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No summer relief for kindergarten pupils

2013-07-25 10:41 China Daily Web Editor: Wang Fan
Clockwise: Jiayi practises piano at home. Xiaoyu enjoys traditional Chinese painting. A selection of Jiayi's books. Wu Ni / China Daily

Clockwise: Jiayi practises piano at home. Xiaoyu enjoys traditional Chinese painting. A selection of Jiayi's books. Wu Ni / China Daily

Pre-primary training has become a matter of course

Although there is still a year to go before Nie Jiayi leaves kindergarten, the 5-year-old girl is busy preparing for primary school, which she is due to start in September 2014.

Jiayi had been dreaming about the perfect summer vacation and was looking forward to traveling outside her city with her parents, but has just discovered that her holiday is unlikely to be a relaxing experience.

Her days are full. Every morning, escorted by her grandparents, she leaves home well before 8 to attend a one-hour pinyin course, where she learns to spell Chinese in roman script. The two-week course costs 1,000 yuan ($163).

Jiayi also attends an hourlong English class twice a week. She is making good progress, but is a little shy about demonstrating her US accent. The class costs 160 yuan an hour.

In addition, she has a "logical thinking" class once a week, costing 220 yuan an hour. The tutor claims the course can develop children's ability to think in a structured and logical manner.

Meanwhile, a piano teacher visits Jiayi's home in Shanghai's Xuhui district once a week, charging 160 yuan an hour. And, as if all that were not enough, the girl has also been enrolled for classes in dancing and drawing at the kindergarten.

Jiayi confessed, "I don't want to go to the courses. My mother wants me to go, but I would like to go traveling instead, or watch Balala, Little Magic Fairy (a popular Chinese animation), that's my favorite!"

The 'most anxious mother'

Jiayi's story is not unusual. Many urban Chinese parents use the preschool summer holidays to prep their children before they enter Primary One. The parents believe a carefully planned early leg-up is essential to ensuring that their child does not get left behind in an education system that hinges on a series of competitive exams that can ensure successful candidates entry to the best schools and, later, the best jobs.

In Wuhan, the capital of central China's Hubei province, a woman surnamed Xu was dubbed "China's most anxious mother" after sending her 5-year-old son on 17 training courses since the age of six months. The total cost was 120,000 yuan, according to reports by the Xinhua News Agency.

Given the intensive nature of the tuition, it's little wonder that many children enter primary school with a working knowledge of rudimentary math, Chinese characters, pinyin and English. A report published by the Shanghai Education Commission's Teaching and Research Office earlier this month said 88 percent of kindergarten children attend at least one training course and 32 percent attend three to five courses. The top three subjects are pinyin, English and drawing, according to the report, which surveyed roughly 1,000 kindergarten children across Shanghai's six districts.

Cai Jian has always wanted her son to enjoy a happy childhood, free from academic burdens. Now, though, she is ambivalent.

Her 6-year-old son, Xiaoyu, attends classes in English, Chinese ink-and-water painting and playing the drums. He will join a pinyin class in August. Cai, a human resources director at a large foreign enterprise in Shanghai, also utilizes her scarce leisure time to teach Xiaoyu Chinese characters, logical thinking and basic math.

She has formulated a strict study plan for each day of Xiaoyu's summer vacation. He writes four pages of Chinese characters every morning, as a precaution against him falling behind at school, listens to English tapes, practices painting, plays the drums for two hours and then goes swimming.

"As far as I know, every child in my son's kindergarten class attends some sort of course. I don't want my son to lag behind when he goes to primary school. Even if we as parents can resist the pressure of failure, I don't think he will be able to resist it."

But Cai is concerned that this preschool training is narrowing his imagination. "Before I taught him Chinese characters, he would say a character looked like an animal, a building or some other thing. But he doesn't do that now because he knows a character is just a character, nothing else."

Zero start

Early this year, the Shanghai Education Commission reiterated its policy that English and Chinese should be taught from a "zero start" in the first grade. Public kindergartens are not allowed to teach pinyin, math or English.

Similar policies have been introduced in other cities too. In Beijing, as well as Guangdong province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, the education authorities have ordered that public kindergartens should not provide any training courses and instead should ensure "a happy education" for children.

However, this well-intentioned policy has prompted many parents to send their children to preschool training courses. The public kindergarten Jiayi attends, the Shanghai Science and Technology Kindergarten in Xuhui district, used to teach English for 10 minutes every day. When the classes were cancelled, some concerned parents sought external alternatives.

Zhu Jianmin, director of the private Shanghai Modern Baby Kindergarten in Pudong New Area, said private kindergartens are more flexible in their teaching programs.

"We teach some math and pinyin in the second term of the senior group class so the children's transition to primary school will be as smooth as possible. This is in response to strong demand from the parents, who pay great attention to it. If we don't set homework on pinyin or English every day, they are very unhappy," she said.

This "hothousing" has resulted in widely differing academic skills among new students in primary schools, according to Zhu Yuanzhen, an English teacher who has taught at a primary school in Shanghai's Minhang district for 20 years.

"Some of the first-grade students have already achieved the level of third-grade students, such as knowing a large number of characters, communicating fluently in English and mastering double-digit multiplication and division," she said, adding that it will be difficult to implement the "zero start" policy in classes because 60 to 80 percent of the students have already learned some of the basics before beginning primary school.

"When we teach a given topic, some of the students find it difficult to follow, while others feel they've already mastered the basics, become bored and lose interest," she said, emphasizing that the teachers tailor their approach based on the demands of the majority. She said that learning gap usually disappears when the children reach the fourth or fifth grades.

Attending training courses may prove effective over the short term, but the practice can undermine children's interest in study. Moreover, the courses may also dampen curiosity and creativity because the children come to accept that most questions have only one correct answer, according to Li Yan, a professor of preschool education at Shanghai Normal University. "The most important thing in the preschool phase is to develop the children's interest, their passion for study and to inculcate a positive and cooperative attitude towards their peers, which will help them to adjust to group life at primary school."

Appropriate knowledge

To make "zero start" an effective policy, Li suggested it should be implemented at every stage of school, which means that students, no matter whether they are in primary or middle school, only need to master knowledge appropriate to their age group, "or else there will always be parents who push their children for an early start".

Yang Xiong, director of the Institute for Teenage Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, believes a change in parental attitudes is essential if their system is to be overhauled. "Nothing will change if parents don't update their concept of education. I have been contacted by many parents from across the country and when we talk about lightening the academic load on children, their first response is 'how should we deal with the zhongkao (the middle school entrance test) and the gaokao, then? In this regard, it's difficult to ease the children's burden," he said.

"It's important for the authorities to establish a comprehensive supervision system, which will impose strict limitations on both schools and families, and provide children with a free and happy time for growth," Yang noted.

At a preschool forum held in June, Yin Houqing, an inspector at the Shanghai Education Commission, said the commission will publish the academic requirements for every subject online when the new semester begins in September. Parents will be able to use the guidelines as a reference point by which they can judge their children's academic results.

Not all observers are pleased by the new rules, which they believe to be difficult to enforce and ill-conceived.

"In the kindergarten, the children are told to play as happily as they can, but outside they are driven to study as hard as they can. What a contradiction," said Jiayi's grandmother.

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