SHANGHAI — On a chilly Saturday morning in mid-December, a big crowd has formed outside the gates of a downtown primary school. Children stream into the building, while teachers try to keep order and parents jostle to say goodbye.
Only one girl, dressed in a thick red padded jacket, hangs back. She clings to her mother’s arm, weeping as she watches the other students pass through the gates. Her mother tries to console her.
“If we can’t make it on time, we’ll just take the exam next time,” she says.
The daughter, however, appears to take little comfort from these assurances — and it’s easy to understand why.
The third-grader has come to the school to sit the KET — an English language exam run by the British organization Cambridge English that has become wildly popular in China, with parents considering a good test score to be key to getting their child into a top school.
A mother comforts her daughter while waiting for her father to deliver the ID card she needs to get into the test center in Shanghai, Dec. 19, 2020. Zhang Shiyu for Sixth Tone
But just minutes before the exam begins, the family has realized they’ve forgotten to bring the girl’s ID card. The father has sped off in his car, hoping to retrieve the document in time for his daughter to sit the test.
If he doesn’t return in time, it isn’t clear when the girl’s next chance will come. The Cambridge English exams — which take place only a handful of times each year — are massively oversubscribed, and families often have to go to extraordinary lengths to get their children into a test center.
In China’s largest metropolises, where the competition is fiercest, parents pay scalpers up to 5,000 yuan ($760) to secure an exam spot, or drive hundreds of kilometers to attend tests in smaller cities. Others make sure they’re at an internet café when the online booking system goes live, so they have access to a faster web connection.
The girl’s family was particularly fortunate to book a test at a local Shanghai school: Out of thousands of applicants, only a few hundred were successful.
The scramble for Cambridge English certificates is just the latest symptom of the intense social competition in China’s cities, where the fight for school places forces families to begin building up their kids’ resumes from as young as 3 years old.
Many children start taking private English classes while they’re still in kindergarten, as their parents know that English proficiency is highly prized by school admissions staff. By the time they begin primary school, students are often already preparing to take the KET — an exam that typically requires hundreds of hours of language study to pass.
The trend has turned English language training into a lucrative market in China that’s predicted to be worth $75 billion by 2022. For parents, the cost of preparing a child to take the Cambridge English exams can be enormous.
“The training fee per hour is 680 yuan,” says Wu Xingyu, a director at New Channel International Education Group, a China-based English training company. “The weekly training sessions (of 2-3 hours per week) last for up to six months prior to the exams. Parents in Shanghai are very generous to pay for such education courses.”
Chinese authorities have become increasingly concerned about the country’s educational rat race over recent years, and have taken several measures intended to reduce the pressure on young students. These moves, however, have only heightened the popularity of Cambridge English.
A webpage advertises Cambridge English qualifications on the website of China’s National Education Examination Authority, December 2020. Sixth Tone
In the past, parents signed up their children for all kinds of locally organized academic contests and exams, which were the preferred way to demonstrate a student’s language ability. But most of these competitions have since been banned.
In 2011, Shanghai scrapped the popular Star English Test, with the city’s education bureau commenting: “Those who sat the exam had changed from adults to teenagers and children.” Then, in 2018, China’s Ministry of Education introduced a total ban on private sector entities organizing academic contests for students in ninth grade or under — a policy that led to the demise of another of Shanghai’s major English language tests, the Elegant English Elementary, or “3E,” exam.
But rather than abandoning their efforts to give their kids a head-start, Chinese parents have simply begun focusing their efforts on a smaller number of tests that are still accessible, causing demand for Cambridge English certificates to spiral out of control.
“Cambridge exams have risen to popularity here in just the past two years,” says Wu. “These tests feed the mania of many parents, who are trying to perfectly prepare their children.”
Caroline Zhang, a Shanghai-based mother, says she pushed her daughter to take Cambridge English’s PET exam when she was in the fourth grade, as she didn’t want her to fall behind. At the time, around one-third of her classmates had taken the test, she tells Sixth Tone.
“It’s quite pathetic, but many parents are simply copying each other by signing up their kids for the Cambridge tests,” says Zhang. “The certificate can prove the kid’s English ability when she applies for a good private middle school.”
