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Blog post Part of special issue: The ECR journey: From inspiration to impact

China’s education crossroads: Can the double reduction policy resolve inequalities caused by shadow education?

Ye (Catherine) Cao, Researcher at King's College London

For years, shadow education, characterised by private tutoring and supplementary training schools focused on enhancing academic performance, has been a prevalent aspect of educational landscapes across Asia, particularly in China (Liu & Bray, 2022; Matsuoka, 2015). In China, this industry has burgeoned into a colossal sector with an estimated value of 475 billion RMB, providing employment to over 10 million individuals and costing as much as 20 per cent of some families’ annual income (Yang et al., 2023). This phenomenon of shadow education, often seen as a duplicative form of mainstream schooling, has raised significant concerns about educational equality (Liu & Bray, 2022). In response, the Chinese government introduced a landmark reform in July 2021 known as the ‘double reduction’ policy. This policy, aimed squarely at promoting educational equity, seeks to dismantle the entrenched system of shadow education. In this blog post, I explore the genesis of this policy and offer insights into its potential impact on the educational fabric of China. These predictions are informed by the data I gathered for my PhD research, which was conducted just prior to the unveiling of the policy, providing a unique lens through which to assess its implications.

Status and inequality in shadow education

‘All of the urban students involved reported attending weekly private tutoring, regardless of their family background or academic performance. However, this ubiquity conceals deep-seated inequalities.’

My study, based on 23 in-depth interviews with students, teachers and parents from rural and urban areas in Jiangsu province (figure 1), revealed a widespread prevalence of shadow education in urban China. All of the urban students involved reported attending weekly private tutoring, regardless of their family background or academic performance. However, this ubiquity conceals deep-seated inequalities. According to my findings, children of teachers often have access to higher-quality tutoring due to inherited cultural capital. Additionally, my research indicates that those from affluent families can afford one-to-one tutoring, whereas the less privileged settle for group classes.

Figure 1: The location of Jiangsu province in China. Modified from TUBS/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED).

Given that tutoring centres often teach the standard curriculum before mainstream schools and considering the growing number of students attending such programmes, schoolteachers may only gloss over basic concepts in their classrooms. The proliferation of shadow education, coupled with peer pressure, compels more families to participate unwillingly in this competition. Worse still, this fierce competition pressures some mainstream schools to cover the curriculum prematurely to boost university enrolment rates, leading to a harmful climate within the education system.

Implications of the ‘double reduction’ policy

To correct these imbalances, China’s ‘double reduction’ policy aims to:

  • illegalise all profitable extracurricular tutoring institutes
  • strictly prohibit training ahead of the national curriculum
  • regulate tutoring fees.

However, the policy’s effectiveness is yet to be determined, and its implications for different families vary significantly. For families with educational social capital, the policy’s impact may be less pronounced as they may continue to exploit their connections within the education system to access targeted tutoring. The affluent, too, have their escape routes – they can opt for international schools, thereby circumventing the constraints of the policy.

In contrast, for the majority of urban families – the middle class and the disadvantaged – the policy could potentially alleviate the intense competition and associated stress. By limiting shadow education and regulating tutoring fees, the policy aims to equalise educational opportunities for students from different backgrounds.


Implementing the ‘double reduction’ policy comes with its unique challenges. Ensuring compliance among schools, tutoring institutions and families could be a challenging task (Yang et al., 2023). Furthermore, the possibility of unintended consequences such as the emergence of underground tutoring services or the proliferation of difficult-to-regulate online tutoring platforms cannot be ignored.

The ‘double reduction’ policy is poised at a crucial crossroads, demanding rigorous implementation and vigilant oversight to truly flourish. As we navigate the complexities of creating a more equitable education landscape in China, it’s imperative to question the broader implications of global education metrics. Notably, China’s impressive rankings in international assessments like PISA might reflect not solely its public education system but also a pervasive shadow education culture. This raises significant concerns about the potential misdirection in policy adoption globally. Countries like England, inspired by China’s apparent success, might be inadvertently basing reforms on an incomplete understanding of the underlying factors contributing to educational outcomes. Such a scenario underscores the urgent need for comprehensive research and international dialogue. By scrutinising the impact of policies like ‘double reduction’, we can better align educational strategies with the real needs of students and families, ensuring that policy transfers are informed and effective, rather than merely aspirational.

Further information about this work is available here.


Liu, J., & Bray, M. (2022). Responsibilised parents and shadow education: Managing the precarious environment in China. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 43(6), 878–897.

Matsuoka, R. (2015). School socioeconomic compositional effect on shadow education participation: Evidence from Japan. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(2), 270–290.

Yang, L., Xie, Y., Zhou, A., Zhang, W., & Smith, J. (2023). The impact of the implementation of ‘double reduction’ policy on tutors in shadow education: Legislation goals and early experiences. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education.