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    The Latest Front in China’s Battle for School Places: Gym Class

    With physical education set to become a core part of China’s national exams, parents are rushing to book their kids crash courses in everything from jiujitsu to jump-rope.

    SHANGHAI — At a steamy indoor swimming pool in Pudong New Area, Qiu Chenchen checks her stopwatch and frowns. 

    “Don’t let your legs go floppy, kick them hard!” the coach shouts at the child splashing in the water next to her. “Go faster!”

    The student, Panpan, gamely finishes his length, but Qiu is dissatisfied with the 10-year-old’s time of 27 seconds. “You weren’t giving your best effort,” she says sternly. “Take a break and let’s do it one more time.”

    Panpan’s mother, who has been watching the lesson from a nearby bench, approaches with an anxious expression. “How did he do?” she asks. “He isn’t concentrating enough, is he?”

    “Not good enough for him,” Qiu replies. “He should at least complete this distance within 25 seconds.” Panpan gazes down at the water sheepishly.

    “We’ll urge him to practice kicking his legs better at home,” the mother assures Qiu.

    The coach, however, continues to explain the consequences if Panpan fails to improve his lap times. In four years, the boy is due to take the zhongkao — China’s all-important high school enrollment exams.

    “This pool is just 20 meters long,” says Qiu. “The standard short-distance swimming test in the zhongkao is 25 meters. And to get a full score, you need to finish within 25 seconds.”

    Qiu has been having a lot of similar conversations lately. The 29-year-old swimming coach has been in high demand, spending eight hours a day in the pool giving private classes to primary and middle school students.

    The reason for Qiu’s surge in bookings is China’s recent announcement that sports are set to become a core part of school exams. The move, which comes amid rising concerns over the country’s ballooning child obesity rates, is sparking a scramble among families to get their kids fighting fit for the new tests.

    “Parents are taking sports more seriously these days,” Qiu tells Sixth Tone. “Swimming doesn’t just boost kids’ immune systems and keep them healthy, it also matters a lot in the crucial entrance exams.”

    For Chinese families, any change to the zhongkao isn’t to be taken lightly. The exam is widely regarded as even more competitive than China’s infamous college-entrance tests, the gaokao

    In Shanghai, nearly half the students who sit the zhongkao fail to win a place in high school and are forced to attend vocational school or enter the workforce. Any student wishing to attend an elite high school needs a super-high exam score.

    Until now, students had little incentive to prioritize sports. The zhongkao tested students almost entirely on traditional subjects like Chinese, math, and science, with physical education accounting for just 30 points out of a total of 750 — up from 630 last year.

    But China’s Ministry of Education is now calling for gym to be given equal weight to academic disciplines, and some local authorities have already complied. Last November, the northwestern province of Shaanxi said fitness tests would count for 60 points from 2021. Yunnan province in the southwest, meanwhile, plans to up its sports score to 100 by 2023.

    Shanghai has yet to announce its own changes to the zhongkao, but Wang Xiaozan — a professor at East China Normal University’s College of Physical Education and Health — tells Sixth Tone the municipality is sure to raise the weighting of sports, too.

    “The increased points threshold will enhance the significance of sports,” says Wang, who is working with local authorities on reforms to physical education in the city’s primary and middle schools. “But now, the core issue is how we’re going to test the kids … Not every child can be trained to become an Olympic champion.”

    Though the changes won’t kick in until at least next year, many parents feel caught off guard. Preparing kids for the sports section of the zhongkao isn’t a simple task.

    At the moment, Shanghai uses a complex five-part test to assess students’ physical fitness. The first part, which accounts for 15 of the 30 points, is based on students’ performances in regular school gym classes. For the other four parts, the children have to complete a series of physical challenges: one testing their endurance, another their speed or strength and two more assessing their skill in an individual and team sport, respectively.

    On a rainy afternoon in late January, Li sits in a chilly ping-pong hall in Shanghai’s downtown Xuhui District, watching her son hit a ball back and forth with a private coach.

    The mother has taken leave from work to accompany her child to the class, the first of 10 sessions that have cost her 2,200 yuan ($340). The ninth grader has never played ping-pong seriously before, but he urgently needs to master the activity to pass the individual sport section of the test, Li explains. 

