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Who’s ‘stealing’ Chinese school kids’ sleep time?
At 06:15, the alarm clock ringed for the second time and lasted for a whole minute, but Huicong still could not wake up. This was the first school day after the New Year’s holiday, but the 13-year-old remained extremely tired.

Mr. Zhao, the father of Huicong, told the China Youth News his kid had to stay up late to do stacks of homework every day during the holiday.

Huicong just enrolled into a prestigious junior high school in a first-tier city in North China. Ever since, he never gets to sleep before 11 pm. “There is always a lot of homework to do,” said Mr. Zhao, adding that sometimes the kid would have to stay up past midnight to finish all the homework.

Due to overly heavy academic burden, a large majority of primary and middle school students in China are suffering from sleep deprivation, which has triggered widespread concerns among the public in recent years.

China’s education authorities have worked out a number of policies over the past year to address the problem. Just recently, the Ministry of Education joined hands with eight other ministries including the National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Public Security to release 30 measures for schools, after-school training institutions and parents to ensure school kids get time for sufficient sleep.

The notice approved by the State Council, China’s cabinet, again emphasizes the need to ensure that primary school students get at least 10 hours of sleep per day, junior high school kids get nine hours, and senior high school students eight hours.

Ten years ago, the Ministry of Education released a directive on health education for primary and secondary schools, which for the first time put forward requirements on sleep time for young kids. Since then, measures and policies intended to reduce the burdens of school kids have been rolled out almost every year, although the situation has not improved till now.

“We would do a survey on juvenile and children’s development status every five years. The situation is actually getting worse,” Sun Hongyan, a researcher with the state-backed China Youth & Children Research Center said, noting results of the surveys prove school kids still could not get enough sleep necessary for sound mental and physical health till now.

So, what is depriving young kids in China from enough sleep?

If you ask a school kid why he would stay awake until 11 pm, “doing homework” would always be the answer.

China’s education authorities are now demanding public and private schools to cut homework for kids. In the newly released 30 measures, one makes it clear that written assignments are not allowed for first and second graders, homework for third to sixth graders could not exceed 60 minutes while for junior high school students, the time spent on homework should be no more than 90 minutes.

Some worried parents pointed out that for different individuals the time spent on a particular school assignment could be quite different, so it is the effectiveness of the new regulation that may be compromised.

On the other hand, many educational analysts believe after-school institutions should also be blamed for the ever-growing workload on primary and secondary school students.

Recent years, the after-school tutoring business has boomed in the country. Eol.cn, an education information platform, released a survey earlier this year, disclosing data related to TAL Educational Group, the biggest after-school tutoring chain in China.

“From 2013 to 2017, the number of school kids enrolling in the tutoring center's programs quadrupled from 820,000 to 3.93 million. From 2014 to 2017, the number of students grew by 250,000, 430,000, 800,000, and 1.63 million respectively, showing a clear growth momentum.

“I have tutoring classes in Chinese, Maths, English, Physics and Robotics. They could not all be arranged during the weekends, so I have to have the classes after school between Monday and Thursday,” Wang Zheng, a seventh grade student, said.

In big cities, it’s not uncommon for school kids to head to different tutoring centers after school, so many of them start to do their school assignments until seven or eight o’clock in the evening.

Some education experts pin the blame on public and private schools’ never-ending pursuit of enrollment rate into high-ranking senior high schools or colleges. Despite all the measures to “reduce burdens”, parents complaining about the heavy workload could hardly relax as long as the exam-based enrollment system is in place.

Besides all the ‘traditional’ elements that subject young kids to hard work, a comparatively new and proactive element is also hindering juveniles from getting enough rest.

According to Sun Hongyan, their quinquennial surveys show that, for those born in the 2000s, although academic workload remains the main reason for lack of sleep, many kids also cut down their sleep time in order to play video games or other recreational apps on their cell phones.

“My daughter has a mountain of homework from her school, but she still could not take her hands off a cell phone,” said Wang, mother of a 10th grade student. She quickly realized that young kids could hardly resist the temptation of cell phone and they love to use it play games or chat with their friends.

“Parents of preschool children tend to care more about their kids’ physical health,” Sun Hongyan cited survey results, noting a large number of parents may care more about academic performance from the primary school onward.

While the newly issued 30 measures include an order for parents and schools to supervise young kids’ use of electronic devices, Sun noted that administrative orders may not be enough to bring the necessary changes. “(They should) include changes in the evaluation methods. How should we evaluate a student, a school, or a teacher? (We should) also take physical health into consideration,” she said. 

 


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