A tradition of breaking the mould
By FT.com / July 14, 2005 08:21 AM

Draped across the walls at the entrance to Nankai High School are large banners proclaiming its students’ successes in this year’s national university entrance exams. One pupil got the highest mark in the city, the first large-character poster declares. Another proclaims that several other pupils from the school cleared an elite benchmark score.

For the Kang Xiuyan, the 59-year-old headmistress, the banners would seem to carry evidence of a managerial mission accomplished. “Our purpose at this school is to cultivate top-level and innovative talents for China’s best universities,” she says. “We are laying the foundations here for future leaders.”

Few schools in China are better placed to make such a boast as Nankai, situated in Tianjin, an old treaty port, and now a city of 8m, about 90 minutes by car from Beijing. And few achievements are a better advertisement for a school’s success than high scores in the university entrance exams.

Nankai broke the Chinese mould when it was founded in 1904. Instead of pursuing traditional Confucian education - which stressed obedience and hierarchy - two young, idealistic Chinese, inspired by foreign ideas, established a modern western school for local pupils.

Since then, the school has built and maintained a reputation as an incubator for top-level leaders. Zhou Enlai, the former premier and Mao Zedong’s longtime foreign minister, was an early student. A more recent graduate is Wen Jiabao, the present-day premier. Nankai’s “old boy” network also straddles the Taiwan Straits. Wu Dayou, who fled with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists to the island, later headed its top think-tank.

Nankai did more than survive the Japanese invasion and the Chinese civil war. It also got through the multiple political campaigns launched by Mao Zedong, which forced the suspension of classes during the decade-long “cultural revolution” from 1965.

A morning with Ms Kang, however, in the grounds of the school, is a reminder that Nankai cannot rest on its reputation. While it may have broken the mould a century ago, Nankai is now very much part of today’s education establishment. It is not short of pupils: it has 4,000, catered for by 300 staff. But, despite a name as a stellar, state-funded school, it faces more competition than ever to make sure that it secures - and produces - the best pupils.

China’s new economy is producing private wealth and, in turn, expensive private schools that have been set up to cater to a new self-styled elite. In such an environment, Nankai must change too if it is to survive for another century.

Sitting under two large sepia-toned portraits of the school’s founders, Zhang Boling and Yan Fansun, Ms Kang recoils in horror at the suggestion that she must become a “manager” if she is to meet such challenges. “Management”, she suggests, is just making sure the building programme is in order and the teaching materials have been ordered. She is, she says most emphatically, “an educator”.

But a few minutes later, when she is talking about how she ensures that Nankai gets the most talented students, she slips easily into management-speak. “Nankai is a brand,” she says. “And brands are a promise. It is a pledge to society.” In order to get into Nankai, pupils sit a competitive exam. But recruiting the best means that the school, in turn, has to deliver a high quality education. It is clearly a source of pressure for Ms Kang. “Running a school,” she says, “is like heading up a river against the current.”

She also admits to being a manager at the weekends. Although insisting the city government provides most of the school’s funding, she takes the opportunity of seeing local leaders on Saturdays and Sundays to lobby for support for the school - including the sponsorship of scholarships. “My social status enables me to promote my school by keeping in frequent touch with universities and government institutions,” she says. Ms Kang - necessarily for a person in her elevated position at a state institution - is a Communist party member. Significantly, ahead of her position as a teacher on her name card are listed

her many positions in Tianjin’s political and education bodies.

Ms Kang benchmarks herself on seven different areas, which revolve around discipline and the quality of the teaching given to pupils.

The quest for high standards and tight discipline translates naturally into a teaching culture that demands hard work from students. Ms Kang does not flinch from this, arguing that diligence is an important lesson to learn. “I ask my students to learn to understand hardship,” she says. “It is only when you put in more than others that it is possible for you to succeed in the future.”

Another challenge is to balance the expectations of students and their families wanting to enter top universities with Nankai’s vocation to deliver a broader, public-spirited education.

Much like in Japan, the university entrance exam in China can be a make-or-break moment for a student. The more prestigious the university, the better the career prospects, and not just because of the quality of their teaching. The best universities - notably Tsinghua and Peking - offer students entry to the most powerful networks - something which provides them with an immeasurable advantage throughout their life.

And it is not only the student’s future hanging on university entrance exams: in a country where most students are an only child, the whole family’s future welfare can sometimes be tied to the outcome.

With so much pressure on pupils and the school, it is not surprising that Nankai still focuses on rote learning for exams. “This is the weakest point in traditional Chinese education,” Ms Kang admits. “Traditionally in China, there has always been more unified thinking than individual thinking.”

Nankai, bound by the state system, has limited opportunity to experiment with other pedagogical styles, such are the demands of the official curriculum. It also, because of the exam culture, puts technical subjects - notably mathematics and science - ahead of the humanities. Given this, it is no coincidence that most headmasters and mistresses of China’s top schools have a maths or science background. Ms Kang is a former maths teacher.

But reflecting its non-traditional history, Nankai does try to get around the national curriculum’s strictures by offering students a choice in which subjects they study - and encouraging debate and even dissent in the classroom.

One of the senior classes meets regularly to talk about how to manage the school, offering opinions on a range of issues - everything from the types of classes the school should organise, the nature of the morning ceremony and the raising of the national flag, which is mandatory in all Chinese schools. “They have to learn,” Ms Kang says, “how to be leaders.”

Kang Xiuyan strikes a first-time visitor as a stereotypical headmistress. She wears a sensible skirt, she has a commanding manner and she has a sturdy daily regime to match.

On Friday July 1, which she cites as a typical day, Ms Kang is up by 6am. She starts with a half-hour swim - a routine she alternates with brisk power walks. She is at school by 7.30am, in time to cast an eye over the students’ own morning exercise.

By 8am, she is on the internet, checking her e-mails and surfing Tianjin’s and the country’s various education websites. “I never come across sites irrelevant to education,” she says.

Next are 30-minute meetings with four senior teachers who head the school’s specialist disciplines, after which Ms Kang holds an impromptu meeting with a teacher and a prospective parent who insist on seeing her. “I agreed because I need to show respect to both teachers and parents,” she says. “This parent is very earnest about getting their kid into the school. It took me 10 minutes dealing with them.”

More consultations with senior teachers and a review of the school timetable take her to lunchtime. She has what she describes as “a plain meal”, which lasts just 10 minutes.

She then takes a tour of the grounds, including nooks and crannies around the back of buildings. “I want to see if they have been properly cleaned.” A 20-minute nap follows to re-energise her for the afternoon.

Mr Kang would normally then drop in on some classes to listen to the teachers. But today she is co-chairing a two-and-a-half-hour conference on education in Tianjin.

After more teachers’ meetings and another glance at her e-mails to check tomorrow’s schedule, she arrives home by about 7pm.

She says her family is very supportive of her packed timetable. Indeed, she trained her now university-age daughter to look after herself from a young age. “I told my daughter that I was different from an ordinary housewife in that I was an educator devoted to my career,” she says. ” ‘I love you,’ I often told her, ‘but you should learn to be independent.’ “

Her husband needs little convincing of the importance and time-consuming nature of her work. He heads Nankai University in Tianjin.

“My husband supports me very much,” she says. “We aspire to the same things.”


Richard McGregor

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