China’s School Education System: Possible Relevance for India

Ambassador (retd.) Kishan S RanaHonorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Gathering material for this piece, I was struck by the fact that few in India appear to study this subject; I could not locate material written on this subject, though it must exist. What is missed out is analysis of a key ingredient in China’s development process, namely the skilling of technicians and shop-floor level workers. The quality of this input has had great impact on productivity in China. This has enormous direct relevance for India. [This article is a preliminary version; criticism and corrections are welcome.]

A fair account of the Chinese school system can be found in Wikipedia:

[As a distance teacher, I long back shed my reserve towards this resource; Wikipedia has continuously got better and is today a fine provider of basic information, even if some of its material needs to be verified, before drawing major conclusions from it.]

Another useful account is found in a NYT article of 2014:

Based on this some broad points are examined, to consider the issues that have relevance for India.

China has experimented with its school education system in a far more comprehensive fashion than India, especially in linking it with the real needs of economic development. This has several dimensions. Starting in the 1950s, Chinese industrial enterprises employing more than a certain number of workers were required to run ‘part work, part study’ schools, providing vocational training in the trades and skills relevant to that enterprise. [I visited some schools of this kind in 1963-65, during my first assignment at the Indian Embassy in China, and wrote a report which Charge d’Affaires Jagat Mehta forwarded to the Education Commission in Delhi in 1964.] Building on that, some years later, a full system of vocalization of education was implemented, evidently borrowing some ideas from the German system (see below).

Brief history: After the travails of the Cultural Revolution (officially covering1966-76; but in effect its high tide passed in 1970, and return to normalization commenced that year), in 1980, reform of school education became part of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Four Moderns’ campaign. Major reform was carried out in 1985 with a new law; compulsory education ended with 9 years of schooling, i.e. at the end of junior secondary school. The country was divided into three education areas: cities and advanced regions; towns and villages with medium development; and backward rural areas. Different targets were prescribed for each. In 1996 a law on vocational education was passed, synthesizing much action that had been carried out in this area.

Today, the system consists of six years of primary education (age 6 to11), three years of junior secondary (12 to 14), and after a key exam, the Zhongkao, the senior high school entrance examination, held on a provincial basis. Through this,  bifurcation takes place; the best students enter senior high school, while the others go to vocational or technical schools. ‘In 1987 there were four kinds of secondary vocational and technical schools: 1) technical schools that offered a four-year, post-junior middle course and two- to three-year post-senior middle training in such fields as commerce, legal work, fine arts, and forestry; 2) workers’ training schools that accepted students whose senior-middle-school education consisted of two years of training in such trades as carpentry and welding; 3) vocational technical schools that accepted either junior-or senior-middle-school students for one- to three-year courses in cooking, tailoring, photography, and other services; and 4) agricultural middle schools that offered basic subjects and agricultural science.’ (Wikipedia). Polytechnics were to provide higher levels of education for the graduates of the vocational and technical schools.

This has not fully worked as intended. Wikipedia notes: ‘…firms that must seek workers from this graduate pool have remained unimpressed with the quality of recruits and have had to rely on their own job-training programs…The public’s perception is that these schools provide little more than a dead end for their children.’ A problem has evidently been over resources for the vocational & technical stream, which is more expensive to run, compared with the regular senior high schools. Further, owing to the pervasive view that not having the chance to go to university is so demeaning, parents resort to all manner of bribes and payment of ‘donations’ to private schools that are outside the official school system. But despite these limitations, the zhongkao system remains in force, second in impact only to the nationally held gaokao, which determines entrance to university, and is perhaps the most important examination faced by Chinese youth.

The essential concept of the Zhongkao comes from Germany, and it is essential to look at that country’s school system to understand how the concept of school bifurcation into pure high school and vocational streams works, at its best. Why is that model difficult to replicate? A few points on the German system:

  • Each state (lander) has its own system; at the age of 10 (12 in Berlin and Brandenburg) children are sent off to one of five different types of schools.[1] They are called: Realschule (40% go to these); Hauptschule (considered the least demanding, leads to trades and professions; but when it ends at 10th class, transfer to Realschule possible); Mittelschule (only some states have these, a combination of the first two; Gymnasium (covers grades 5 to 12, or 5 to 13, the latter part of an earlier 13-year school system; basically leads to university); Gesamtschule (only in some states, a combination of all the first three).
  • The key element: parents make choice of schools. One might think that all would opt for the Gymnasium which is the road to university. The reality: while all the first three lead to vocational schools when study ends at grade 10, there also exist the Fachhochschule, sometimes mistakenly translated as polytechnics; they are in fact universities of applied sciences and arts, which offer a full range of education, right up to PhDs. The difference is that the engineers they produce will work on production and similar areas, while the engineers trained at universities would typically work on design and basic research.
  • This entire system is the result of an evolutionary process, and each state is allowed to operate its own variations on the basic system. The key element: each vocation or craft is respected and has its classification of levels of expertise. The total runs to over 500, each self-regulated, and earning both high pay and esteem. Thus a baker or a hairdresser may have received three or four years of training, and earns accordingly.
  • The vocational training system is also called the ‘dual’ system, as paid apprenticeship at factories and companies is built into the training.


