One week after Zhang Qiaofeng launches the school that he runs from home, he hosts an open day. A dozen families turn up with their children at his rented flat in Beijing's northern suburbs. The visitors include Zhang Wujun, his wife and their seven-year-old son Yuyang. They took a train all the way from Qinhuangdao, a port city 420 kilometres away, to be here.
"We admire his teaching philosophy, especially the way he encourages his son to read extensively outside class," says Zhang Wujun.
While the family browse shelves filled with children's books in the living room, another visitor, from Chengdu in Sichuan, chats with the host. "We have spoken several times over the phone," says the woman, who goes by the name Star's Mum on Zhang's chatroom at qq.com "We have the same dissatisfaction with the ability of the teachers and the same distaste for the current educational practice at schools."
Most parents who have come this morning got to know Zhang through his online forum, which lists more than 100 members. They represent a growing number of mainland parents who have become frustrated with the mainland's examination-based, rigid school system, and are seeking alternatives for their children. While most were mulling over their education options, Zhang Qiaofeng took a bold step a year ago and pulled his son out of school and began teaching him at home. Now he's opening his home-school to other children.
Zhang's son, Hongwu, became the centre of his world after his marriage collapsed four years ago. So when the boy reached school age last year, he sent him to a private boarding school known for its English-language programme. He paid 40,000 yuan (HK$48,900) in annual fees.
Hongwu was just three weeks into his first term last September when his father began noticing changes in the six-year-old boy. "One Friday, when I picked him up from the boarding school, I did not see the happy and active kid of mine," Zhang recalls. "He had become quiet and withdrawn."
He was also worried because the school required a heavy study load and had a rigid timetable. He especially disliked the fact that children were not allowed into the playground after 6pm, and were locked in their dormitories. Hoping to establish better communications with the teachers, he went to the school and offered to volunteer, but they would have nothing of it. "Whenever they held a parents' meeting, the teacher always did all the talking, and there was no time for us to have our say. I was completely disappointed," he says.
The private school, he realised, was no better than the public institutions. In some ways, it was actually worse. Furious, he took his son home and began teaching himself, confident he could do a far better job than conventional schools. He set up a daily schedule of five 45-minute classes teaching Chinese, English and maths. After 3pm, it was time for play or hobby classes. Father and son spent some afternoons playing soccer in the park together.
Zhang went online to find teaching materials and children's books for his son's after-class reading. He mistrusted the national curriculum, particularly the Chinese-language syllabus. "In the Year One textbook, there is a line, 'We are the flowers of the motherland'. I understand they are trying to teach patriotism. But it is an inadequate analogy to refer to the children as flowers, especially the boys," he says. "It's time to stop planting these fake, meaningless and harmful values in our children."
To teach English, he used stories and songs, instead of focusing on grammar and vocabulary. "I'm not trained as a teacher, but I have the instinct of a parent," he says. "The drilling at school is stupid and carried out at the cost of the children's healthy development."
Before the summer holiday, he assessed his son using test scripts from a popular series of work books called Huanggang's No 1 Scholar. It was gratifying, Zhang says, to find the boy did well in all subjects. He reached Year Three level in English, and scored more than 95 marks for Chinese and maths. "I now believe I have done the right thing by taking him out of the school," he says.
This summer, at the suggestion of friends, Zhang decided to take in students and run a school from home. He and his son worked together to design a logo for the school, which they named Dragon Academy, after the mythical creature associated with wisdom, power and longevity in Chinese culture.
A blog he posted describing his experiences in home-schooling provided publicity. Called "Break free from the system's barrier, Fly high in the blue sky of freedom", the article drew heated discussion from parents online, as well as media interest. More than 30 parents called to inquire about Dragon Academy.
