Tea Leaf Nation

China’s High-Pressure Network of Cram-Schools for Tots

Chinese kindergartens are required to go easy. That means many youngsters study overtime.

BEIJING, CHINA:  TO GO WITH STORY "CHINA-MUSIC-PIANO-EDUCATION" A young girl gets ready to play the piano at the Aiyue Piano Kindergarten in Daxing on the outskirts of Beijing, 16 March 2005. Parents who put their children into the school are keen to see quick returns for their investment, and want children to learn as much and as quickly as possible.    AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS  (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA: TO GO WITH STORY "CHINA-MUSIC-PIANO-EDUCATION" A young girl gets ready to play the piano at the Aiyue Piano Kindergarten in Daxing on the outskirts of Beijing, 16 March 2005. Parents who put their children into the school are keen to see quick returns for their investment, and want children to learn as much and as quickly as possible. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

SHANGHAI — When Doudou Wong from Shanghai was four, she began attending additional math, Chinese, and English classes outside of her weekday kindergarten. Her mother, Ting Wong, originally from Guangdong province, remembers it was initially simple to convince her young daughter to attend extra lessons. The schoolwork was easy, the weather outside was terrible, and she made new friends. But five months later, Doudou’s training school began preparing pupils in earnest for the primary school entrance test, and everything changed.

“They kept telling her to answer the questions right, and to try and be top of the class,” Wong said in an interview with Foreign Policy. That’s when her daughter’s attitude changed. “She began saying, ‘Mum, it’s not fun. Please, can I not go?’” said Wong. “But I told her, ‘You have to go because everyone else is studying and you need to keep up.’”

From the moment Chinese students begin primary school at age six until the final year of secondary school around age 18, when they take the gaokao, China’s nationwide college entrance exam, they are in fierce competition with one another. Chinese parents commonly believe that there’s no surer path to a good job than a university education. So the battle to land a child a place in a well-regarded primary school that will put him or her in pole position for a prestigious junior school — which in turn enhances the child’s chance to enter a high-ranking senior school — begins as soon as a son or daughter is eligible to sign up for kindergarten.

But China’s enlightened kindergarten teaching guidelines, intended to make early education fun and low-pressure, actually push tots into after-school cram classes. Preschool teachers are officially discouraged from teaching children the academic knowledge they need to hit the ground running at the start of elementary school. First drafted in 2001 and updated in 2012, China’s kindergarten guidelines are very clear that “intensive skill training is inappropriate for young children.” Instead, they suggest, toddlers should be encouraged to become well rounded, articulate, and intellectually curious. The guidelines abjure a one-size-fits-all approach that suppresses creativity for the sake of perfect results, narrowly defined. The policy update in 2012 came as part of the government’s wider focus on improving early years education and a commitment to provide 70 percent of children access to three years of early education by 2020.

Despite their laudable aims, the guidelines inadvertently pressure parents to push young children to work longer hours. Chinese parents begin sending their children to training schools and tutors outside of kindergarten, from the age of three. As kindergartens do not encourage rote learning, parents accept they must organize the necessary additional instruction themselves.

Yijun Qiu, 24, who teaches five and six-year-olds at Jiguan Jianguo kindergarten in Shanghai, says parents regularly make “suggestions” about what he could be teaching instead. “I have to tell them we focus on skills for living, we’re not focused on knowledge. Kids need to learn how to live, learn, and listen,” Qiu told FP. He added that teachers might add “a little math,” even if “it’s not allowed.”

A local teacher at a well-regarded primary school in Shanghai, who asked to remain anonymous because her school forbids staff to talk to media, added that parents are frequently upset by the prohibition. “Kindergarten teachers are not allowed to teach any knowledge, such as pinyin,” which transliterates Chinese, “but in year one of primary school children require this knowledge and skill,” she told FP. “So the parents let their children go to training schools and tutors.”

Education expert Professor Linyuan Guo-Brennan, who worked for the Ministry of Education in Beijing before relocating to Canada, called for more connection between the two stages of early education. “In kindergarten, teachers are not allowed to focus on literacy or math, but told to spend more time on social and emotional development,” she said. “Yet the moment kids go into primary school they face academic pressure.”

It’s hard to know the exact number of Chinese children who receive additional coaching before, or outside of, kindergarten. In 2013, an online survey of 45,758 Chinese parents from around the country showed almost half of children (47 percent) using English learning materials at between three and six years of age. According to state-run English language China Daily, a report by an unnamed online education institution showed homework-induced sleep deprivation for Chinese children begins when they are only three.

Shanghai’s wealthier parents also battle it out to get their children into elite, fee-paying schools that demand children pass an entrance exam. Kun Yao, a father in Shanghai, has a five-year-old son, Yifeng, in his last year of kindergarten, already preparing to take a private primary school entrance exam. His parents have signed him up for five additional classes every week, including piano, violin, swimming, English language, math and science tutoring, and mock interview practice. The lessons last from 60 to 180 minutes each. Every night, Yifeng studies for at least one additional hour on top of those classes. Yifeng’s experience is not extraordinary; according to consultancy McKinsey, six percent of Chinese students attended private primary schools in 2012.

Yao is confident that he’s making the right choice by pushing Yifeng so early, because private schools are better than public schools. “Just like when they’re applying for a top university or top firm, when it comes to primary school either your kid is a real genius, or you’d better make a long-term preparation effort,” said Yao. “I motivate my son by telling him that studying is like eating. It has to be done every day, and it has ingredients that you like and [some that] you dislike.”

Not all parents intend to send their children to private schools. But even those children heading for state primary schools, which offer students a guaranteed place dependent on residency status and location of their home, attend additional tutoring to prepare them for the future.

Earlier this year, parents reportedly waited in line for up to 40 hours to register their children — some as young as three — for classes at a popular training school in Shanghai, with demand far exceeding supply. Across the rest of China, training schools are booming. A report by market research company ReportStack last year reported that preschool education takes up around 57 percent of the online English language preschool market. Foreign toy company Lego has positioned itself as an early years educational brand in China. Parents pay up to $26 per hour for structured play sessions at Lego Education Centers.

Teachers observe that the stress is getting to parents and children alike. Ting Wong’s daughter Doudou is now six, and recently won a place at her mother’s second choice of primary school. Ting says she has seen parents at her daughter’s training school behaving aggressively towards their children. “They ask them why they are crap and can’t do things.” Parents blame their children for not achieving highly enough and reprimand them for not trying harder, said Qiu. “I try to let them know their kids just need time to develop. But these parents are very busy and have little patience. They don’t spend a lot of time with their kids outside school. Sometimes I think they don’t really know their children.”

Even if the system was revised to reduce this early pressure, it’s likely the premature onset of academic competition would change very little. Xin Zhou, a professor of early childhood education at East China Normal University in Shanghai, explained. “The college entrance exam puts so much pressure on parents that they think it’s a good strategy to start early,” she said. “There is a saying in China. Don’t let your child lose the race at the starting line.”

Peter Parks/Getty Images

Here's the bio: Sarah O’Meara writes China-focused news and features for a range of publications including The Atlantic, Nature, The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, and Broadly. She is currently the Managing Editor of English-language news site Sixth Tone based in Shanghai.

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