Learning curve

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 May, 2003, 12:00am

Question: Why are cram schools - which intensively prepare youngsters for prestigious junior high schools' entrance exams - flourishing again, even though there are fewer children in Japan and parents are still suffering economic malaise?

Answer: Because of Japan's new education policy which promotes a 'lighter' curriculum for students aged six to 15.

Many education experts point to this paradox to explain the upturn of the cram-school industry.

Last year, Japan implemented its new yutori (more relaxed) education policy, which aims to shift the emphasis from heavy workloads and competition to creativity and a less strict approach.

The curriculum was deregulated, the minimum academic requirements were reduced by 30 per cent at primary and junior high schools, and the school week was reduced from 5 1/2 to five days. The reform was implemented to avoid 'exam hell' and promote creativity and student initiatives.

For example, under the new guidelines, children are allowed to use calculators, rather than having to do four-digit sums in their head. And the number of Chinese characters or English words that have to be memorised has been drastically cut at each stage.

Rather unexpectedly, the reforms stirred national debate over the academic competence of Japan's children. Critics claimed the government was letting standards go down the drain.

Even Education Minister Atsuko Toyama, in a statement last year, emphasised the importance of building academic prowess.

Many university professors have complained for years about the poor academic performance of new students. One claimed that two in 10 humanities students could not deal with fractions, while science professors say many do not even know the basics of biology or physics.

It was natural that these concerns would spread quickly to parents. Three out of four said they feared academic competence would be lowered under the new policy, according to a survey by a national umbrella organisation of Parent Teacher Associations.

Many of those parents have chosen to enrol their children in grammar schools at the age of six or private junior high schools at 12, believing that teachers there can impose higher standards of learning and provide a passport to a better future.

In response to parents' concerns, cram schools waged a campaign, the 2002 problem, which was taken up by the media.

The cram-school market is now worth 973 billion yen (HK$64 billion), and 21 major cram schools have seen profits rise 4.8 per cent for the past four years, says the Daiwa Institute of Research.

Parents are also willing to pay for private tutoring, so their child gets individual schooling, rather than being part of a class of 20. But such tutoring can cost up to 500,000 yen per child.

'It is worth it,' said the mother of a boy who last month enrolled in a prestigious junior high school affiliated to Keio University. His parents have spent about 2 million yen in the past three years on cram-school classes and tutors. 'We can live peacefully for the next 10 years without worrying about academic competence,' she said.

It seems that yutori is fine - as long as you can afford to pay for cram schools as well.