Schools of thought
Tim Culpan, TAIPEI
A storm is brewing in Taiwan between the operators of after-hours cram schools and reform-minded parent groups, with each claiming to represent students' best interests.
Trouble flared when the education ministry proposed allowing schools to offer after-hours activities. The move came after women's rights groups and education reformers lobbied the government, demanding more power to decide where to send their children.
But operators of the cram schools - known locally as buxibans - are not happy. Any move that gives parents more choice for after-school hours will inevitably hit their finances. Since cram schools began, they have become a repository for children who would otherwise be left to their own devices. Longer working hours and the greater prevalence of families where both parents work has meant that child-minding is a much sought-after service. And it has become big business.
The options, however, have been limited, so cram schools have filled the void, offering to mind children while promising to boost their English and develop academic skills. Eager to give their children the best possible start, parents signed up in droves.
But all has not been plain sailing. Ten years ago, one frustrated parent, Yin Ping, complained that she was forced to send her child to a buxiban because all the other children had made such rapid progress. In the end, she emigrated to New Zealand where the pressure was less intense. Her book about the experience, Running away to New Zealand, became required reading for parents, but still they send their children to the cram schools.
Over the past few years, however, things have been changing. Educators, parents and government officials now realise that 12-hour days for a child of any age are not a great way to start them down the road to becoming free-thinking, well-adjusted adults.
Employers complain that staff are not creative enough, while a whole generation have few memories of their childhood that do not revolve around school.
Enter the reformers. Academics worry about the children's psychological development, while parents are sick of paying for services they do not really want. Under the programme put forward by the government, children can stay at school after hours - for 20 per cent of the cost of a buxiban. They will be supervised and given assistance with homework, but formal classes and extra work will not be on the agenda.
Seeing their future in tatters, the self-styled 'supplementary-education' groups are fighting back. The ideological reforms ignore the realities of society, they say. The critique is rather predictable: parents will always want the best for their children, and competition in education is healthy for society, as it produces smarter students. In truth, the cram-school operators' arguments are pretty thin, and their only real concern is their business.
Ultimately, having been given the freedom to choose, it is the parents who will decide whether the cramming culture will continue.