HENAN, Central China — At the beginning of each class in Chinese schools, it’s customary for students to stand up and yell, “Greetings to you, teacher!” But at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School in Xinyang, a city of about 1.5 million people, 8-year-old Zhang Jingrui doesn’t chime in. His teacher doesn’t seem to notice — after all, the boy is just one of 103 students in the room.
Zhang’s class is one of the biggest at Pingqiao. The school has a total of 5,400 students, though given its size — roughly equivalent to two soccer fields — provincial government standards stipulate that it should cap enrollment at around 640 students.
Between desks, the space is so narrow that an adult can barely squeeze through. If the space is divided by the number of students, each child has a mere 1.88 square meters in which to study, less than half the 5 square meters required by Henan province’s official standard. The average class size at the school is triple the national average.
Over the years, Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School has developed strategies to cope with the oversized classrooms, such as equipping its 200-some teachers with headset microphones.
“In the early years, my voice would get hoarse from teaching for a whole day,” says Qi Fang, a second-grade math teacher.
The headsets have made teaching easier on Qi’s voice, but she still finds herself overwhelmed by the sheer number of students. “The most difficult thing is to stay alert for the students’ safety throughout the day,” Qi says.
Fatal accidents have occurred at other overenrolled schools. At another school in Henan, one student was killed and 20 were injured in a stampede in March. Three years ago, six students died in a similar incident in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, at a school with an average of 63 students per class.
Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School administrators have implemented a special system to stagger class dismissals under teacher supervision. When the bell rings at the end of the day, voices echo through the playground as students gather in batches, like flocks of sheep, moving slowly toward the gate.
Students race during gym class at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School in Xinyang, Henan province, June 15, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone
In gym classes, track and field seems to be the safest option. In a class observed by Sixth Tone, the children jogged and competed in a 50-meter shuttle run. “We play basketball and soccer on rare occasions, such as demonstration classes,” says physical education teacher Lu Zhigang, “as the space is truly limited.” The morning exercises common at schools across China must be divided up, with half the students exercising in the morning and the other half in a separate afternoon session.
With urbanization accelerating in China, crowded classes have become a pressing issue. Government statistics show that nearly 60 percent of the population now lives in urban centers, up from less than 40 percent in 2000.
Alongside the population influx, urban schools also absorb many children whose parents still live in the countryside but consider rural schools inferior. Forty percent of Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School’s students are from the countryside.
A national policy to save on education expenses by concentrating resources in cities has increased pressure on urban schools. The central government has recognized the policy’s negative impact on education quality and has pushed to reduce oversized classes, but local governments continue to shut down rural schools to save money. In 2015 alone, more than 10,000 primary schools closed their doors, mostly in rural areas.
As a result, classes in the remaining schools have grown. More than 60 percent of the classes in Henan’s primary and secondary schools are now considered “oversized,” with more than 55 students, according to the standard set by the Ministry of Education. Among them, almost half are “supersized,” with more than 65 students.
The local government of Xinyang is trying to address the space problem by constructing additional school buildings. Construction of a new campus of Pingqiao No. 1 Primary School, which has more than 6,000 students, is underway. Meanwhile, Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School, which was built as a village school in the 1950s, opened a new six-story building and a 1,500-square-meter playground in 2008 — a large-scale expansion that now seems like a drop in the ocean, as the influx of rural migrants has continued.
The last row of students lines the back wall of a classroom at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School in Xinyang, Henan province, June 15, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone
There are still so many students at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School that teachers only conduct roll calls when they take over a new class, not at the start of every lesson, says Li Juan, one of three full-time art teachers at the school. “I can’t remember the name of every student — only about half of them,” she says.
Safety is a major concern for Li, too. “I would never allow students to use scissors to make artwork in class,” she says, explaining that it would be too dangerous given how crowded the room is, and the fact that she can’t supervise so many students at the same time. Instead, she resorts to teaching painting, drawing, and — occasionally — origami.
In addition to safety, the quality of education also suffers in such big classrooms, says Zhao Dan, an associate professor at Northwest A&F University’s public affairs management department who has been researching village schools for more than a decade. “In supersized classes, teachers can only pay attention to a small number of students; the rest must be self-sufficient in their studies,” she says.
Concerns about overcrowding are not limited to school administrators. Jiang Guihua, the mother of 8-year-old Zhang and his twin brother, says that the two boys weren’t performing well when they started school last September. She mostly blames her own failings as a parent but believes that a lack of attention from teachers could be a contributing factor. “I am a little worried about the quality of the class,” she says.
Students read aloud from a textbook in a classroom at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School in Xinyang, Henan province, June 15, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone
Ideal class size has long been a subject of debate. In an analysis of several studies and long-term projects to reduce class size, the U.S. Center for Public Education found that limiting classes to 18 students would bring the most benefit to students’ academic performance. Countries with higher-quality education tend to have an average primary school class size of fewer than 30, according to a 2014 analysis by the OECD.
Last year, the State Council, China’s cabinet, called for the elimination of supersized classes in the compulsory education years — grades one through nine — by 2020.
While Zhao advocates for smaller classes as well, she acknowledges that “because of a lack of financial support and teachers, even cutting the class size to 50 sounds like an impossible mission to many schools in the midwestern region.”
In art classes at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School, students are asked to bring their own drawing sets to save the school money. Sports equipment and facilities are also in short supply: The school has no basketball or football fields, and the lone Ping-Pong table in a corner of the playground is mottled and missing a net.
Even if schools expand by adding more facilities, hiring enough qualified teaching personnel remains a struggle, as the workload is heavy. Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School is in such dire need of teachers that it recently asked a gym instructor to teach math instead.
Ironically, the school’s high enrollment rate makes many parents think that Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School is superior to other schools nearby, as so many parents choose to send their children there. And although Jiang says that the class sizes worry her, all the schools in the area are overenrolled, and classes of 70 to 80 students are common. “I know the school has too many students, but what options do we have?” Jiang asks.
A boy plays with his uniform tie at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School in Xinyang, Henan province, June 15, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone
The school has enlisted parents’ help to cope with the shortage of staff. In the mornings, no fewer than 60 to 70 parents volunteer as school crossing guards. Dressed in red vests, the parents wave red flags to stop cars and make sure that children can cross the street safely.
Some parents also read with students during class and help clean up the classrooms. Jiang picks her boys up every day after school; after their classmates have stacked their chairs on top of their desks and left for the day, she always enters and scans the room.
“Cleaning is impossible for the children,” she says, explaining that sweeping the floors would be too hard for 8-year-olds, given how cluttered the room is. She puts down her red purse and grabs a broom. “Even for us, it’s difficult, because it’s just too narrow,” she says as she bends down to sweep the floor, carefully circumventing hundreds of little desk legs.
Editor: Denise Hruby.
(Header image: Students walk to class at Pingqiao No. 2 Primary School in Xinyang, Henan province, June 15, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone)