up healthily and achieve all-round development.”

With little action from schools regarding the homework restrictions, most parents are unaware they even exist.

Shu Na, a Shanghai-based mother of a grade-three student, said her daughter needed to do one hour’s homework every day during her first two years at primary school. Half of that was written work, she said. When she moved to grade three, her homework increased to 1.5 hours a day.

“I have no idea of the homework restrictions [set by the education authorities],” Shu said. “Fortunately, my daughter studies at a public school. As far as I know, our homework amount is far less than that of private schools.”

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A Chinese language teacher at a public primary school in Shanghai’s Putuo District said the city’s education authorities prohibited written homework for grade one and two students six or seven years ago. 

“We teachers do not assign ‘written’ homework,” one teacher, who goes by the surname Shi, said. “Instead, we ask students to do reviewing after school. This would lead students to write many things as a way of review, including Chinese characters, pinyin, English words and maths calculations.”

She said most parents were happy to supervise homework and very few had lodged complaints about the amount of homework their children were given.

“I told the parents of my students that grade one and two students should have a solid foundation [for their studies],” Shi said. “Otherwise, they will find it difficult to catch up with others once they go to grade three because the curriculum will be much more difficult than the first two years.”

A Chinese language teacher at a public primary school in Shanghai’s Putuo District said the city’s education authorities prohibited written homework for grade one and two students six or seven years ago. 

“We teachers do not assign ‘written’ homework,” one teacher, who goes by the surname Shi, said. “Instead, we ask students to do reviewing after school. This would lead students to write many things as a way of review, including Chinese characters, pinyin, English words and maths calculations.”

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She said most parents were happy to supervise homework and very few had lodged complaints about the amount of homework their children were given.

“I told the parents of my students that grade one and two students should have a solid foundation [for their studies],” Shi said. “Otherwise, they will find it difficult to catch up with others once they go to grade three because the curriculum will be much more difficult than the first two years.”

“Spending too much time on studies has led to students’ unbalanced development. They are poor in sports and lack physical qualities and arts literacy. Short-sightedness and obesity are just some of the problems,” Zheng said.

Parents who disagreed with the ruling would continue to make children study long hours at home and take part in extracurricular classes to gain an academic advantage over their peers, Zheng added.

The Ministry of Education has vowed to crack down on students studying such classes at levels higher than they should be learning at, but said it knew the practice persisted, and promised to intensify its efforts to regulate the market.

“I would say getting students to relax is a systematic project,” Zheng said. “It involves reforms of selective tests, such as the zhongkao and gaokao.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.