Private schools taking root in China, bringing status, substance

June 22, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- The well-meaning but hopelessly naive rural officials are on the edges of their seats, captivated by Zhang Changqing's flowery vision of a bountiful future for their children.

Mr. Zhang is an entrepreneur who founded one of China's first private schools. He claims to teach 4-year-olds to take care of themselves, speak English and use computers so they can grow up to be "top managers" and "leading social figures."

Employing Chinese versions of New Age educational jargon, he talks to his visitors about "integrating" various subjects to teach the "whole child" to "meet the demands of the next century."

But nothing grabs them more than Mr. Zhang's promise that all of his pupils will know how to drive a car when they graduate: "Of course, in the future every Chinese family will have a car. So all my students must learn how to drive."

The rural officials' eyes brighten. They almost giggle at this wonderful thought. They leave gladdened by Mr. Zhang's promise that he will dispatch his teachers this fall to show them how they, too, can set up their very own private school.

If they somehow succeed, Mr. Zhang's visitors -- from relatively impoverished Shanxi Province -- will add to the rapid proliferation of private schools here these days.

Not allowed until recently, private schools of all kinds are cropping up across China. Officially, there are about 700; the actual total may run into the thousands. Most are elementary schools, but private universities have even opened in Canton, Nanjing and Shanghai.

This change is significant: Since the Communist revolution in 1949, education has been under state management and political control. It is a development that speaks volumes about the increasingly high aspirations of many Chinese parents and the failings of ordinary schools starved for government support.

It also reflects the dramatically growing role in China these days of private pursuits and the return of class divisions within Chinese society based on wealth.

The new private schools are largely unregulated. Charging thousands of dollars in entrance fees, they sometimes provide more status than substance for the newly rich parents of "little emperors," as the often-pampered offspring of China's one-child families are known.

Some are worried

That does not mean this sort of elitism has achieved universal acceptance here. "Some private schools only want to make money, gain a social reputation and just serve certain noble persons," fretted a recent political commentary in a state newspaper. "How can we not worry about this?"

Added the father of a 6-year-old after visiting an expensive private school: "No, this is terrible. This is not the Chinese way."

But the often well-funded private schools contrast starkly with the dwindling resources of most Chinese public schools.

To survive, many state schools have had to set up businesses or drastically raise previously nominal fees. Teachers must moonlight. Some top urban schools -- which once accepted students only by exam -- now hold some of their much-sought seats for tuition-paying low achievers, essentially turning themselves into quasi-private schools.

The situation is most desperate in China's rural areas, where schools sometimes lack books and other basics and many students drop out early to work. Overall, only 30 percent of all children even enter high school, and just 4 percent of all high school grads go to college.

Even at the better schools, education often involves mainly rote learning. For children younger than 6, school means play rather than direct instruction. Enter Mr. Zhang, who, if nothing else, is audacious enough to espouse trying to teach 4-year-olds -- a notion just gaining hold here.

Broader horizons

An immaculately dressed 48-year-old, Mr. Zhang seems more of a salesman than an educator. He runs a dozen other businesses. But his most promising venture may be his "Enlightenment School," tucked between the former imperial palace known as the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party.

He says he started his first kindergarten in 1985, but then had to briefly close it because of political pressure. His boarding school now has about 200 pupils. Most are 6 years old or younger, but he has cut deals at two prominent state schools to teach older children.

Along the way, Mr. Zhang appears to have cultivated some high-level political support. The vice chairman of a top national political advisory body honored his school with a piece of calligraphy, and a school brochure is packed with pictures of noted artists and musicians.

But his school also seems to have drawn students because its youngest students are exposed to at least some computer work, a little English and doses of music, art and dance. They even go on trips to see other parts of China.

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