Forget the 11-plus or the A-level – Chinese school leavers have “Gaokao fever” as they sit the country’s notorious two-day exams.
Michael Gove – watch and weep, writes Channel 4 News Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long. Students getting up at 5am to revise, studying 16 hours a day, learning reams of facts by rote. Welcome to the Gaokao: “the world’s toughest exam”.
The Gaokao is China’s university entrance test. More than 9 million students sit it, as they fight it out for a coveted place in some of the country’s top colleges.
For many it’s more than just a few extra years of education. It’s the chance to transform their lives.
By the time dawn breaks, 18-year-old student Zhang Sha Sha is already up and revising. She’s the daughter of poor farmers who live in Hebei province, about a 100 kilometres from Beijing.
“My mother suddenly burst into tears . She said please, please, I beg you to continue your studying. My life is so poor I can’t do anything to change it. But you can’t live your life like ours. You have to get out of poverty.” Zhang Sha Sha
After she finished middle school, she told her mother she wanted to go out and find a job to help the family. Her mother begged her to change her mind.
Zhang explained: “My mother suddenly burst into tears . She said please, please, I beg you to continue your studying. My life is so poor I can’t do anything to change it. But you can’t live your life like ours. You have to get out of poverty.”
And so Zhang hopes the Gaokao will be her route out.
The exam lasts for two days. Such is the collective frenzy, traffic and construction work is halted to minimise noise around test centres. Parents stand guard outside looking anxious. It’s known as Gaokao fever.
Extraordinary pictures emerged from one classroom showing students hooked up to intravenous drips full of energy supplements to keep them going while revising.
But there are signs of a growing rebellion.
Sitting with his head in his hands, is Zhang’s fellow student, Lin Shao Chen. He rails against the test, its rigid assessment of what’s right and wrong, no room for analysis or independent thought.
Teachers think I am rebellious. They think I should focus on my study. Their view of studying to me is too narrow. Lin Shao Chen
He’s become something of an outcast, his rather philosophical view of education at odds with his teachers, as he explained: “Teachers think I am rebellious. They think I should focus on my study. Their view of studying to me is too narrow. Study? What is studying?
“Since the day you are born everything you experience, people you know, including the things you learn in school – this is learning.”
Fewer students are taking the Gaokao each year. Critics say it’s a recognition that Lin Shao Chen is right – the exam doesn’t prepare young people for real life.
As China has massively expanded further education in the past 10 years, it also means that the Gaokao is no longer the guarantee of a good job that it once was.
For millions like Zhang Sha Sha, though, opting out is too big a risk. Getting down to work is the only answer.
This year’s Gaokao exams finish tomorrow. The results will be out at the end of the month. Will all the hard work have been worth it?