Secondary education in China has a complicated history. In the early 1960s, education planners followed a policy called “walking on two legs.” which established both regular academic schools and separate technical schools for vocational training. The rapid expansion of secondary education during the Cultural Revolution created serious problems; because resources were spread too thinly, educational quality declined. Further, this expansion was limited to regular secondary schools; Beginning in 1976 with the renewed emphasis on technical training, technical schools reopened, and their enrollments increased. In the drive to spread vocational and technical education, regular secondary school enrollments fell. By 1986 universal secondary education was part of the nine-year compulsory education law that made primary education (six years) and junior middle-school education (three years) mandatory. The desire to consolidate existing schools and to improve the quality of key middle schools was, however under the education reform, more important than expanding enrollment.
Chinese secondary schools are called middle schools and are divided into junior and senior levels. In 1985 more than 104,000 middle schools (both regular and vocational) enrolled about 51 million students. Junior, or lower middle schools offered a three-year course of study, which students began at twelve years of age. Senior, or upper middle schools offered a three-year course , which students began at the age of fifteen.
The regular secondary-school year usually had two semesters, totaling nine months. In some rural areas, schools operated on a shift schedule to accommodate agricultural cycles. The academic curriculum consisted of Chinese, mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, foreign languages, history, geography, politics, physiology, music, fine arts and physical education. Some middle schools also offered vocational subjects. There were thirty or thirty-one classes a week in addition to self-study and extracurricular activity. Thirty-eight percent of the curriculum at a junior middle school was in Chinese and mathematics, 16 percent in a foreign language. Fifty percent of the teaching at senior middle school was in natural sciences and mathematics, 30 percent in Chinese and a foreign language.
In China middle schools are viewed as a training ground for colleges and universities. And while middle-school students are offered the prospect of higher education, they are also confronted with the fact that university admission is limited. Middle schools are evaluated in terms of their success in sending graduates on for higher education, although efforts persist to educate people to take a place in society as valued and skilled members of the work force.