Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 12:07 PM CST – China

Society

Maotanchang School

Exam Boot Camp

A middle school in Anhui province has earned a reputation for its high college entrance exam scores, and the military-style regimen it enforces in order to achieve them

On the eve of their college entrance exams, students from Maotanchang Middle School watch as their traditional Chinese lanterns float into the sky Photo by Li Qiang

Student Tao Fei’s parents rent a single room near Maotanchang School

Students have little time to call their friends amid the intensive study schedule

Banned from recharging their mobile phones in their dormitories, students overload free sockets in the campus supermarket Photo by Li qiang

Students wish each other luck by signing their names on each other’s backs

Students discard reams of revision notes before the exam

Parents gather to see their children into the examination hall Photo by Li Qiang

On June 5, two days ahead of this year’s national college entrance exam, a town in Liu’an city, Anhui Province erupted into celebration.

In the small town of Maotanchang, tens of thousands of parents gathered to see their children off. A total of 70 buses hired by the Maotanchang Middle School carried over 10,000 students to Liu’an city to sit the all-important college entrance exam. Fireworks were set off, and crowds of well-wishers hoisted red banners emblazoned with slogans of encouragement.

According to Li Zhenhua, vice-director of Maotanchang Middle School, the school had booked out 13 hotels for the students and arranged healthy, nutritious food for the two examination days.

On June 7 and 8, some 9.12 million candidates sat this year’s college entrance exam. But nowhere else in the whole country is there a school quite so confident as Maotanchang Middle School.

Super-school

Maochangtan Middle School’s intensive exam training program and strict set of student regulations has earned it a significant reputation, and over the past decade, the school has been rapidly expanding its scale. This year, there are more than 20,000 students enrolled at the school, over half of whom are in their senior year.

Businesses in the town have been happy to cash in on the school’s reputation with names like “Scholar’s Restaurant” or “Academy Supermarket,” and in the run up to the exams, a number of local shoe stores display banners touting their big sales in celebration of the exam period. Even the city’s tricycle-taxis carry large digital LED displays counting down to the exams.

Due to the sheer number of students, the school has cancelled all sporting activities. There are CCTV cameras installed in all 160 classrooms, as well as at the school’s main gates, at major intersections of the town and even over the doors of Internet cafes, in order to ensure students are resisting the temptation to indulge in any extracurricular activity.

All this seems to be paying off – for the past decade, the average university enrollment rate for the town’s students has been around 80 percent, an achievement that, in the words of Li Zhenhua, “has depended more on non-knowledge related initiatives.”

Intensive Training

To ensure students put all their effort into exam preparation, the school enforces a military-style regimen. In student dormitories, all power sockets have been removed in order to prohibit students from wasting time playing with their phones and laptops – the school’s on-site supermarket, the only remaining place with free sockets, is littered with charging cell phones.

 The school’s ultra-strict regime shocked Wang Ling, a newcomer to the school who is preparing to sit the exam for the second time. After failing last year, she felt that her best hope of passing was by moving to Maotanchang. Last year, Wang scored 448 on the exam, short of the pass mark of 512. Maotanchang School charges a yearly fee of 48,000 yuan (US$7,800) for second-time exam candidates who scored below 450 the previous year.

Wang Ling was taken aback when she stepped into her new classroom, a room festooned with slogans. On both the front and rear doors of the classroom, signs read: “Silence in the classroom. Those who cannot endure hardship need not enter.”

Above the blackboard, a banner declares: “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” while signs on either side read: “Be confident, swear to strive hard, go to college, repay your parents; Treasure your time, lay strong foundations, practice with diligence, and achievement is assured.”

Aside from studying, Wang Ling has little else to think about – her schedule, from 6 AM to 11 PM, is arranged entirely by the school. After evening class, most students continue studying until midnight, either at home or in their dormitories.

Every day, the basic requirements for students hoping to read a science major include two sets of mathematics papers, four English reading tests, one physics paper and one chemistry paper. Students sit weekly and monthly practice exams, the results of which allow the school to publish student rankings.

Teachers at the school believe that as along as students undergo enough rigorous training and repetitive practice, the exams will not be as difficult as they imagine.

The training has proven to be effective. In 1999, only 98 students in the town passed the exam, but by 2005, that number had increased to over 1000. Since then, it has risen by almost 1,000 every year. By 2012, a total of 7,626 students were admitted to university, more than 80 percent of the town’s total number of exam candidates.

Trailing Parents

Even for teachers at the school, the growth of the past few years has come as a shock – five new buildings have had to be built to allow for the huge numbers of new students. A new stadium, a swimming pool and a shower block are also under construction. “We do not need bank loans for these projects, since we have a continuous supply of students,” Liu Ligui, the school’s president, told NewsChina.

Hotels and rental apartments near the school are fully occupied. Wang Ling’s mother, like the parents of most students at the school, moved to Maotanchang with her daughter, and rents a room at a local guesthouse for 100 yuan (US$16) per day.

Aside from cooking three meals a day for her daughter, Wang’s mother has almost nothing else to do. Normally, in the early evening, the mothers of students gather at the town square to gossip or practice group dance routines.

Li Jiajia, another Maotanchang student, lives with her grandmother in a rented house near the school. Her mother visits once a week. Li’s mother, an engineer with a college degree, does not approve of the school’s teaching methods. “But China’s One Child Policy, together with the exam-oriented education system has caused schools like this to emerge,” she told NewsChina. “Still, obtaining a university degree is a prerequisite for young people who want to get a good job.”

Carrot and Stick

Teachers at the school are incentivized with a generous rewards scheme. For each student in their class who earns a place at a top university, a teacher receives a bonus of 3,000 yuan (US$490), with some teachers earning bonuses as high as 50,000 yuan (US$8160), equal to one year’s salary.

There are also punishments for teachers who let their pass rates slip. Each year, the school dismisses the teacher whose students score lowest in the college entrance exam.

Under this system, teachers focus all their efforts on finding ways to boost their students’ exam scores – no teacher dares to impart any knowledge unrelated to exams, regardless of what they feel is best for their students’ personal development. “The worst thing for me as a teacher is that I have to do things that I think are wrong,” a teacher at the school, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NewsChina.

However, as long as China’s national college entrance exam system exists, exam-oriented education is here to stay. Indeed, in the countryside, the exam has become a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for children to escape poverty.

On June 5, after seeing off her daughter for Liu’an, Wang Ling’s mother went back to her hotel, and began to pack for her return to Huai’an, a city 400 kilometers away in neighboring Jiangsu Province.

“Now, I finally feel relieved,” she told our reporter.

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