Education: ‘Cram schools’ a necessary evil

By Liang Anlin

Jianhong Li is emphatic about her attitude. “I’m really ambivalent about it,” she says repeatedly in an interview.

By “it” she means sending her daughter to extracurricular tutoring, commonly called “cram school,” because of its intensive nature. When asked why, she says, “It costs a fortune, and my child has to give up her spare time.”

Parents, however, have little choice. If they want their children to have good academic performance and eventually enter a good college after the gaokao, sending their kids to cram schools seems like a must.

A report on tutoring industry published by The Chinese Society of Education in December 2016 shows that more than 80 percent of the parents interviewed “strongly agree or agree” that extracurricular tutoring is an essential part of the primary and secondary school period.

Li says that this year, a cram school called Aces makes a spot-on guess on the gaokao English writing. It has caused a somewhat heated discussion in some parents’ group chat. “The writing part is worth 25 points. Just think about it,” Li says in an excited tone.

It’s a long way from first grade to college—nine years of compulsory education, consisting of six years of primary school and three years of junior secondary school, and then three years of senior secondary school, but students have to be prepared at the very beginning.

Xueersi, the third-largest, cram school company in the country, often tells those parents who intend to send their children there the sooner they enroll the better because “it’s hard to get a spot in the classes for students who are above fourth grade.”

Li’s only daughter, Shiqing Zheng, a seventh-grade student, started going to cram schools from the second semester of fifth grade. “It’s already late. A lot of her classmates have gone to cram schools since their fourth grade,” Li says.

The timing of Li’s sending her daughter to cram schools is related to the current policy of junior secondary school enrollment. It was unveiled in 2015 by Guangzhou Education Bureau. The policy demands that public junior secondary schools forgo the previous admission method, which is to select students based on the scores of one entrance exam and adopt the random allocation by computers.

Few parents are willing to gamble on the decision made by computers, so they opt to make alternative plans. In May, The Nanfang Daily published an article on the junior secondary school enrollment strategy. The article provided several ways other than computer allocation for Guangzhou parents who want their children to enter the school they like, including having art or sports special talents, winning a Mathematical Olympiad competition, and signing up for private schools.

Li has no plan on training her daughter to become a talent in art or sports, and Zheng has never participated in any Mathematical Olympiad competition, so for Li, the option that is most likely to work is signing her daughter up for private schools.

Private schools select students by looking at their exam scores in the fifth and sixth grade, according to the current policy. The policy also prohibits private schools from organizing exams for student enrollment.

Li says, in fact, the scores of the second semester of the fifth grade and the first semester of the sixth grade are the most valued. That’s why Li started to send her daughter to cram schools in the second semester of the fifth grade. The admission office of Jinan Secondary School, a private six-year secondary school, agree with Li’s comments.

Fortunately for Li, her daughter attends Guangzhou No.7 Middle School, a public school that is among the list of provincial level secondary schools. It means the school is relatively good.

Therefore, Li can save the high tuition for a private junior secondary school in Guangzhou—which on average costs about ¥32,400 a year, based on 2016 data from XinKuaiBao. The yearly tuition is roughly the same as the expense of her daughter’s cram school fees for three subjects during the past year and a half.

But the money Li saves is still going to be spent on education. Zheng’s seventh grade is coming to an end. In this academic year, Li has paid about ¥32,000 for Zheng’s cram school fees.

Li says the ultimate reason why she sends her daughter to cram schools is that “Compulsory education of public schools is just ‘parallel education.’ The courses are designed for all students, so they have to be easy to understand. What children learn from the courses can’t improve their thinking capacity, not to mention it is far from enough to help them enter a key junior or senior secondary school.”

Zheng agrees that the things she learns at school are not sufficient. She gives an example. “It is only until I go to cram schools that I learn there’s such thing called the third-person singular form.” Third-person singular is the form of a verb, which follows singular nouns or the pronouns he, she, it and one. Zheng says she understands English grammar much better after going to cram schools.

Zheng says she actually enjoys going to cram schools, partly because she is used to it, and partly because she is one of the top students in her class in cram schools. She says apart from that she has to wake up early in the morning at the weekend, she doesn’t mind losing some of her spare time being taken up. Still, sometimes she tells her fellow students that she “doesn’t want to study anymore.”


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