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May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

In Rural China / Which Road to Relevant Education?

China's fast-changing economy and Communist Party decrees are promoting vocational education. One of the questions raised is, Should rural students be taught skills relevant to their present or future?

When the new school campus is built," the principal of Luoyang Secondary School proclaimed, gesturing proudly at a large drawing of teaching blocks surrounded by plush vegetation, "our school will begin to offer courses in electronics."
The two visitors were puzzled. They were researchers from Hong Kong who were interested in vocational education in China. From previous visits, they knew that the town's Adult Education Center already offered two courses on electronics. Whether a town like Luoyang, situated about 100 kilometers from the famous metropolis of Shanghai, really needed that many people trained in electronics posed an interesting question.
"It's going to be a very nice campus," remarked one of the visitors politely, "but how would electronics fit into your curriculum?"
"We'll offer electronics in the vocational stream in the senior grades. Now, we have classes only in the junior secondary section of the school where students learn graphic and mechanical drawing," the principal replied.
"Why electronics?" the visitors wondered. "We thought Luoyang is famous for its pearls and marine products."
"We had offered a course on marine goods production, but it folded several years ago," the principal said. "Times have changed. The young people are no longer interested in agricultural work like pearl nurturing and fishery. Now they like to work in the factories."
"But I thought the Adult Education Center is already offering two courses on electronics," one of the visitors finally had to point out. "There must be a lot of people in this town who are interested in electronics."
"Getting that training helps them to get a better job at the Changzhou No. 5 Electronic Factory," said the principal. "They hire a lot of people there."
The principal had been very helpful. Yet the visitors came away with more questions than they originally had. Why was the principal not concerned about adding even more people trained in electronics to the town's small labor force?
For almost two decades, the debate about "relevance education" has raged in China. Advocates have supported a special kind of rural education with a heavy agrarian emphasis (Barber 1981). They have argued that schooling should be relevant to the social, economic, and cultural reality of the rural areas (see Foster 1977, Sinclair and Lillis 1980, Evans 1981).
In recent years, however, this reality has been changing, as our conversation with the principal of Luoyang Secondary School made clear. Rural towns are rapidly dotting the landscape of China, but they defy the usual dichotomy of "developed" urban areas and "underdeveloped" rural areas. Luoyang, the town we investigated, did not share the characteristics common among rural areas in earlier studies of relevance education. It possessed a rural mentality, but like many prosperous rural towns in East China, it also had material wealth that rivaled some of the smaller cities.

A Changing Countryside

Luoyang is a medium-sized town that, at the time of our four visits in 1993, had a population of 31,000. It is located in Wujin County in Jiangsu, one of the richest provinces in China. Before the advent of industrialization in the 1980s, the major occupation in Luoyang was agriculture. Its best known product was pearls, nurtured in the many rivers that cross the town.
But the impressive growth in Luoyang's electronics and machinery industries changed the town's occupational structure. Construction, telecommunications, transportation, and commerce also contributed significantly to Luoyang's economic growth. These new industries offered more non-agricultural jobs than there were people to fill them, although the larger enterprises required only a few professional managers and many workers who could perform a variety of relatively simple tasks.
The question now, then, is not only whether students should be given vocational training, but also what that vocational training should entail. To some, the effectiveness of vocational and technical education can be gauged by how well its curriculums fit current job requirements and how well its graduates perform on the job. Others take a broader view, arguing that rural vocational education should also help students develop a better understanding of the workplace and their community.
A third group—which includes most teachers in Louyang—is against any vocational bias. These people contend that vocational training limits the life chances of rural youth. For the sake of the youths' mobility, they say, their schooling should be the same or similar to the general education offered to students residing in the cities.
In the last decade, the national government has further complicated the debate over relevance education. The Chinese Communist Party has decreed that vocational secondary education should be developed swiftly and broadly so as to serve half of the students in secondary schools. The government has used various means to impart vocational skills to graduates of junior and senior secondary schools, including countywide campaigns at schools and informal courses for those who leave school. This national shift in favor of vocational secondary education has brought new concerns over the quality of education for a huge number of Chinese youths (for example, see Lo 1993).

Educating for Industry

A salient characteristic of schooling in Luoyang was its flexibility. Its fast-changing economy ushered in educational arrangements that suited development requirements. Still, during the past decade, Luoyang has also distinguished itself by popularizing basic education.
The Luoyang Secondary School (grades 7-12) is the town's only "complete" secondary school. The school system also consists of two junior secondary schools (grades 7-9); one central primary school (designated the best in the town); 12 other primary schools (grades 1-6); 11 lower primary schools (grades 1-3); one kindergarten; and the Adult Education Center.
Housed in a former factory, the Adult Education Center offered only vocational and technical courses. In addition to the courses taken for credit, the center operated many short courses for the community. These ran the gamut from training women cadres for specific tasks (such as civic education and birth control) to accounting, pearl nurturing, and agricultural machinery. The center designed its courses to suit the interests of its clients, which were mostly local enterprises. Even though its operational costs were covered by the local government, the center charged clients for the cost of training. Its teachers were contracted from local schools and from technical colleges in neighboring areas. The center worked closely with local authorities, and some graduates were assigned to work in preferred enterprises through the township government.
Luoyang, then, did not need a vocational secondary school. The Luoyang Secondary School, the Adult Education Center, and informal courses for school leavers already provided manpower for the workplace. Nevertheless, the Luoyang Secondary School was ready to take advantage of opportunities in vocational training. In 1981, when local officials wanted to establish the town as a major pearl production center in the region, the school developed a course in pearl nurturing and marine goods production. The course was terminated four years later because of a slowdown in the pearl business, and also because it was not recognized as a specialized secondary course (a status that is higher than a secondary vocational course).
The school also operated "streaming" classes for academically low achievers at the junior secondary level. The purpose was to channel these students to the workplace quickly. In this curriculum, 10 out of 42 class sessions a week were devoted to vocational training.

