CIRE Research Debate – ‘Education and the Sustainable Development Goals’: the case of China

Dini.jpegDini Jiang is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, investigating teacher effectiveness and professional development in China. In this post he reflects on the recent CIRE research debate and the specific case of China.


What are the mechanisms that are driving international development agendas? This was the key question that arose for me from the CIRE research debate about Education and the Sustainable Development Goals. It follows from what I see the distinctive educational needs and policy priorities of mainland China to be and the engagement of these needs and priorities with international development agendas such as the Education for All [EFA], Millennium Development goals [MDGs] and Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. It also arises from how ‘education governance’ (Dale 1997; Robertson & Dale 2013) has shaped the form, pattern and scope of educational policies and practices globally.


Crucially, the educational needs and policy priorities of mainland China are distinct from those of many countries worldwide. As Law (2014) argues, the Chinese government has taken a human capital development approach to coping with the manpower-related challenges of the 21st century, and, through curriculum-making, the state has played an important role in the social distribution of knowledge, skills and dispositions in order to ease the tension between globalisation and nationalism. This key argument can be evidenced by a series of educational reforms undertaken in the mainland Chinese context, including the sushi Jiaoyu – Quality Education Reform – (The Communist Party of China Central Committee & State Council of PRC 1999), the Basic Education Reform (The State Council of PRC 2001) and the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (The Ministry of Education of PRC 2010). In order to address economic, socio-political and educational changes, the Quality Education Reform is essentially concerned with enabling children and adolescents to achieve all-round moral, intellectual and physical development so as to lay the foundations for cultivating socialist siyou xinren – people with socialist ideals, moral virtues, good education and discipline (The Ministry of Education of PRC 1986). The Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development has highlighted guidelines (p.7) of “upholding the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “carrying out the Party’s principles on education” and “promoting the scientific development of education” as well as strategic themes (pp.10-11) of “always putting moral education in the first place”, “emphasising capacity building” and “stressing all-round development”.

Access, quality and equity

These educational needs and priorities in China do, to some extent, engage with international development agendas. Since Dakar, China has improved access to education by expanding lower and upper secondary enrolment; the gross enrolment ratio in lower secondary education increased by at least 27 percentage points from 1999 to 2012, with that in upper secondary education increasing by over 50 percentage points (UNESCO 2015).


Gross enrolment ratios in lower secondary (top) and upper secondary education (bottom), 1999/2012 (UNESCO 2015, p.114)

The concept of ‘quality’ in China is understood broadly in terms of context, inputs, process and outcomes, which reflects the UNESCO (2005) framework for understanding education quality (Thomas et al. 2011). Student academic outcomes in national exams are perceived as the main criteria of quality evaluation, in consideration of the long standing exam-oriented culture and educational competitiveness caused by access expansion. The importance of ‘equity’ is emphasised locally with regards to reducing East/West and urban/rural differences (Thomas 2011). The hukou – household registration – system is the foundation of China’s divisive dualistic (rural and urban) socioeconomic structure and the country’s two classes of citizenship. Its impact on China’s industrialisation, urbanisation and social and spatial stratification has intensified educational inequalities (Chan 2009) and gaps between urban and rural areas in lower secondary school attainment remain (UNESCO 2015).

Lower secondary attainment rate by location, 2000/2010 (UNESCO 2015, p.117)

All of this reflects the significance of ‘context sensitivity’ (Crossley & Watson, 2009) in understanding educational reform and international development.

Education governance frameworks

Returning to the key question – ‘what are the mechanisms that are driving international development agendas?’ – perhaps education governance frameworks (Robertson and Dale 2013) can provide us with further insights into understanding the social justice implications of privatisation. The governance frameworks are comprised of a combination of distinct forms of education activity (funding, provision, ownership, regulation), particular kinds of entities or agents with different interests (state, for-profit/not-for-profit market, community, individual) and different platforms or scales of rule (sub-national, national, supranational). As Robertson and Dale (2013) argue, “education governance innovations demand an explicit engagement with social justice theories, both in themselves, and as offering an opportunity to address issues of social justice that go beyond the re/distribution of education inputs and outputs, important though these are, and which take account of the political and accountability issues raised by globalising of education governance activity” (p. 426).

Chan, K.W. (2009) The Chinese hukou system at 50, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 50 (2), 197-221.
Crossley, M. & Watson, K. (2009) Comparative and international education: policy transfer, context sensitivity and professional development, Oxford Review of Education, 35 (5), 633-649.
Dale, R. (1997) Educational Markets and School Choice, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 18 (3), 451-468.
Law, W. (2014) Understanding China’s curriculum reform for the 21st century, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46 (3), 332-360.
Robertson, S.L. & Dale, R. (2013) The social justice implications of privatisation in education governance frameworks: a relational account, Oxford Review of Education, 39 (4), 426-445.
The Communist Party of China Central Committee & State Council of PRC (1999) Decision concerning the deepening of education reform and the full-scale promotion of quality education.
The Ministry of Education of PRC (1986) Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China.
The Ministry of Education of PRC (2010) Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development.
The State Council of PRC (2001) Decision concerning basic education reform and development.
Thomas, S.M. (2011) Improving Educational Evaluation and Quality in China. ESRC End of Award Report, RES-167-25-0353. Swindon: ESRC.
UNESCO (2005) Education for All: The quality imperative. EFA Global Monitoring Reports.
UNESCO (2015) Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges. EFA Global Monitoring Reports.


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