Senior secondary education is an important part of China’s talent cultivation system, linking compulsory education (i.e., primary and lower secondary education) and higher education. Since 2012, a series of systematic measures have been taken to reform this area, resulting in more robust policy support, wider access to quality educational resources, higher teaching quality, and improved educational equity, among others.
1. Policy support
A number of major documents have been issued, providing further clarification regarding the objectives of senior secondary education. These include: Opinions on Deepening Reform of the Examination and Enrollment System; Scheme for Advancing Popularization of Senior Secondary Education (2017–2020); Guidelines for Promoting Teaching Reform in Regular Senior High Schools in the New Era; Curricular Programs and Standards for Chinese Language and Other Subjects Taught in Regular Senior High Schools; and Action Plan for Promoting Development of Regular Senior High Schools at the County Level During the 14th Five-year Plan. The documents have been implemented in senior high schools nationwide with remarkable results.
A holistic approach has been adopted concerning the management of regular senior high schools and secondary vocational schools across the country, leading to substantial improvements in both the level and breadth of senior secondary education.
Regular senior high schools in China totaled 14,600 in 2021 with 26.05 million registered students, marking an increase of 7.97% and 5.59% over 2012, respectively. The gross enrollment rate of senior secondary education across China exceeded 90% in 2020, fulfilling the national target. This figure continued to rise to 91.4% in 2021, an increase of 6.4 percentage points over 2012. Ten central and western provinces with lower enrollments recorded an average increase of 17.02 percentage points in the gross enrollment rate, higher than the rest of the country. The highest rise reached nearly 30 percentage points. As a result, the regional gap in the availability of senior secondary education has been further narrowed.
3. Government funding
Overall investment in senior secondary education has increased significantly. Fiscal spending on senior secondary education grew from RMB 231.7 billion in 2012 to RMB 466.6 billion in 2021, representing an increase of over 100%.
In 2019, a standard for average public spending per student at the senior secondary level was developed by the central government for the first time. Now public spending per student must meet or exceed 1,000 yuan and may be adjusted dynamically to ensure the normal functioning of schools.
A national student aid system has been established and improved, benefiting about 20% of all registered senior high school students every year. Over the past decade, about 90.8 billion yuan has been allocated under this system. Since 2016, a tuition and fees exemption policy has been implemented to further alleviate the financial burden of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, enabling them to finish their studies in senior high school.
4. Improvement of school facilities
With a total of 71.186 billion yuan from the central government and additional investment from local governments, several renovation and renewal projects have been carried out in senior high schools in underdeveloped counties, substantially improving school conditions.
Over the past decade, thanks to these projects, 4,570 regular senior high schools have been established or renovated. In 2021, the total school building floor area in regular senior high schools increased to 640 million m2, an increase of 52.35% over 2012. The proportion of large classes (i.e., classes with over 56 students) was reduced from 47.76% in 2012 to 4.81% in 2021.
The average expenditure on equipment per student amounted to 4,968 yuan in 2021, up from 2,841 yuan in 2012. Over 95% of schools have met applicable standards in sports, musical and art supplies, and facilities.
The use of information technology in education has been further promoted. In 2021, 100% of regular senior high schools across the country had access to the Internet. In addition, 76% of all classrooms have been equipped with multimedia tools. Provinces implementing comprehensive reforms in the college entrance examination have all deployed provincial-level uniform electronic platforms for course selection and student performance evaluation.
5. Teaching workforce development
A harmonized staffing standard has been introduced to consistently expand the teaching workforce both in urban and rural areas. Over the past decade, the number of full-time teachers in regular senior high schools increased by 27.2%, from 1.6 million to over 2 million, while the student-teacher ratio decreased from 15.5:1 in 2012 to 12.8:1 in 2021.
The percentage of full-time teachers in regular senior high schools meeting qualification requirements rose from 96.4% to 98.8%, while the percentage of teachers with master’s degrees rose nearly 1.5-fold from 5% to 12.4%.
Since 2018, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has conducted 16 national-level workshops to demonstrate new curricula and textbooks and offered guidance in teacher training at the local level in order to improve headmasters’ leadership in applying the new curricula and to strengthen teacher capacity.
6. Raising teaching quality
Teaching methods and educational philosophy have seen profound changes over the last decade. Moral education has been integrated into all aspects of senior secondary education. PE, arts and practical skill courses have been given more prominence in the school curriculum and innovation and creativity are emphasized in student development.
Schools have been encouraged to diversify their elective courses and develop their unique strengths in different subjects such as science and technology, the humanities, foreign languages, PE and arts.
The Guidelines for Quality Evaluation of Regular Senior High Schools were issued, which clarified key indicators for evaluation including the general goals of school operation, school management, curriculum, teacher capacity building, and student development. A sound assessment system has been put in place to support the all-round development of students by eliminating distorted incentives related to grades or college access only.
7. Regulation of school admission to improve educational equity
The examination system for admission to regular senior high schools has undergone further reform, with a view to improving admissions procedures and offering a more equitable education.
The Academic Proficiency Test (APT) has been introduced, integrating the previous junior high school graduation exams and senior high school admission tests. Admission to senior high school is now based on both APT scores and the comprehensive student performance evaluation provided by individual junior high schools.
The quality of the APT has been improved by promoting uniformity in test design at the provincial level, building the capacity of test designers, and applying testing standards that govern the difficulty of the tests and the connection between tests and curricula.
Admission procedures have been further regulated through effective measures including: a) ensuring synchronous enrollment in public and private schools; b) requiring that over 50% of the enrollment quotas of leading senior high schools be filled by rational selection of applicants from corresponding junior high schools within the same districts to avoid cross-district competition for the highest-performing applicants; and c) establishing a municipal-level unified admission platform supported by a robust oversight mechanism.