China's foreign language policy on primary English education: From policy rhetoric to implementation reality
China's Ministry of Education issued a foreign language policy in 2001, mandating that primary school students start to learn English as a compulsory subject in the third grade. This study adopts a layered case study design to examine the formulation and implementation of the policy. Data were collected from educational agencies at four hierarchical levels and four public primary schools of different types. Findings show that five factors—ever-increasing demand for English in China, basic education reform, pre-policy primary English education, belief in benefits of an earlier start, and the Vice Premier's involvement—contributed to the formulation of the policy, indicating that social, economic, educational, linguistic, and political factors jointly shaped the policy. With regard to policy implementation, analysis of local official documents found that the national policy document, before reaching schools at the grassroots level, was interpreted and modified by the local educational agencies in accordance with local economic and educational conditions. In the school settings, the reality of implementation is determined by the interplay of various factors, including a school's geographic location, size, administration, availability of teachers, and funding. The implementation of the policy in the four schools shows disparity among them, particularly with striking gaps between the more privileged schools and the less privileged ones almost in every aspect. The findings suggest that the policy was the outcome of top-down, assumption-based, and hasty policymaking, which may consequently have unintended impact on educationally disadvantaged students, poorly-resourced schools, ELT at the junior secondary school level, and social stratification in China. The study illustrates the rationale behind a foreign language policy as well as multilayers and multifactors involved in the implementation of the policy when it moves from rhetoric to reality in a centralized education system. It also exemplifies the impact of the global spread of English on foreign language policy and practice in non-English speaking countries.
0282: Multicultural education