BEIJING - Grandpa Li is 70 years old and has three grandsons aged five, 15 and 20. How many years does it take before the total of their ages is the same as their grandfather's age?
This maths question is aimed at Primary 3 pupils in China - or at least those who go for classes to prepare for the International Mathematical Olympiad contest.
Chinese students may be top in maths worldwide, but officials in Beijing have banned such maths classes, for fear that too much advanced adding and subtracting will not only spoil pupils' childhoods, but also stymie their creativity.
What started out as a way to pick out whiz-kids who can represent China in a global maths competition has become a thriving industry of after-school classes to hothouse maths geniuses.
"Overly tough maths questions are the merciless murderers of children's health and interest in learning," wrote Professor Yang Dongping, an education expert, who supports the ban.
But many observers wonder if the latest move is enough to kill this many-headed hydra, which reflects deeper problems in China's education system.
As Education Minister Yuan Guiren explained to reporters on Thursday, the demand for such maths classes stemmed from differences in school standards.
"The problem stands out particularly in big cities, due to the uneven development of compulsory education and the lack of quality education resources," he said.
Under China's nine-year compulsory education system, there are no primary school leaving exams, like in Singapore, to decide which junior high school children get into. They are supposed to just go to the nearest one.
But in major cities like Beijing, parents want their children to get into key schools, or zhong dian xue xiao, which enjoy better resources and results.
In the case of the high school affiliated to Renmin University, for instance, half of its 2009 school-leaving cohort made it into Beijing's top three universities: Peking, Tsinghua and Renmin.
"The problem is especially serious in Beijing as it has many key schools at the junior high level. They all want to choose their own students," Prof Yang, who is from the Beijing Institute of Technology, told The Straits Times.
Currently, these schools select students based mainly on fees, talent or "slips" (tiao zi), a way of denoting those with connections.
Being an ace in maths, proven by wins in maths olympiads (ao shu), is seen as a way to get into a good school for those with neither money nor special ties.
"Maths olympiads are the last resort for ordinary salaried families like ours... We can't find any solid connections and are not big shots," a mother surnamed Ding told the China Youth Daily.
Other parents welcomed the move to lighten the burden on their children, but said the classes were not all bad.
Said Mr Xing Hua, 39, a logistics manager whose 10-year-old daughter attends special maths lessons twice a week: "Some parents with no time to pick up their children early see these classes as a kind of childcare."
For now, officials have put their foot down on ao shu classes or contests.
Thirty of Beijing's most popular secondary schools have promised not to take in students based on exams or maths contest wins.
"In the long run, schools must be more or less even (in quality)," said the Education Minister.
Despite the ban, the demand for ao shu is unlikely to fall dramatically any time soon. After all, as Prof Yang noted: "Everybody wants to go to a good school."
By the way, the answer to the maths question is 15 years.
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