As a general rule, access to education in China has the shape of a pyramid: Levels of attendance are around 99% in Primary school, but drop significantly in higher education due to a shortage of resources and places available. However, the Chinese government has declared the modernization of higher education as a strategic national objective, so this should change in the future.
Education is free and compulsory for 9 years in China, split between Primary and Junior middle school at the age of 6-15. Because both parents often work in China, many children start their schooling beforehand at a nursery school (called Kindergarten in China) as early as 2 years old.
6-12: Primary school (compulsory)
12-15: Junior middle school (compulsory)
15-18: Senior high school (middle school) or Vocational school
18-22: University or college
After Junior middle school, a standardized test determines the following education. Children who do well on the test are sent to Senior high school where they are prepared for college. For the others, there is a range of agricultural, technical and vocational schools available that usually prepare them for some kind of trade or manual work.
Higher education in China
Free higher education was abolished in 1985 in China. After Senior high school, students must take an exam that determines which kind of university they’ll be admitted to, competing for scholarships that are based on academic ability. Students that perform poorly on the exam are not admitted to a public university. The last remaining option for them are private (and expensive) colleges that sometimes don’t require minimum test scores.
In terms of access to education, China's system represented a pyramid; because of the scarcity of resources allotted to higher education, student numbers decreased sharply at the higher levels. Although there were dramatic advances in primary education after 1949, although achievements in secondary and higher education were not as great.