The Chinese government is trying to prevent this kind of one-upmanship by forcing private schools to select students using a random lottery draw. But the new rule, which came into effect this year, hasn’t dampened demand for extra qualifications like Cambridge English certificates, according to Wu.
“In many subtle ways, the certificates can still help,” says Wu. “Some schools separate students into different classes by ability level ... Plus, three of Shanghai’s (best) public middle schools can continue to admit students based on interviews.”
This winter, the fight for Cambridge English exam places has been even more ferocious than usual, as there’s still a backlog of candidates who weren’t able to sit tests in April and May due to the coronavirus outbreak.
When registration for December’s exams began in October, crowds of parents showed up at internet cafes in Beijing when they opened at 8 a.m., to make sure they could reserve a computer. The sign-up portal launched later that day, but crashed within minutes due to the surge in traffic.
A big crowd gathers at the entrance to Shanghai New Huangpu Experimental School, which is a test center for Cambridge English exams, in Shanghai, Dec. 19, 2020. Zhang Shiyu for Sixth Tone
With test centers in the capital overwhelmed, many families drove to neighboring regions for the exams. On social platform Weibo, one mother said that she and her child had set out from Beijing at 4 a.m. on Dec. 19 to take the KET test in the northern city of Tianjin.
When she arrived, the mother found the school was worryingly overcrowded. “There could have been a stampede,” she wrote. “Up to 80% of the exam takers in Tianjin on the day were kids from Beijing.”
The influx of Beijingers was so large, local families found themselves unable to enroll their own children. Jiang, a mother from Tianjin, says she went to an internet cafe to book a test for her 8-year-old son, but the test centers were already fully booked.
“In Tianjin, local parents don’t have as high a passion for the exams as those from the capital,” she tells Sixth Tone. “For me, the tests are more for understanding my son’s English level.”
Children line up to get their temperatures tested before entering the test center in Shanghai, Dec. 19, 2020. Zhang Shiyu for Sixth Tone
In Shanghai, parents don’t have the option of heading elsewhere this year. Local schools have banned students from traveling outside the city during the semester as part of the city’s coronavirus suppression strategy, which has made booking a test even more challenging.
Zhang, the Shanghai-based mother, says exam places were already scarce in the city. Two years ago, she paid a scalper 500 yuan ($77) to sign up her daughter for the KET exam, but to no avail.
“Even the scalper failed,” she says. “Then, we decided to go after spots outside Shanghai. We chose an exam site in Hefei (a city over 450 kilometers to the west).”
Zhu, one of the mothers standing outside the downtown primary school, says her son has waited over a year to take the test. “We failed in our first sign-up attempt last year,” she says. “This year, my husband secured a seat in an internet cafe.”
Like many of the children filing into the exam room, Zhu’s 7-year-old is taking the KET early. The exam is designed for children in the third grade or above, but in Shanghai it’s becoming common for students to pass the test in the second grade or lower.
Another Shanghainese mother surnamed Han says she took her 6-year-old daughter to take the KET test last year in neighboring Jiangsu province.
“She passed with distinction,” she tells Sixth Tone. “But honestly I don’t know how that might help her with her (middle) school admission in four years … The policies are changing frequently, and it’s impossible to predict what it’ll be like in four years’ time.”
For Han, keeping her child ahead of her peers is a constant source of stress, but the fear of her daughter falling behind motivates her to continue.
“Sometimes I think about giving up — I want to give myself a moment of peace and my daughter a happy childhood,” she says. “But such thoughts vanish quickly. After I see what’s happening around me, I soon snap back to reality.”
The girl in the red jacket, meanwhile, will at least have a chance to keep up with her classmates. At 9:10 a.m., five minutes before the school gates are set to shut, her father appears with her ID card. She rushes into the exam room, while her parents let out a sigh of relief.
Additional reporting: Liu Siqi and Zhang Shiyu; editor: Dominic Morgan; copy editor: Ellie Bouttell.
(Header image: A mother gives her daughter some water before she begins her English exam at a test center in Shanghai, Dec. 19, 2020. Zhang Shiyu for Sixth Tone)