This article has been published in Enabling Education 4
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Title: Education for All in China: A western perspective
Author: Potts, P
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2000

Education for All in China – a Western Perspective

Patricia Potts

The international campaigns of the early 1980s raised awareness of the rights of children and of disabled people. They took place soon after the opening of the door between China and the West. The task of educational reconstruction, following the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, was therefore initiated in a context of wider debate and political influence. Over the last 12 years I have observed some ways in which Chinese educators have responded to these challenges.

As a consequence of the 1986 Law on Compulsory Education, millions of children and young people, who were excluded from the education system, are now enrolled in school and educators are trying to develop appropriate courses of professional development. However significant barriers to full participation remain. These are geographical, economic and cultural.

“Inclusion is a sign of our prosperity, civilisation and scientific approach to research.”

Educational opportunities in China, as elsewhere, are shaped by a range of non-educational factors, such as social attitudes and changing patterns of employment and prosperity. However traditional attitudes and Marxist commitments to fixed social roles and collective identities provide a very different framework for present moves towards a more inclusive education system. Western values such as individualisation, self-advocacy and diversity, may not find equivalents in China.

However there has been a noticeable movement of children and young people from long-stay welfare institutions and the family home into special schools, and also from special into mainstream schools. In some places this has led to an increase, rather than a decrease, in categories of educational disability. Mainstream schools in China are highly selective and competitive. Classes are large. The organisation, staffing and range of activities varies little between primary and secondary schools. The problems posed by greater diversity tend to be seen as belonging to the children, rather than the system.

Chinese colleagues often translate their concept of ‘education’ as ‘culture’.

Recognition of the personal and social dimensions of life in educational institutions has not seemed necessary. Non-cultural activities like vocational or pastoral curricula tend not to be found in Chinese schools. The idea of a ‘good school’ is of one that does not require support structures – whether in the form of curricular differentiation, or of collaboration between staff inside classrooms.

Classroom teachers face a number of pressures. Teachers are being encouraged to develop student creativity, autonomous thinking and problem-solving skills. This seems to indicate a broadening out of the concept of education. Yet the educators lack the authority and experience to change curricula, assessment, or styles of pedagogy.

Nevertheless initial and in-service teacher education is changing rapidly. The aim is to update and raise the level of the qualifications of primary and special school teachers. There are examples of a more social approach being taken to the provision of learning support in mainstream schools. There are also moves to abolish the examinations for transferring between elementary and junior middle schools. These developments should significantly increase the capacity of the educational mainstream to provide an appropriate education for all.

Patricia Potts can be contacted at: Centre for Educational Research, Faculty of Education, Canterbury Christ Church University College, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 1QU, UK.

Senior educationalists from East China Normal University, Shanghai, will be participating in a symposium at ISEC 2000, together with a group of British colleagues. The symposium will be entitled “Inclusion in the City” and will discuss a comparative approach to understanding processes of inclusion and exclusion.