A couple from Yulin in Guangxi flew up to visit him in July, with their six-year-old son. The boy attended a local school for six months and apparently hated it so much his parents had let him stay at home. After spending three days with Zhang and Hongwu, the parents were ready to leave their son's education to him. They paid 60,000 yuan for a year's tuition and accommodation for their son. Zhang had his first paying student. "In the past year, we have lived on my savings, and the tuition from students can help my financial situation," Zhang says.
Zhang has no teaching qualifications, but he believes his experience as a single parent helps him understand the children's needs better than a teacher. That he graduated from the prestigious Peking University has proved a draw for many parents. "I'm confident of my ability to teach at primary school and junior high levels," he says. "For senior high school, students may choose to attend an international school here or be taught by subject tutors I hire."
In the following weeks, two more families in Beijing also decided to send their boys to Zhang's class. Although short of the eight pupils he expected, Zhang reckons it's a good start. He renewed the lease on his two-bedroom flat, ordered new bunk beds, hired a domestic helper and installed webcams for parents who wanted to monitor their children's daily activities. Meanwhile, he has applied to register Dragon Academy as a company; it's easier than registering it as a school, he says.
Private schools face restrictions. Among other conditions, regulations for non-degree private education agencies, issued by the Beijing Municipal Education Commission in 2007, stipulate: the director of the facility must have at least five years' relevant teaching experience; the premises must be no less than 500 square metres; and residential apartments should not be used as school premises.
So before launching his home-run classes, Zhang paid 2,000 yuan for each of his four pupils to be registered at a local public school on the proviso that they will sit all major exams to maintain a school record.
"Having a school ID is important. If their parents' finances change, and they are unable to afford home-run private education, they can still go back to any school," he says.
But other parents have a less rosy view of home-schooling. Zhang Yunfu, a 42-year-old early education administrator from Harbin, made an attempt but soon realised it was beyond his capability. It pained him and his wife to see their 12-year-old daughter weighed down by onerous schoolwork. So when he was transferred to Beijing a year ago, he applied to her school in Harbin to allow her to join him temporarily. "I could not tell the school that we were unhappy with the pressure they gave the kids."
In the capital, he quietly hired tutors to coach his daughter in English, her favourite subject, as well as maths, her weakest. She pursued other subjects on her own. But when his daughter returned to Harbin to sit for school exams, the results were very disappointing.
Although she did well in English, she stumbled at maths. That was when Zhang learned that schools outside Beijing sometimes teach advanced material to give students an edge in gaining entry to universities in the capital.
"After a year of home-schooling, we decided to send our daughter back to school. [Home-schooling] does not suit us," Zhang says. "Both my wife and I need to work, so our daughter is then left at home by herself most of the time."
Home-schooling on the mainland exists in a grey area - one that Zhang Qiaofeng is aware of. "The authorities do not officially acknowledge your existence, but they do not bother you so long as you do not cause them trouble," he says.
Many scholars point out that under article 14 of the Compulsory Education Law, people who carry out education activities on their own should "seek permission from the education administration at the county level".
This leaves the door open for home-schooling, and the practice may well gain legitimacy if it is updated in the future.
"The Compulsory Education Law requires all children to receive nine years' education, but it does not say that they must all go to schools," says Liu Yunshan, a researcher at the Graduate School of Education at Peking University. "Home-schooling has value; we need to respect and protect its existence."
Nonetheless, Liu foresees that the surge in home-schooling will probably be limited to a small group of families. "Parents cannot afford the time and money, and few are academically capable of carrying it out. Besides, home-schooling has disadvantages. For some classes such as sports, arts and scientific experiments, it's better for the kids to attend a school."
Guan Li, who has a four-year-old son, concurs. Guan isn't prepared to take the risk of home-schooling.
"Public schools are still the most economical choice for most parents. Our kids need to learn the rules of the game for their future survival in society. Public schools are also getting better at attending to the needs of our children," she says.
"But I'm really impressed by Zhang's tireless attention to the kids. For a single dad, this is unimaginable. I will not send my son to his school, but we will join his boys' club at the weekend."