China has evidently tried to apply the German system, but mechanically, with the Zhongkao acting for bifurcation between university and skills training. But notwithstanding the problems, consider the larger results achieved.

  • China has made remarkable gains in productivity since 1990, especially after 2000. This has to have a connection with its vocational and skills programs, despite shortcomings. That productivity surge is continuing.
  • Chinese enterprises are involved in the skilling process, and that too seems to work well overall.
  • The Zhongkao system continues despite defects.
  • China was ready during its ‘demography dividend’ years (1990-2012) to take advantage of the surge in the numbers of young job seekers.

In India, we are stuck with a high and secondary school system that is largely unchanged. Many end their studies at Class 10, but the route to vocational training (via our 2500-plus Industrial Training Institute system, is not a clear one). The key lessons for India:

  • We lost the early Reform years, in not developing a comprehensive skilling program. Establishment of the National Skills Development Corporation[2] is a good move, but reflects the Indian approach, that by creating an entity the problem will be solved.
  • Our actions even now in a national skilling movement are uncoordinated and fragmentary. Our demography dividend years (2010-30) risk becoming a huge liability.
  • We need to learn from both the positives and negatives from China and Germany.

But some evidence points to the fact that the private sector is stepping in now, on a commercial basis, to fill a huge and growing need. This is ‘the India that grows at night’. Since there is an unmet demand for skills and for technicians, and since the state sector is moribund, let us wish them well. A second key factor is that Indians are enormously talented, and learn very fast. That is an asset that we often overlook. But that does not negate a huge responsibility for the Indian state.

The time to act is now.




2 thoughts on “China’s School Education System: Possible Relevance for India

  1. Insofar as learning through internships is concerned there is a marked difference between attitude of students in India and China. Internships in India are mainly viewed as a way of window dressing CVs to impress employers in a job interview upon graduation. In China there is a widespread practice of accepting unpaid or under-paid internships for prolonged periods in the hope of picking up useful skills which might then translate into better jobs than what their degrees warrant. Although the practice of unpaid internships is quite exploitative for large corporations it is a valuable source of manpower which helps them to keep costs low. For example, in any branch of Bank of China you will find that 4 out of 5 tellers will be trainees even though they have spent several years in that position. Whereas in India all types of graduates and engineers gravitate towards IT jobs because they are plentiful and require relatively low level of skills which can be picked up within a fortnight. As a result non-IT graduates seldom opt for a career in their native disciplines. This internal brain drain has created a huge deficit of trained manpower in several ‘traditional’ industries in India. Chinese companies in India find it bewildering and struggle to attract good quality civil or mechanical engineers at reasonable wages because every industry uses IT salaries as a benchmark here.

  2. Glad to see a comparative on this theme. China seems to have a much more focused approach than India, and India still remains the country with overwhelming diversity and demographics. But I do think that a shift is needed in the country/countries we consider as benchmarks. Most countries followed the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) which emerged from England’s Education Reform Act 1988 and were focused on STEM subjects, naturally, as they aligned with ‘market mechanisms’.

    Finland on the other hand, was the only country that chose to pave its own way, and the results are available for the world to see. In today’s world, education seems to be divided into two categories based on the two different functions of knowledge- knowledge for skill development (so that it serves the economic machine running the country) and knowledge for knowledge’s sake (which doesn’t necessarily serve that machine). The formal education systems in almost all countries have stuck to the former function (largely using K-12 patterns), with smaller ‘alternative’ schools offering motivation based learning, waldorf education, Montessori methods, democratic schooling, etc. mushrooming here and there. Finland though, has had a system that has maintained a balance between these two functions and hence also the essence of learning perhaps. Crucial to note here that the teaching profession has a very high social status and is also a very tough stream to get through to in Finland.

    We probably need to be studying Finland a lot more than Germany and China, for a ‘holistic’ perspective. Until then, the burning gap between quantity & quality is still staring at us in the face.

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