    “His gym teacher said table tennis is the easiest one to pick up (compared with other options like tennis, badminton, or martial arts),” says Li, who gave only her family name for privacy reasons. “And the evaluation criteria are more lenient.”

    Li’s son looks rather awkward as he tries to follow the coach’s instructions, his legs stiff as he stretches for the ball. But the coach, surnamed Fang, tries to reassure Li that there’s nothing to worry about.

    “It’s going to get better after a few classes,” he says. “Most students master the techniques required for the zhongkao in 10 classes.”

    After the class, Fang tells Sixth Tone that crash courses for middle school students are likely to become a major source of business for his club in the future. “For students starting from zero, we can help them get a full score after just 10 cram sessions,” he says. “But we can’t 100% guarantee you’ll get the top score — when it comes to a test, nerves might be a factor.”

    Li says she’s already planning to book another 10 lessons for her son in April. Though they’re expensive, the mother says she’s happy to pay as long as they make a real difference.

    “If these training sessions can help him get a full score, why not give it a try?” Li says. “Every point in the zhongkao counts.”

    Many parents clearly feel the same way. In a recent report, consulting firm PwC CN predicted that China’s 300 billion yuan sports training industry would undergo “orders of magnitude expansion” as a result of the changes to the zhongkao.

    Several Shanghai-based swimming, badminton, and ping-pong clubs who spoke with Sixth Tone said they’d already seen upticks in bookings. One tennis coach, meanwhile, complained it wasn’t possible to accommodate any more clients, because all the courts were fully booked.

    Some companies have tried to take advantage of the situation by launching dubious gym classes at eye-watering prices. One firm faced backlash after advertising a package of five jump-rope lessons for 2,000 yuan, with netizens complaining children could easily learn the skill by themselves.

    But Tang Yan, a professor at the Shanghai University of Sport, says sports clubs will need to play an important role in preparing zhongkao students, as local schools can’t do it all themselves.

    “It’s a fact that our schools lack resources for sports training,” says Tang. “But the tough question is how the regulators can properly guide these (social) organizations.”

    For many parents, however, it’s precisely the schools’ lack of preparation that’s causing concern. Despite the ongoing zhongkao reforms, teachers often continue to prioritize academic subjects over sports.

    Liu Xinyan, a Shanghai-based mother whose daughter is due to take the zhongkao this year, says her child’s school only allocates three periods to sports each week. The students are supposed to have another two gym sessions, but these are usually replaced by extra physics lessons, she adds.

    “Sports shouldn’t just remain important on paper,” says Liu.

    Liu is worried the lack of training will cost her daughter a place at a top high school. The girl isn’t a natural athlete, but Liu has decided against arranging extra classes for her because she already has to study until 11:30 each night.

    “It’s impossible to set aside time for cram sports training,” says Liu. “There’s already huge pressure on her.”

    For now, the mother is just hoping for the best. At least her daughter has chosen the easiest options — jump-rope, sit-ups, martial arts, and basketball — she says. But Liu knows she can’t afford any slip-ups.

    “One point is the difference between this school or another one,” she says. “If you lose one or two points in the sports exam, it’s very hard to make it up in the other academic tests.”

    Professor Wang, meanwhile, doubts one-off sports exams are the best way to encourage young people to become fitter and learn new skills. She says the tests should place more emphasis on assessing how well students perform in gym class over a long period.

    “If people only make short-term efforts to improve their sports performance to achieve a targeted score, the test is meaningless,” she says. “There have to be reforms to the way tests are evaluated.”

    Yet despite all these drawbacks, the decision to add sports to the zhongkao in 2008 has achieved the government’s overarching goal of making young people physically healthier, according to Tang, of Shanghai University of Sport.

    “No matter whether it’s worth 30 or 50 points … we’ve found an obvious improvement in students’ physical fitness levels among kids in grades nine and 10,” says Tang. “Now that it’s graded, it’s definitely a type of pressure on students, their families, and schools.”

    Back at the pool, Qiu says she can already see the effect of this pressure in action. Many parents, looking to give their kids a head start in the educational rat race, are starting to sign them up for swimming classes years before they’ve even started middle school.

    “They’re generous to start putting their kids into such sports training sessions from a very young age,” says Qiu. “It’s not a small amount of money.”

    Editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Parents watch their children play basketball at a sports center in Shanghai, Jan. 9, 2021. Ni Dandan/Sixth Tone)