Thinking outside the box
For nine-year-old Shenzhen boy Cao Hua, school classes start at 3pm sharp - when his father, Cao Yingqiu, a professional investor, finishes monitoring the mainland's stock market online. Earlier in the day, Hua reads books and does his homework. He also takes lessons outside in chess, fencing and piano - all his own choices.
Hua is one of the mainland's swelling ranks of children being schooled at home, by their parents or by tutors their parents trust.
There is a growing community of such families in many cities, according to the China Homeschooling Association, an NGO founded in 2010 by a Zhejiang entrepreneur and father whose two children study at home.
More parents are choosing to educate their own children rather than put them through the mainland's much-criticised school system, which they claim stymies creativity and the development of personality. And, while these families form a small but determined challenge to the education system, the quality and curriculum of homeschooling is unmonitored as the country has no laws governing it.
'More than 4,000 families have been registered as members of the association, and we estimate that about 1,000 of them are currently homeschooling' its founder Xu Xuejin said in an interview with the Jiangnan City Daily. There are no exact statistics on homeschooled children on the mainland, but many parents express a similar motivation: their dislike of the current education system.
'My son attended a school for half a semester,' said Cao Yingqiu. 'He left home just after 7am and came back home when it was almost dark. You don't have to work so hard at such a young age.'
That opinion is shared by many homeschooling parents, some of whom are, surprisingly, public school teachers.
'Ranran' is a 10-year-old homeschooled girl in Shenzhen, whose parents both teach at local public schools. 'Our school education is very inefficient,' said her father, who did not want to be named. 'All classes are arranged around exams. Public schools are meat grinders on assembly lines - fresh, individual young lives are processed, homogenised, like industrial products.'
Every night after supper, Ranran discusses with her parents what she will study on her own the next day. Her father says the internet has broken teachers' monopoly on education and makes it possible for people to learn what they need, anywhere.
Not all homeschooling on the mainland is conducted at home, however. Some entrust their children to tutors or other people they know, with children seldom studying in groups larger than 10.
Ye Wanhong, a Chinese language teacher with 12 years' experience at a provincial-level public elementary school, started the June Private School last year. She has five students altogether, ranging in age from 8 to 11, including her own daughter.
Her husband, who studied in the US, also teaches English and some other courses. They rent a small apartment to conduct classes. The couple quit their previous jobs to assure the children get the best care and education.
'I hope they can study happily and freely outside the school system, not like a machine,' Ye said.
Ye said she homeschooled her daughter for a year but was concerned that she had few playmates. Ye decided to recruit more students to let them 'share love and freedom', which is also the motto of her school, which charges 30,000 yuan (HK$36,850) a year per person.
For the curriculum, Ye chose a series of books that she says includes, for Chinese classes, some of the best Chinese-language literature for children, translations from abroad and some easy literary works. English classes pay more attention to speaking the language and listening to it.
But the school day is not just class work. 'We take the kids running, rope skipping or even swimming to take full advantage of sports facilities in our neighbourhood,' Ye said. 'We make sure that they have at least an hour's exercise every day.'
Some similar-sized home schools hire one or two foreign tutors to give the children a taste of American or British-style schooling. Other mini schools have opened in remote villages which eschew the traditional education system, focusing more on being close to nature and respecting children's self development. However, parents at these schools do not teach the children.
Although many case studies claim that homeschooled children often achieve better results than children in regular schools, how homeschooled children are appraised remains an issue. Some go back to school to take exams, while others are assessed in different ways.
Cao Yingqiu tests his son from quizzes provided in workbooks and other supplementary material for textbooks, and is confident that Hua is far ahead of his public school peers.
Ye said each child at her mini school was assessed according to their individual learning programme. She refused to compare her student's performance with conventional school students as they studied quite different things. But she was also confident in her students' abilities and said ultimately their academic performance would be superior.
Educator Xiong Bingwen, on the other hand, fears some parents are not qualified to teach their children. Worse, he said, some children were at the risk of being deprived a proper education, as the country has no way at present of monitoring homeschooling.
Another controversial issue is the perceived lack of socialisation for homeschooled children. In his Jiangnan City Daily interview, Xu said that closer interaction with parents and siblings fostered a child's self-confidence and self-respect, and was the foundation to developing sound social skills. Homeschooled children were more likely to interact with people of all ages, said Ranran's father.
On the China Homeschooling Association's website, members' forums have been set up according to provinces or cities. Some members plan to set up study stations in other major cities to allow homeschooled children to study away from their home towns for a while.
Ye and Cao say they hold no fears for homeschooled children. Ye says the nine-year compulsory education system guarantees a child's right to return to conventional schooling at any time. 'Homeschooled children, after years of individualised education, will have an ability to adapt to any school,' she said.
Cao Yingqiu said: 'What is important is that they have truly acquired their knowledge, they have experienced quality education, and they are happy.'
However, some experts said homeschooling contravenes the compulsory education law, which requires parents to send their children to schools.
Xiong Bingqi , vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a non-profit organisation based in Beijing that conducts research in the field of education policy, has called on the government to officially legalise homeschooling. He said the government should acknowledge homeschooling families and establish standards.
'We need laws to guarantee these families' rights and oversee their practice,' Xiong said. 'What is needed first is to define homeschooling in China, and whether small-scale schools belong to homeschooling or not,' he said.
The government should also find ways to determine whether the parents are qualified for home-teaching and provide them with more services, Xiong added.
Number of homeschooled children in the US in 2007, according to the Education Department
- They accounted for 3.4% of all pupils