Prior to 1949, only a small number of Chinese were literate, but the Communist government has made tremendous strides in education. Today, literacy is almost 80%, though the rate is significantly lower among women.
Education is compulsory in most areas for children aged 7 to 16, and until recently was free through to university. The educational system places great emphasis on competition for entrance to good schools, even at the kindergarten level. Children enter kindergarten at age three or four; by this point, their parents have often taught them to read. Primary school lasts for five years, followed by a five-year secondary program, which is divided into two cycles of three and two years each. Children in cites wear uniforms to school, usually a track suit with cap.
On completion of the first secondary-school cycle, students can attend either vocational schools, which prepare them for employment, or senior high schools. Many children, especially in rural areas, often leave secondary school in search of work. With China's recent economic changes, some students feel they will have a better income by going immediately to work, rather than remaining in school. Women in particular lag behind men in completing higher education.
Chinese children experience tremendous pressure to work hard at their studies. In rural areas, children often have to work on farms as well as do school work. Teachers assign much homework, and upper-middle class parents often urge their children to take up extracurricular courses, such as painting, calligraphy, music or foreign languages. China's one-child-per-family policy has meant that parents place many expectations on a single child.
Competition is tough for university admittance, which is determined by a national entrance exam. Although China has many universities, these cannot meet the demand for spaces, and with the abolition of free tuition in 1985, students must now also compete for scholarships. On the other hand, graduates now have the opportunity to choose their own place of employment, instead of being placed in a job by the state.