Exceptional results in China's College Entrance Exam, or the 'Gaokao', is seen as a ticket to prestigious universities and high-paying jobs. Every year, the exam puts high schools or cram schools under the spot light.
CCTV reporter went to the town of Maotanchang in the hills of eastern China's Anhui province, which is famous for running such schools and producing high-scoring students.
6:20 am. Students are already reading books out aloud and memorizing English words in the classroom. The majority of students are preparing to sit for the Gaokao a second time after having failed to clear it in their first attempt or simply to secure better marks to enter a more desirable university. The small town is so successful at running cram schools for the Gaokao that it's been called "The Gaokao Factory".
"Maotanchang High School is famous for ensuring its students get high scores in the "Gaokao". In 2005, the school established Jin'an High School to help those who wanted to re-take the Gaokao. More than 8,000 students from around the province enroll at the school every year," Li Zhenhua, dean of Jin'an High School, said.
11:00 am. The streets of Maotanchang are nearly deserted. 40-year-old Xu Shanqun starts to cook lunch for her son. Last August, she decided to quit her job and accompany her son for an entire year for a second try at the Gaokao. She rents an apartment nearby the school. It costs her 22,000 yuan a year.
"I cook for him and wash his clothes. My son doesn't have to do anything but study all day. It is costing us more than 70,000 yuan to live in Maotanchang.," Xu said.
Noon. Class is over. But there's only a 30 minutes break for lunch. Most parents wait at the school gate with a meal so that their children can eat as soon as they come out. The stillness of the streets is shattered. It's a quick and quiet lunch for Xu Shanqun and her son at their rented apartment. Xu knows her son is under huge pressure.
"His score is getting better. His ranking in the school has gone up from the previous 6,000 to 3,000. We hope he can get better marks to enroll at a better university. But we don't say much because we are afraid to stress him out." Xu said.
From June to August, Maotanchang is a ghost town. Come the end of August, the town swells from 10,000 residents to more than 70,000. No entertainment activities can be found in the town, but the local residents don't mind because the entire town lives on the cram schools and Gaokao business.
Parents have nothing else to do in their spare time but square dancing or knitting sweaters together.
"Many say that an exam-oriented education is bad. But in my opinion, through the 'Gaokao' and cram studying, students are trained to be a better person. If you want to get good marks in the 'Gaokao', you have to have patience, courage, persistence and responsibility. Learning how to dance and sing cannot teach them those," Zhang Xingzhong, teacer of Maotangchang High School, said.
10:30 pm. Students are still learning in the classroom. In 20 minutes, they will finish their exhausting day and go home or to the dormitories. But the slogans on the wall and the numbers on their countdown calendars remind them that the clock is ticking and tomorrow will be more of the same.
For decades, the destiny of Chinese students has been decided by the Gaokao. Today, students may have been given more opportunities to make multiple choices for higher education. But in a society with so many deeply entrenched disparities, the Gaokao seems to be the fairest way for ALL able students to move upwards, no matter their rural or urban background. If enrolled in elite universities, students will have more chances to get better jobs and a brighter future. So that's why schools like Maotanchang High School are still prosperous. Maybe it's time to rethink our education system and academic environment.