Xiaixin W (2014) School Choice in China London: Routledge

162 pages

Cost: full RP 90 GBP

This book does exactly what it says: it explores school choice in China. However the title does not do full credit to this fascinating book which gives an interesting overview of China’s political, social and education system and its workings, both formal and informal, and firmly roots its analysis of school choice in issues of educational and social inequality. It draws substantially but not exclusively on a well conducted and reported study of school choice in Nanning which is identified as an area ‘where school choice is actively taking place’ (p5).

The book has 7 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are school choice in the global context, key school system (giving the reader a short useful review of the stratifications of schools which emphasises the paramount significance of transition rates to schools and universities at the next level), the school choice-market, positional competition for cultural capital, exploitation of social capital, economics of school choice and class reproduction through parental choice. As is clear from the chapter titles, the book draws extensively upon Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural, social and economic capital. For scholars wishing to understand more about the complex working of a major and fast developing education system this will be a valuable tool and for more general readers it is well written and very accessible, as well as interesting!

School choice is seen to be shaped by wider forces of rapid social and political change and the equally rapid development of the middle class in China. There are international similarities in who has most influence in school choice (which in China as elsewhere favours the middle class) and in some mechanisms to achieve entry into desirable schools, such as buying a house in the school catchment area. But there are also differences in how choice operates which are very different from the West. In China there are state systems which allocate pupils to schools, and a range of strategies (including the payment of ‘choice fees’) to circumvent these systems are officially banned as well as being deeply resented by much of the population. However these strategies, including paying ‘choice fees’ and making donations, to win entry to desired schools are commonly deployed, seeming to be effectively condoned. Why? Wu argues this is because they create a win-win situation, increasing funding to more desirable schools and simultaneously reducing the need for state funding of schools.

The book is illuminating, especially with regard to the complexities of competing priorities in a system where educational achievement is so highly regarded that nothing is seen as more important for one’s sole child and their and the family’s future. There are descriptions of entire extended families and communities supporting students’ entry to chosen schools, particularly financially. The depth of the significance of entry to ‘good schools’ clarifies the reported pressure on students seeking entry to desirable schools (especially those with good transition records) starting from Kindergarten right through to universities.

The book offers clear evidence that some parents are highly influential in determining where their children go to school. The extent to which this is something new is not wholly clear however. It claims a shift from ‘meritocracy’ to ‘parentocracy’ in school placement. However the study is based in the present and there is little evidence to suggest a rosier past was necessarily real. Given policy implementation is always discrepant from policy intention to some degree the absence of comparative historical data means this claim must be questioned. However as an analysis of the current situation, it is strong and worth reading in itself.

The book is well argued and informative, a good critical analysis of a complex topic.

Janet Draper, Adjunct Professor of Education, Hong Kong Baptist Univeristy