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Unlike primary education in Chinese cities, pre-school and kindergarten education are not mandatory and are not offered on a universal basis. Because of this every nursery school, kindergarten, and pre-school requires the payment of tuition fees. If a center has a very good reputation, the fees can be very high, in other cases. Facilities run by employers tend to be more affordable. [Source: Internations]

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “Factories, companies, universities, and government offices all operate nurseries for their own employees. Their quality varies, depending in part on the nature of the unit to which they are attached. Usually, the elite kindergartens are operated by local education bureaus. University kindergartens are renowned for their standards, and the admission criteria are very stringent. When choosing kindergartens for their children, however, closeness to the work place and opening hours coordinated with the working day make enterprise kindergartens a convenient choice. The majority of urban kindergartens are run by the residents' committees. These provide day care only. The equipment is simpler and their staff less highly trained than in the elite establishments.[Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The proportion of children who attend kindergartens in cities is higher, with more children spending at least some time in kindergarten between the ages of three and six when they enter primary school. It is a general principle that children who have attended a reputable kindergarten will more easily attain a spot in a good primary school. Consequently, despite the higher fees charged at the best kindergartens, places are often difficult to secure. Sometimes there are entrance examinations designed to test coordination, verbal development, simple counting, and the recognition of shapes. Despite the existence of formal selection procedures, access to guanxi (connections), or a "back door" may help with entry into a good kindergarten.

Preschool education, which began at age three and one-half, was a target of education reform in 1985. Preschool facilities were to be established in buildings made available by public enterprises, production teams, municipal authorities, local groups, and families. The government announced that it depended on individual organizations to sponsor their own preschool education and that preschool education was to become a part of the welfare services of various government organizations, institutes, and state- and collectively operated enterprises. Costs for preschool education varied according to services rendered. Officials also called for more preschool teachers with more appropriate training. [Source: Library of Congress]

In recent years early education has become a new government priority, As of the mid 2010s about 70 percent of of preschool-age children attended private and government-run kindergartens. In 2001, about 27 percent of children between the ages of three and six were enrolled in some type of preschool program. In 1998, approximately 24,030,000 children attended 181,368 kindergartens (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). [Source: Christian Scientce Monitor, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Daycare and Kindergarten in China

According to Internations: Childcare in China is considered an essential part of a child’s overall education. Thus, pre-primary education (nursery schools, day care, kindergartens, and pre-schools) offer various educational and training classes which are designed to give the little ones a head start and prepare them for a successful academic future. For some children, the pressure is just a little too much though. [Source: Internations]

The Chinese are ready to invest a lot of money in their child’s education, which is why spots in popular pre-schools fill up quickly. The educational approach in Chinese kindergartens can be be very different than what Westerners are used to. Teachers are a lot more strict, and discipline is highly valued (more so than creative expression).

Pre-primary education is available for children from the age of two onwards. It serves two functions: early education and childcare. The various institutions offering pre-primary education aim to foster children’s intellectual, physical, artistic, and moral development. There are 1) nursery schools for 2-3 years olds; 2) lower (junior) kindergarten for 3-4 years old; 3) Upper (senior) Kindergarten for 4-5 years old; and 4) Pre-School for 5-6 years old. In China, it is common for two-year-old children to already be potty-trained.

Kindergartens in China

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: ““Kindergarten activities underwent significant changes in the 1990s. The popularization of a national kindergarten syllabus produced a surprising degree of similarity in the children's day and in teaching methods used in kindergartens all over the country. The subjects taught included language, arithmetic, social studies, music, art, and physical education. The learning through play approach is much better established than in the past. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The status of kindergarten teachers has not risen very much since the days when the majority of staff were kindly but uneducated elderly women. Today, the qualified teachers are graduates from normal schools for kindergartens. They are called laoshi (teacher) as a mark of respect, rather than the familiar address form ayi (auntie) used in the past. However, their wages are poor, and kindergarten training tends to be taken by less competitive students whose grades are not good enough to get into any other college.

“Moral and ideological education in kindergarten has changed a great deal in the years since Mao's death (1976). In the past, words like "revolution," "socialism," "communism," and "Chairman Mao's thought" were common in the kindergarten classroom. Today, although the government still requires kindergartens to instill a strong ideology and children are still taught to "love China and the communist Party," kindergartens also teach children to be modest, unselfish, tidy, and polite. Children also need to learn to distinguish between good and bad, care for their environment, and help one another. These values are important considering the fact that today's Chinese children are from one-child families, and most of them are spoiled by their parents and grandparents.

Difficulty Getting Good Day Care and Kindergartens in China

Day care in China can be a problem. Public kindergarten are often oversubscribed and private day care centers are expensive by Chinese standards, often over $500 a month. Mei Jia wrote in the China Daily: Getting a place in a kindergarten that is affordable and conveniently located is posing a major headache for parents with children born in and after 2007. Two popular sayings doing the rounds this summer are that, "Entering kindergartens is harder than being recruited as a public servant" and, "Attending kindergartens is costlier than going to university.". [Source: Mei Jia, China Daily, September 7, 2010]

Liu Jingjia, 32, a vocational school teacher in Kunming, Yunnan province, is considering a kindergarten although her daughter is not yet 2. "The public kindergartens are cheaper but hard to get in; the private ones are easier but far more expensive," Liu says. She says she hopes starting her search early will bring her better luck than Song.

Zhang Yan, a pre-primary education expert with Beijing Normal University told The Beijing News: "The real problem is not getting into a kindergarten, but into an affordable and reputable one." Feng Xiaoxia, with China National Society of Early Childhood Education, told Xinhua recently that "the imbalance in public and private kindergartens, and limited governmental input in pre-primary education, are the reasons" for the difficulties facing parents.

In growing recognition of the problem, the National Education Conference held this July made "advancing the equality in education" a major emphasis. The final draft of the National Plan for Long-Term Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020) released recently also pays particular attention to the "kindergarten puzzle". It hints at increasing official input to promote the development of both public and private kindergartens.

Shanghai is already taking the lead by extending the number of kindergartens to keep pace with the construction of new residential buildings. Beijing is also planning to build 118 new kindergartens and renovate 300 old ones in the coming years. "If we're lucky enough, I'd like to get my daughter registered by September next year," says Liu, expressing a hope that is on the minds of many young parents.

In Shenzhen, a number of women chose to get caesarian sections before midnight on August 1, 2014 so their children could start school early. If they had waited until September 1 they would have to have had to wait a year longer, with idea being that would be extra time wasted on daycare and other child rearing expenses. At doctor at Shenzhen Maternity and Child Healthcare Hospital told local media: “The operating theater is like a battlefield. As of 5:00pm there were already 888 C-sections scheduled. Patients are going crazy, doctors, even the nurses, too.” [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times of London, September 2014]

Difficulty Getting Kindergartens for Kids Born in the Year of the Pig

Mei Jia wrote in the China Daily: Getting a place in a kindergarten that is affordable and conveniently located is posing a major headache for parents with children born in and after 2007. Two popular sayings doing the rounds this summer are that, "Entering kindergartens is harder than being recruited as a public servant" and, "Attending kindergartens is costlier than going to university." The existing capacity in public kindergartens is unable to cope with the sudden increase in births in 2007, the year of the golden pig, considered auspicious for having babies by the Chinese. The baby-boomers have now entered the kindergarten-going age of 3 this summer. [Source: Mei Jia, China Daily, September 7, 2010]

Xinhua News Agency reported that only 73,000 out of Shenzhen's 135,000 kids born in 2007 will find a kindergarten spot. A Southern Daily report says Beijing saw 415,750 births between 2007 and 2009, but has only 248,000 spots in the registered kindergartens. Gao Yuexia, 96, her son and grandson, took turns to line up for nine days and nights to enroll Gao's 2-year-old great-granddaughter in a public kindergarten in northeastern Beijing's Changping district. "While waiting for days is no 100 percent guarantee of a spot, not joining the queues could mean very little chance of finding a proper kindergarten for our child," father surnamed Chen told the China Daily.

Song Lihong, 34, a full-time mother of a 3-year-old in Beijing, began her hunt for a kindergarten last April. The public ones, known for their lower fees and more reliable quality, were Song's preferred choice. Some 200 parents vied to get their kids into the kindergarten whose modest monthly charges of 400 yuan ($59) made it a popular choice with many young couples. She went to almost all of those near her home, and found they charged 600-900 yuan per month, but would accept only children who meet the strict requirements of hukou (registered household certification). "Parents with no Beijing hukou, like us, have to pay a so-called voluntary amount of at least 50,000 yuan ($7,300) over three years, which is beyond us," she says. "But even so, we tried to find some way to give this extra money." When she couldn't, she finally turned to a private kindergarten and got her kid in after waiting for three months. "It's more expensive, but we have no choice," she says. Song says her family is under intense financial pressure. "Our threshold for kindergarten fees was 1,000 yuan, but now I pay 1,700 yuan. And then there is the rent to take care of," she says.

Like Song, Liu Jingjia, 32, a vocational school teacher in Kunming, Yunnan province, is also considering a kindergarten although her daughter is not yet 2. "The public kindergartens are cheaper but hard to get in; the private ones are easier but far more expensive," Liu says. She says she hopes starting her search early will bring her better luck than Song.

Bringing Preschools to China's Remotest Poor

Children of impoverished local farmers in China's remote mountain villages are in danger of falling further behind their city-born peers without a preschool. Some dedicated and slefless Chinese are trying to rectify that situation Reporting from Chengbeihou in Qinghai Province, Peter Ford wrote in in the Christian Science Monitor: Not long ago, Guo Dekai would likely have been playing in the dirt by the side of the road with other five-year-olds, unkempt and unsupervised. There was no preschool in this remote mountain village in western China, and every day, Dekai would have fallen a little further behind his city-born peers, his prospects a little more limited. Instead, he is sitting in a tiny blue plastic chair alongside two other kindergarten pupils, carefully considering which felt pen to use as he colors a drawing of a cat. The program he is in – an innovative effort to put even the poorest children in the most isolated villages through preschool – will set him up for primary school and, perhaps, a brighter future. “There are very few kids here, so they are not as confident as city kids who grow up with a lot of classmates,” says Dekai’s teacher, Qin Haixiong. “But their skills are just the same.” [Source: Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 2016]

Chengbeihou and villages like it are 9,000 feet up in the mountains of Qinghai province, several hours’ drive from the nearest town. They are beyond the reach of the government preschool network, and no private school would bother with them; the peasant farmers who live here raise meager crops of barley and potatoes and are too poor to pay fees. About 16 million Chinese youngsters between the ages of 3 and 6 are not enrolled in kindergarten. “And these are not rich kids who have babysitters,” says Lu Mai, head of the China Development Research Foundation, a Beijing-based think-and-do tank. Rather, they live in China’s most distant, hardscrabble villages.

“The foundation, a government-linked group funded largely by foreign and Chinese corporations, is behind the Village Early Education Centers (VEECs), a pilot plan that Dekai and about 25,000 other children benefit from. The project is deliberately aimed at the poorest 20 percent of Chinese children because “lack of access to preschools in remote villages further widens the existing gap in … school readiness between poverty regions and peri-urban and urban areas,” says a 2015 progress report on the seven-year-old effort.

Teachers and Students at Preschools to China's Remote Villages

Peter Ford wrote in in the Christian Science Monitor: ““Ms. Qin, Chengbeihou’s kindergarten teacher, grew up here. When she was a child, she recalls, there was no preschool, but the primary school crammed 200 children into its six classrooms. Today she uses one of those rooms to teach just four preschoolers, and there is only one primary-school-age child in the village. Vivacious and enthusiastic, Qin is typical of many of the teachers hired by the VEECs: local women in their early 20s, fresh out of teacher training. They are paid $250 a month, a third of what a fully fledged government-employed teacher gets, but there are few such jobs available. [Source: Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 2016]

“Instead, most state-employed teachers in the countryside are given only temporary contracts that pay just $70 a month; a job at a VEEC is a significant step up, and also offers the opportunity for continuous training. The difference these young teachers make is striking, says Guo Qiang, an illiterate peasant farmer in the nearby village of Jiujiashan who has put his two sons in the local early education center. “They are much cleaner and they behave better at table,” says Mr. Guo. “Teacher tells them to take care of their things and themselves and they do. I can’t read, but I know my elder boy is doing well at his tests. Maybe if he is smart enough he could get a good job; he likes playing with his police car and says he’d like to drive one when he grows up.” Next challenge: Scale it up

“Wang Shengguo, the veteran primary school headmaster in Yahe, another mountain village, notices the difference, too. “In the past, kids coming into primary school knew much less than the kids coming out of kindergarten now,” he says. “They are more disciplined and they act in a more civilized way.” That makes them easier to teach, Mr. Wang says. “Their test scores are much higher than they used to be,” he notes. “Kids used to get 40 to 50 percent. Now they get 80 to 90 percent. That’s about what urban kids get.”

“That success is reflected in the results of an independent study last year, which found that children attending VEECs had the same levels of cognitive development as children in urban government-run kindergartens, and that their social behavior, emotional expression, and self-regulation scores were even better. All for about $5,000 a year per school.

Kindergarten Abuse in China

In 2017, there were allegations of abuses at an expensive kindergartens in Beijing and daycare center in Shanghai. Sup China reported: “Many media reports of the latest case were censored, as were online rumors, some of which suggested a military connection to a pedophile ring. That claim may be the imagination of a panicked parent or an internet troll, but with the state’s formidable censorship machinery at full throttle, it’s difficult to know what to believe. One commenter on social media said (in Chinese) that “the cruel lesson” to be learned was that “no matter how proud you are of belonging to the middle class, sending your kids to private, expensive, and well-known schools will never guarantee their safety and health.” [Source: Sup China, November 27, 2017]

The new child abuse scandal took place at a daycare center operated by RYB Education, a New York Stock Exchange-listed company that runs about 500 kindergartens directly and 1, 300 affiliated learning centers in more than 300 cities and towns across the country. One of the more chilling claims made by some parents about the kindergarten is that they found needle marks on their children’s arms, and that teachers had fed the children “white pills.”

The alleged abuses provoked an internet firestorm of fury from urban Chinese, which is very understandable — the last apartment building in which I lived in Beijing housed an expensive kindergarten, which one day gave food poisoning to all of its charges, whose parents were paying $1, 500 (10,000 yuan) a month for the privilege. Your kid being abused at school: It’s every parent’s nightmare. [Source: Jeremy Goldkorn, Sup China, December 1, 2017]

“Even worse, just as with the migrant evictions, strong censorship kicked into gear. The police, whose initial, vague statements and arrest of one teacher inflamed much of the fury, issued clarifying statements. But the explanations included that the arrested teacher had used needles to “instruct” the children who failed to follow her orders to sleep, and noted that surveillance camera footage was missing because of a damaged hard drive.

Poisonings at Chinese Nursery Schools

In 2013, two Chinese nursery school pupils died after drinking yoghurt laced with rat poison, apparently because the head of a rival institution hoped to damage the reputation of their school, police told state media. The reported: Officers said the main suspect, Shi Haixia, 39, admitted injecting the bottle with tetramine and asking Yang Wenming, 51, to leave it on the street near her competitor's business, along with school supplies. She feared that the other school was enrolling more students, in Lianghe village in Pingshan county, in the northern province of Hebei, officers told the Global Times.[Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, May 3, 2013]

“The bag was spotted by the victims' grandmother, Ren Shuting, who took it home. The five- and six-year-old girls began foaming at the mouth and convulsing after drinking the yoghurt. One died on her way to hospital; the other died on Wednesday, after a week of treatment. Ren, who also took a sip of the liquid, was admitted to hospital. The case came less than a fortnight after authorities in Kaixin county, Chongqing, blamed rat poison for the illness of more than 100 nursery school pupils.

“Many in China have blamed the latest case on the vicious competition between nursery schools, which has led to owners employing increasingly aggressive tactics to win pupils. But there have also been a number of chilling poisonings in the country in the past, often linked to disputes. In a notorious incident in 2002, two teachers and 70 children at a nursery in Guangdong became seriously ill after the head of a rival institution blamed it for the failure of his business and put rat poison into the table salt. The man, Huang Hu, was later executed.

“Tan Fang, a professor at South China Normal University and founder of the Chinahaoren website, which aims to promote civic responsibility, warned: "This incident exposes the serious decline in our country's morality and the loopholes in the judicial safeguards that people rely on. China boasts of having the traditional morality of 'respecting the old and cherishing children'. Children don't hurt economic interests, or political interests, but criminals will even commit crimes against children." He said that while children needed to be better protected, the deeper issue was China's changing values. Society and spiritual civilisation had been damaged by the Cultural Revolution and then by the extremes of the market economy, he added. The party had also handled some problems inappropriately.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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