BEIJING — Recently the Beijing Municipal Education Commission announced that it will begin to ban nursery schools and kindergartens from teaching primary school subjects such as English, spelling and arithmetic. Schools that violate the regulation "will be held severely accountable."
This is not the first ordinance of its kind, after the capital’s education authorities had already issued special orders in 2012 forbidding pre schools from conducting early learning in so-called interest classes, special talent classes and experiment classes. Beijing also outlawed homework for children before first grade. Still, three years on, the real situation in the classroom hasn’t changed.
So why is it so difficult to ban Chinese nursery schools and kindergartens from continuing this unusual and disturbing practice?
Like so many of China’s many administrative regulations, it's no surprise that such orders come in like a gust of wind only to soon be forgotten. For hiearchical reasons, Chinese education authorities have inadequate accountability procedures.
But perhaps more importantly, the policy simply lacks parental support. Whether it’s the parents or the nursery schools themselves, all present a rather complicated psychology when it comes to the focus of early learning. In theory they all understand that children under six years old are in a stage where the focus should be on developing good habits and behavior, forming a sound personality and physical and mental health instead of instilling academic knowledge.
However, in practice, even if the public nursery schools comply with these provisions, the private so-called early education institutions will continue to teach these subjects. It has also become more common that certain elementary schools admit children on condition that they pass a test of certain reading and arithmetic levels. This leaves nursery schools caught in a dilemma since they don't want to face unsatisfied parents.
In recent years, the Chinese Ministry of Education has issued circulars promoting free entrance to neighborhood primary and secondary schools to help enforce a fairer compulsory education system. However, parents continue to aspire to send their offspring to "popular schools", that is, the schools renowned for academic performance, which feature fierce competition for enrollment.
A kindergarten in Suzhou, China. Photo: Bill Taroli
"Our school does not teach beginner-level skills such as basic arithmetic and spelling. Your child has to master all this before entering here," a primary school head master told my friend during a consultation just last week. As a result, either parents are prepared to send their children to expensive complementary courses, or the children are most likely to be left alone to slip behind their peers.
The fundamental problem lies in the fact that the entire Chinese education system is basically examination-oriented. Chinese youngsters, in effect, start preparing the college entrance examination right from kindergarten. If such a system continues, there is little hope that China's pre-schooling will change.
So to truly be able to implement the Beijing authorities' ambition, it is imperative that apart from banning pre-school academic learning, elementary schools should be obliged to conduct beginner-level teaching. All this requires an improvement in how China holds its schools acountable.
Secondly, it's a must to reform the admissions process for entering a school. A single evaluation system where exam scores determine everything cannot possibly expect families and nursery schools to give up their exam-oriented mentality.
Finally we need specific legislation, just like in the West, banning nurseries and kindergartens from turning into primary schools. Only then can China cast off this collective myth and anxiety about competing academically amongst children who should be spending their time being children.
*Xiong Bingqi is vice president of China's non-governmental organization the 21st Century Education Research Institute