Chinese Education System Explained

Teaching abroad has become one of the most common opportunities amongst expats.

Teaching English abroad is a great option for those willing to move for work. Not only is it a chance to experience living overseas but it also comes with the thrill of traveling the world.

China is one of the popular destinations to teach amongst expats. China boasts a good economy and low tax lifestyle which is a change of pace from Western living. Teaching jobs in China usually offer free accommodation and paid flights that make it an attractive option.

Most expats teach in international schools in China which are currently on the rise. However, China has its own education system that accommodates bilingual education. By the end of this article, you’ll have developed a good understanding of the Chinese Education System.

The Education System in China

Chinese schooling is divided into three categories: basic education, higher education, and adult education.

By law, every child must have nine years of compulsory education, six years of primary education, and three of secondary education. Therefore, the Chinese schooling system is considered a breeding ground for future professionals in the field.

Basic Education

Basic education in China includes pre-school education which is usually of three years, primary education lasting six years, and secondary education which is another six years.  Primary education and the first three years of secondary education are considered as the mandatory nine years.

Preschool and Primary Education

Pre-school education can be likened to the daycare-kindergarten period and starts when a child is 2 years old. This childcare period is considered vital for grooming and education. Nurseries, kindergartens, daycares, and preschools in China all offer some educational and training classes. These classes are designed to give children an edge in their primary education period. As preschool is not a mandatory part of a child’s education, most establishments will charge a tuition fee for their services.

Primary education starts when a child turns 6-7. The time students spend at school is mostly given to Chinese and Math classes. The rest of the allocated time of instruction is to teach music, art, and the morals of society. In China’s metropolises, schooling hours are the usual 8:00 to 15:00, however, in other areas school lasts from 8:00 to 17:00. The school year starts in September and lasts about 9 months. Students are given summer and winter holidays in their respective seasons as well as national holidays. After completing their primary education, students have to appear in mandatory exams to prove their Maths and Chinese skills.

Secondary Education

Secondary education starts for a child when they turn 12 and lasts for the next 6 years. By the time a student is done with their secondary education, they’d be 18-19. Secondary education is divided into two parts with a duration of 3 years each. The first part is known as junior middle schools which is the west’s equivalent of middle school. The second part is senior middle school, its west counterpart being high school. After finishing junior middle school, a student’s mandatory education period is achieved.

Students after finishing junior middle school have a choice between continuing their primary education by attending senior middle school or opting for vocational schooling. They can also choose to leave school. Vocational schooling is aimed at teaching practical and job-related skills.

After graduating middle school, students appear in the Zhongkao– an entrance examination for senior middle school. Depending on their score, students can choose which educational institute to attend next.

Once students graduate middle school they have the option to enter professional life or go for higher education. The main goal a senior middle school student has is to clear the Gaokao. The Gaokao is for those students who wish to go to universities to continue their studies. It is an entrance examination similar to the Zhongkao but for the university level.

Gaokao is considered to be the most stressful part of being a high school student in China. It tests students on their knowledge of Chinese, a foreign language, and Math. It is a nine-hour long exam taken in 3 days and is very challenging. Only 40% of students pass the Gaokao on their first attempt.

Higher and Adult Education

Higher education is further divided into 4 or 5-year undergraduate degree programs and colleges that offer certificate courses or 3-year diplomas. Postgraduate (Masters) and doctoral programs (PhD).

Adult education ranges from primary and secondary education. It was initially known as the education of peasants and workers.

The primary goals behind adult education are to :

  1. Provide education to the underprivileged and illiterate
  2. Provide education to those who had to formally leave schooling
  3. Provide cultural knowledge, training, and professional skills to those who have not met job requirements.
  4. To increase the overall literacy rate.

Adult education is considered to be a great achievement in China’s reforms as it helped nearly 200 million people to achieve literacy ever since its application. Through this reform, China’s literacy rate has reached 95%. Additionally, it has helped to provide job training in rural areas.

International Schools in China

As of right now, there are around 500 English-medium schools in mainland China. The country has a wide range of international schools with excellent reputations. These schools can be commonly found in the urban centers of China such as Beijing and Shanghai.

International schools in China all offer different curricula from the traditional Chinese education system. They offer British and American curricula. Some international schools also offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) and in rare cases, they even offer curricula of different countries like Germany, France, Norway to name a few.


These schools are a great hit in China due to their bilingual methods of teaching. Parents are willing to pay expensive tuition fees due to the high standard of education these schools provide. These schools create more expat jobs in China as they require foreign educators to keep up their standard of teaching.


At the end of the day, the differences between the Chinese education system and the international schools that have emerged in China are now clear to you. Many Chinese schools are also incorporating bilingual teaching methods as parents want their children to be able to speak English to have a competitive advantage in the future. As an expat, knowing the differences between the two may help you choose which system you’d like to be a part of. The choice is yours.

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