FEATURE: In China, out-of-school learning in big demand

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - Anxious parents giving kindergarten kids an early start in development.

An elite public kindergarten in Shanghai’s Xuhui district last month limited the times at which children can be picked up and taken to other educational institutions to further their learning before they attend primary school.

It said the only times they could be picked up by parents and guardians were after lunch or at a set hour in the afternoon to “avoid disturbing order”.

Nearly 30 children, mainly in the final grade, are picked up after lunch every day from Monday to Thursday, and on Friday the number almost doubles, according to a security guard at the kindergarten, which has about 100 children in each grade.

“They are taken to classes at educational institutions. ‘Interviews’ for places at private primary schools will be held in May, and so the number of children being picked up this semester is obviously more than last,” said the guard, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With the teaching of advanced content banned at kindergartens, parents who are anxious about limited opportunities to enrol their children in preferred schools are eager for additional classes.

The guard said it had become commonplace for kindergartners to attend for only half a day. “When one child jumps the gun in this long-distance race to learn, many others follow suit,” he said.

Since 2010, the Ministry of Education has issued at least six notices, banning the advance teaching of any content from primary schools at kindergartens.

But such action, aimed at easing the academic burden on children, failed to relieve parental anxiety. It only made after-school classes at training institutions more popular, not only on weekends, but also on weekdays.

A report released by the Customer Evaluation Centre affiliated to the Shanghai Association for Quality in 2017 showed that nearly three in four Shanghai children ages 4 to 6 were taking classes at institutions.

In Shanghai, all children have access to public primary and junior high school education without taking an exam, but private schools, which are generally believed to have better teachers and students, enrol pupils through “interviews”.

Zhou Liyan, who takes her daughter, a final-grade kindergarten pupil, out of school after lunch twice a week for extra classes, said most parents do not want to force their children into additional lessons, but are compelled to do so as opportunities to get them enroled in good schools are limited.

Looking ahead, she said the policy for the gaokao, the national college entrance exam, influences parents to turn to additional education institutions.

As long as opportunities to access colleges remain limited, parental anxieties will never be eased, and their desire for additional classes will remain, Zhou said.

The stay-at-home mother said her daughter had attended additional classes since she began the final year at kindergarten.

“At kindergarten, children spend most of the time sleeping, having snacks and doing sports in the afternoon. But we’ve no choice but to spend time preparing for the ‘interview’,” Zhou said, adding that the children who do not drop classes in the afternoon still do additional work after supper when their parents are home from work.

A teacher, surnamed Lin, at a prestigious private elementary school in Shanghai said the possibility of any child from a public kindergarten, however well-known, being enrolled at the school is almost zero if he or she does not take extra classes. Such classes will familiarise the children with tests designed to examine their logical reasoning, and address questions commonly asked in school enrolment “interviews”.

“Another important factor that has intensified competition for elite schools in recent years is that these children’s parents were mostly born in the 1980s, and their education levels are higher than previous generations,” Lin said.

In January, Shanghai Town Country Club, which specialises in providing “premium families” with recreational and lifestyle services, held an activity in which the club’s members and 10 students at Harvard University in the United States took part. More than 50 local families with young children were attracted by this chance to communicate with the students.

Wang Guanlin and his 2-year-old twins took part-and he said the interaction would influence the way he helped his children to develop.

“I may arrange their studies and lives based on their interests and hobbies and encourage them to persevere and become devoted to what they love to do. That’s how students get places in the most prestigious schools,” Wang said.

In Beijing, where it is generally believed that the best primary schools are old-style public institutions, parents who have already secured places for their children at such establishments by having hukou, or permanent residence in an area, still send them to out-of-school classes while they are at kindergarten.

A mother, surnamed Liao, in Beijing’s Xicheng district, who has a 4-year-old son, said: “More than half the parents of children in the last year at the kindergarten that my son goes to are abandoning it and sending them to out-of-school classes instead. There are three classes of children (at the kindergarten) in the first two years, but only one in the final year.”

Liao said most parents decide on this course of action because after starting primary school, the speed of teaching “will be fast and children have to prepare in advance”.

“People from my generation with the best academic performance went to Peking University, while for children today, the best ones go to Harvard. As the world stage for Chinese kids widens, parents find that their children are no longer winners if they get a place at top Chinese universities,” Liao said.

Qu Tingting, who teaches at a public primary school in Shanghai’s Fengxian district, said parental anxiety is understandable, as educational requirements for talent are high.

“The spring college entrance exam in Shanghai in January used stories from foreign newspapers for English listening and reading comprehension tests, and many of the participants said the vocabulary went far beyond that required in the curriculum.

“This will certainly increase the popularity of reading foreign news stories,” she said.

Teachers accused by parents of skipping fundamental knowledge points in class and teaching too quickly said they try to avoid this, but are sometimes told to adopt such practices by some parents.

Wu Tingting, a primary school teacher in Shanghai’s Minhang district, said: “Many children have learned before school begins. Some have already run a long way before the race starts.”

More efficient

Zhou Huiling, the mother of a first-grader at a public primary school in Shanghai, said she believes every student in the class receives after-school education, as does the class teacher’s child.

She said the education provided at such institutions is helpful, as it is more efficient than home schooling, with children adopting a more serious attitude. The language used by the teachers also suits the children better, she said.

Like many other parents, Zhou Huiling mentioned Xue Er Si (learn and think), a popular after-school tutoring chain. She said the content taught is ahead of the normal school curriculum. For example, compulsory education requires pupils to add and subtract up to the number 50 for first-graders, but at Xue Er Si children are learning to add and subtract up to 100.

“The practice of learning early and making their child master something that others cannot is attractive to parents. Others may fear that their children will lag behind and may sign them up for such classes,” she said.

Tomorrow Advancing Life, an education company in Beijing operating Xue Er Si’s classes, declined to comment.

At a news conference in December, the Ministry of Education said it had ordered cities to set up teams of experts to review teaching content at out-of-school classes, which must be consistent with the curriculum standards.

Such institutions are trading on parental anxiety in a number of ways, including through articles interpreting new education policies that lead to the immediate introduction of fresh courses.

Zhou said a new national policy introduced last semester encouraged students to read more extracurricular books, and some institutions had quickly introduced reading classes.

“They (the institutions) say ‘just send your kids to us and don’t waste time choosing books yourself, which may not be appropriate’. But this can be effective as parents nowadays lack time but not money,” the mother said.

However, Wu said taking extra classes sometimes poses hidden risks to children’s studies, as they believe they have mastered the knowledge and don’t listen to the teacher in class. “Learning in advance does not always equate to better scores,” she said.

Lyu Yugang, director of the Department of Basic Education at the Ministry of Education, said in December that parents should choose their children’s development targets and learning paths rationally, and avoid blindly following some social trends.

Primary school teachers said they hoped parents showed more trust in schools and teachers.

Qu said: “We encourage parents to help kids cultivate an interest in learning and establish good study habits through doing school assignments, rather than rushing to out-of-school classes. Interest is the best teacher, and good habits are a guarantee of long-term development.”

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