Tan Lili, the principal of Shanghai’s Baoshan No 2 central primary school, has been wrestling with a problem in recent months: her school does not have enough physical education teachers.
She is not alone. Since China embarked in 2021 on a nationwide campaign to reduce academic pressures on children and increase the amount of active time they spent outdoors, primary and middle schools across the country have been struggling. In one school, according to Chinese media, only two PE teachers are available to coach 2,600 students.
One key law was passed in October, to reduce the “twin pressures” of homework and off-site tutoring on children, and drove many profit-driven education companies into bankruptcy.
According to the official Xinhua news agency, the legislation asks parents to arrange their children’s time to account for reasonable breaks and exercise, thereby reducing pressure and avoiding internet overuse. Around the same time as seeking to reduce academic pressure, China has promoted policies for schools to help students exercise more.
“We have 11 full-time PE teachers, but there are 43 classes … we are seriously lacking PE teachers,” she said in a recent interview with Shanghai TV. “The demand for PE teachers has now increased dramatically.”
Some schools are encouraging PE teachers to pass on tips to parents about teaching personal fitness to their children. But still, Sun Dong, who leads the PE group at Beijing’s prestigious 101 Middle School, complained that “some of our teachers have to teach 21 classes a week”.
PE teachers had for years played a minor role in the country’s education system: classes were mandatory in many provinces, but as students and their parents overwhelmingly focused on passing crucial exams, PE was rarely a top priority for many students and their parents.
A “proposal to prevent the feminisation of male adolescents” from the education ministry earlier this year also led to an increased focus on PE from primary schools to universities.
Schools have been on a hiring spree in recent months. Tan’s Shanghai school recently added five professional coaches, ranging from football to badminton to fencing. And late in October, a senior official from the country’s General Administration of Sport said that he and his colleagues were exploring the possibility of allowing retired athletes to work as PE teachers part-time at schools.
“I’ve been teaching PE for 20 years, and this is the very first time I have the opportunity to speak in front of you, at the school’s teacher-parents conference,” a Shanghai PE teacher said last month in a post that went viral on China’s social media.
China has had a long history of attempts to reduce students’ academic burdens, issuing its first directive in 1955. In the last 20 years, Beijing repeatedly promoted a nationwide “burden alleviation” campaign but critics said that without properly reforming the competitive national Gaokao exam system, it was only a slogan.
But the new policy has not been equally received by parents across the country.
“I’m sure the authorities’ starting point was good, but education is a whole-of-a-society issue. By simply asking schools to cut academic work and increase outdoors activity won’t necessarily help address the fundamental problem,” said one Shanghai schoolteacher and a parent, who prefers to remain anonymous. “That is: education inequality.”
Mr Li, a quality control manager in Zhenzhou in the central province of Henan, said despite all the new regulations, his 6th grade daughter at Zhengzhou Ruiding primary school still has a lot of work to do. “The students are still under great pressure … After school, they spend most of their time studying and doing homework, and their spare time is still very tight.”
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu.