Homeschooling Becomes More Popular in China

Unhappy with the rigid teaching style of traditional schools and recent student abuse scandals, some tiger moms in China are keeping their kids at home.

A woman walks past school bags that have been placed on chairs at a kindergarten yard in a village, in the outskirts of Beijing May 23, 2013.
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According to a recent survey of 18,000 parents in mainland China who have expressed interest in homeschooling their children, some 2,000 of them have already started to give lessons at home.

Conducted by the 21st-Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing-based NGO, the survey data was collected via various online platforms, including the education channel of web portal and other forums dedicated to homeschooling.

China’s exam-oriented education system is notoriously stressful for students and families alike. According to the survey, among Chinese parents who choose to teach their kids at home, over half (54%) of them do so because they object to the teaching philosophy of traditional schools, which tends to be fairly rigid in nature. Others who choose to homeschool their kids think that in ordinary classrooms, the pace of lessons is too slow (10%) and that kids are not fully respected(7%). Another 7% said their kids were simply sick of traditional school life.

Still another 6% of parents, including a number of Christians, said they chose homeschooling for religious reasons, according to the survey. Similarly, a 2007 survey by the U.S.-based National Center for Education Statistics showed that 36% of American parents homeschooling their children chose to do so out of a desire to provide religious and moral instruction.

Meanwhile, a mounting number of student abuse cases in China have lately been exposed , drawing outrage from the public and helping further spur the push for alternatives to traditional schools, people in the industry say. “I think kids are hurt mentally and physically at traditional kindergartens in China,” said Zhang Qiaofeng, citing the well-publicized cases of ear-pulling and other kinds of corporal punishment that recently caused controversy after being exposed in the Chinese press.

“They are running kindergartens like prisons, locking kids inside,” said Mr. Zhang, who since last June has been running his own small private school in Bejing’s outskirts.

Mr. Zhang said he was inspired to found his school, which caters to preschoolers, after seeing his young son coming back from kindergarten every day and seeming unhappy. According to Mr. Zhang, his son and other classmates would be literally locked indoors during recess hours, to spare teachers from having to monitor them while outdoors.

“Parents seek out my services because they don’t want their kids to get hurt on campus,” said Mr. Zhang, who charges 60,000 yuan ($9,800) for two semesters as a basic tuition fee, and an extra 20,000 yuan for students who need lodging. “They can afford to do so.”

The survey said that 41% of homeschooling parents said they would continue to educate their kids at home after middle school. About a third said they planned to eventually send their kids abroad to study, while another third said they still planned to have their kids take China’s fiercely competitive national college entrance exam, the gaokao, and have them attend university in mainland China.

Though the right of parents to homeschool their children isn’t officially enshrined in law, homeschooling is no longer seen as a shocking phenomenon in China. Cases such as that of prominent Chinese writer Zheng Yuanjie, who took his son out of school to educate him at home a couple of years ago, have helped boost its appeal among the public and the media.

The survey found that more than half of home-schooled kids are between four to ten years old, and about 62% of them are male. “Boys are bolder in expressing their thoughts and challenging their teachers,” said Yuan Fangyan, project director of the 21st-Century Education Research Institute. “Teachers in China tend to marginalize these ‘trouble-makers’ in class, so they are at a disadvantage at school.”

Compared to the U.S., where more than 2 million students were home-schooled in 2010, in the world’s second-largest economy, homeschooling is still at an early stage.

For the moment, most homeschooling families remain concentrated in Guangdong province, Zhejiang province and Beijing, where the local economy is more developed and families are typically more open-minded about education.

“Professional guidance [for those interested in homeschooling] is severely insufficient,” said Ms. Yuan. “More education resources, including textbooks and teaching methods, desperately need to be explored and developed.”

Still, Ms. Yuan says that the growing popularity of homeschooling points to an encouraging trend. “Parents have started to care more about fostering their kids’ interest in reading and arts, and respect their freedom and thoughts,” she said.

The survey also found that more than 100,000 children in mainland China are not studying in traditional schools. Apart from homeschooling, such kids are often being educated in private schools, such as schools dedicated to the study of classic Chinese culture, church-run schools or other alternative institutions such as Waldorf schools, which operate according to the educational principles of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

In addition to such findings, the survey showed that over 48% of parents said they were very optimistic about the development of homeschooling in China in particular.

For his part, Mr. Zhang said that since opening his preschool, his son has become much more athletic and outgoing. “I will teach him to take the SAT and apply to university in America in the future,” he said.

– Lilian Lin. Follow her on Twitter @LilianLinyigu

Correction & Amplification:
Sixty-thousand yuan is about $9,800. An earlier version of this post incorrectly converted it to $7,700.

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