Defending General Education

Despite the school system's flexibility, some of its practices—such as the introduction of streaming classes—risked the criticism of teachers. Luoyang's teachers preferred general education (in the academic stream) for all their students. They thought that assigning students to the vocational stream at age 14 or 15 could consign them to an unsuitable career path. Teachers treasured opportunities for their able students to advance, even if it meant losing them to the major cities.
Some school administrators shared the teachers' preference. In one of the town's junior secondary schools, academic achievement was considered so important that teachers were awarded or penalized in accordance with their students' performance. Dropping out was considered the ultimate failure, and any dropout would cost the teacher 3RMB per semester (about 38 cents in U.S. money, or about 1 percent of the teacher's monthly salary). This was a small sum even by Chinese rural standards, but a huge cost to the teacher's self-esteem. In the same school, any teacher in charge of a graduating class that was fortunate enough to feed students into a key senior secondary school or a specialized secondary school would be awarded incentive money.
Based on their recruitment practices, major employers in Luoyang subscribed in part to the educators' philosophy; they clearly were looking beyond the vocational programs for suitable workers. Large enterprises, such as the Changzhou No. 5 Electronic Factory, either offered their own inservice training or sponsored training through courses that were designed for their purposes at the Adult Education Center. They did not hire untrained junior secondary school leavers. In a town where there are more jobs available than trained personnel, smaller enterprises had to resort to hiring untrained people with lesser qualifications, which did provide good employment opportunities for graduates of the streaming classes.
For positions requiring the service of senior secondary graduates (such as sales duties elsewhere in the province), Luoyang's local employers usually favored those from the academic stream. They recognized the potential of these graduates and thought their general background, and possibly their ability to adapt to varying job requirements, gave them a better foundation for further training and upward mobility. Ultimately, these enterprises had a tremendous influence on the development of the town's schooling.
Luoyang's educational planners, meanwhile, subscribed to a pragmatic view; they believed no course should be offered in defiance of market forces. These planners were not having an easy time of it, however, because of the changing attitudes of parents and youth.
In general, parents hoped for the highest possible level of schooling for their offspring, while youths who failed to see the utility of schooling wished to try their luck in employment or in business endeavors of their own. (The temptation to get rich by having one's own business was prevalent in Luoyang.) At the same time, however, a growing number of parents wanted their children to learn something useful and bring home a salary, whereas some youths saw the value of general education and wished to keep their career options open.

Finding a Middle Ground

As a result of these conflicting views, it became increasingly difficult to estimate the number of students who were willing to stay in the academic stream and the number who wished to join the streaming classes. In 1990, for example, the senior academic stream of the Luoyang Secondary School lost many students and was able to fill only 60 percent of its 120 places. As it became obvious that the larger enterprises preferred graduates with a general education, however, a steady stream of students began to find their way back. In 1992, the school's senior academic stream managed to accept one extra class of students (from 2 to 3 classes, and a total of 130 students).
In a sense, then, the town's employers defined the kinds of education to be valued in Luoyang. And the town's educational development clearly needed the support of concomitant economic development. This supports Foster's contention that "vocational education must be directly related to those points at which some development is already apparent and where demand for skills is beginning to manifest itself..." (1977).
In this town, vocational education and general education played their own unique roles and supplemented each other. General education, despite a brief period of hardship, had an important role to play because it provided opportunities for educational advancement and a ticket to urban living. It also afforded a kind of education that transcended vocational concerns and developed the person.
Luoyang's experience also refutes the simple-minded claim that "relevance education" needs to be vocational and oriented to agrarian concerns. If nothing else, the concept should be broad enough to incorporate the strengths of both vocational and general education. Only then can it bring about societal change.

Barber, E. G. (1981). "General Education Versus Special Education for Rural Development." Comparative Education Review 25, 2: 216-231.

Evans, D. R. (1981). "The Educational Policy Dilemma for Rural Areas." Comparative Education Review 25, 2: 232-243.

Foster, P. J. (1977). "The Vocational School Fallacy in Development Planning." In Power and Ideology in Education, edited by J. Karabel and A. H. Halsey. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 356-365.

Lo, Leslie Nai-Kwai. (1993). "The Changing Educational System: Dilemma of Disparity." In China Review 1993, edited by J.Y.S. Cheng and Maurice Brosseau. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, pp. 22.1 - 22.42.

Sinclair, M.E. and Lillis, K. (1980). School and Community in the Third World. London: Croom Helm.

Leslie N.K. Lo has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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