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Print Edition> Forum
UPDATED: January 15, 2007 No.3 JAN. 18, 2007
Will Five-Star Preschool Education Really Give Our Children an Edge?

The trend in China of children competing for a limited pool of quality education resources has gradually spread from older students down to the preschoolers. It's a signal that parents are recognizing the significance of early childhood education and buying into the adage that "the more you invest now, the more you get repaid in the future." As a result, there are a growing number of opportunities for kindergartens to leap onto this lucrative bandwagon.

Last November, a foreign language kindergarten, called Henghai, opened its doors in Nanjing City, east China's Jiangsu Province, charging the parents an astronomical 100,000 yuan per child each year.

For this price, Henghai provides imported large-scale toys, an open-air play ground, a basketball court, a computer lab, a multifunctional hall, a piano room and a mini art studio. The kindergarten positions itself as a high-end institution of preschool learning. The facilities are environment-friendly and human-oriented, and all teaching materials, games and software are imported from overseas. In addition, children get their own wooden closet. It's clearly a five-star affair for these infants.

Ten days after its opening, more than a dozen children had registered for Henghai's full-day program in three classes, enjoying certified foreign teachers in an accelerated learning ratio of one teacher to one child. Aiming to provide an environment conducive to foreign language study, all foreign teachers are from countries with English as the mother language. Even the nurses are English-majored Chinese.

Amid the arousing controversy from the public, the founder of this luxurious kindergarten argued that the program is tailored to meet the needs of high-end customers like foreigners living or working in China and wealthy Chinese people including self-employed entrepreneurs. The bottom line is their target group is parents who prefer Western-style education and who have no qualm in paying the price.

Local education officials responded prudently, saying that Henghai is a private entity, thus it is entitled to price independently without interference from the government.

Over the years, China's preschool education has long been underestimated in terms of value, for the reason that it has been regarded as a welfare program. Since the late 1990s, the government has regulated various preschool programs, requiring payment to base on both quality and the category of the individual program. Meanwhile, the state encourages more private investment in the sector to strengthen early education development.

Kindergarten fees are, meanwhile, on the rise.

In Beijing, an average kindergarten costs 700-800 yuan per child each month. Full-time schools charge more. Between January-November last year, the per-capita disposal income for Beijing citizens reached 18,344 yuan, increasing by 13.6 percent year on year. The annual revenue is estimated at 20,000 yuan, according to authoritative figures. In a family where only one parent works, the education expenditure of a preschool child will occupy more than half of their total income.

At present, about 60 percent of ordinary Chinese families cannot afford regular early childhood education programs, said Zhu Jiaxiong, Vice Chairman of the China National Society of Early Childhood Education. He attributed this to the overpricing of private schools and the absence of public education resources available. In particular, in remote and rural areas, the situation can be much worse.

To survive in today's market, most private kindergartens are desperate to attract more children by offering a better learning environment and higher-level education resources than their counterparts. But all of these demand large capital investment, which will no doubt be filtered down to the fees paid by parents.

Some argue that the sky-high tuition fees and luxurious surroundings do not guarantee that children will either be more talented or better students. In fact, say these doubters, the sumptuous conditions could spoil the children, and breed laziness and vanity.

Parents can choose

Dang Zi (ycwb.com): Early childhood education has not yet been calculated in the nine-year compulsory period in China. Therefore, it survives because of market forces. As a commercial product, it is similar to any commodity whose prices fluctuate with supply and demand. The huge investment made in Henghai Kindergarten naturally asks for smart returns. As long as people are prepared to pay such high fees, the cash-guzzling kindergartens will be with us.

We are living in a diversified era where people are increasingly aware of unique education. If their demands are legitimate and reasonable, our education system should satisfy them. Admittedly, the children from upscale kindergartens might not be better educated than others, but this is not enough reason to ban these schools. It's the same as a choice between a budget hotel and a five-star hotel. Both are available and you stay in the room you can afford. It's an individual choice.

Wang Shichuan (Qilu Evening News): Early childhood education is not compulsory in China, so parents are free to make choices of where they want to send their children. If financially well-off, parents will of course send their children to top schools.

It is not those developing these modern kindergartens who are the issue, but rather the people who are jealous of the rich. If someone is born with a silver spoon in the mouth, good luck to him/her. If their wealth has been earned in a legal manner, the owners have a right to spend it as they please and that includes expensive schools.

A mature market economy should allow people to choose for themselves and make the choices within their means.

Lei Hui (gmw.cn): Chinese kindergartens traditionally act as a satellite home for children where they pass the time while parents are at work. The recognition of simple words and poetry cannot train elites. For an elementary institution like this to charge tens of thousands yuan is certainly a surprise to conservative Chinese consumers.

Few preschool programs fall in the category of elite education, but the daily emerging middle class in China are keen to raise their children in better conditions, so the soaring of education expense is foreseeable.

Schools like Henghai remind us that we should broaden our views to develop a variety of new programs for our children. At least, the high-priced kindergartens are trying to pioneer a different way of teaching.

Geng Yinping (sina.com): Today's key middle schools are reduced to competing for students by boasting first-class teaching facilities and advanced education concepts. Actually, most of them are showcases aimed at enlarging recruitment programs to earn more.

Against this backdrop, high-priced kindergartens with modern, first-class facilities are introduced to provide a relaxing learning environment full of free thought and equal communication. Modern education advocates invention of practical study mechanisms to make it more alive and vigorous.

First duty is to educate

Cheng Lu (Workers' Daily): In the name of "special needs," the expensive programs are popular in our educational system, ranging from preschool to elementary and high school. The prevalence of these programs may allow more temptation of overspending. Actually, education is a public service, which should not be used as a tool to make mammoth profits.

Also, unique programs will easily mislead the public. Will the most costly programs offer all the solutions? It sounds like the rich will regret not having sent their children to expensive kindergartens since they may ruin the kids' chances of being internationalized. But does internationalization mean high pricing? Education resources should be essentially equitable and reachable to most of society. As reported recently in the media, some wealthy children bath in distilled water and universities are planning luxury golf courses, both abnormal phenomena in a developing country like China. Worshipping money is in essence disrespectful to education. For a country that is sparing no effort to popularize compulsory education, such overpriced projects should not be promoted.

The costly projects may cause an imbalance of resource distribution, or even a monopoly of good education resources. The injustice of education also affects social fairness.

I think the main goal of teachers is to educate the common people. China is the most populous country in the world with 1.3 billion people, among which 900 million are living in rural areas. Thus the compulsory education and vocational training programs must take top priority.

Wan Quan (xinhuanet.com): The opening of high-end kindergartens provides parents with more selections to educate their children. In fact, more than half of the first registered 90 children in Henghai are Chinese instead of foreigners, indicating a ready customer pool at home. However, some negative aftermaths also deserve attention.

First of all, a privileged living and learning environment will heighten the gap between children and can lead to them ignoring the extremely poor in rural China.

Additionally, these children are living in a manmade Utopia far away from social reality. As they grow up, their lack of survival skills will frustrate them.

Children from rich families are familiar with luxuries. What they really need are life skills, eagerness to learn, a healthy body and the most important, a good mindset. All of these qualities can be achieved in ordinary schools.

Wang Xudong (Chinese Business View): Under the guise of satisfying a specific group, the Henghai Kindergarten is more aimed at making immense profit. The foreign language environment is designed to charge parents as much as possible.

In a competitive world, parents expect their children to gain a strong language foundation from the word go.

Since parents voluntarily pay the tuition fees, and without regulations to discipline the kindergartens, it is expected to see more of its kind in the future.

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