Escaping a failing system
Welshman Mark Kitto is pulling his children out of a mainland school because it is too strict and regimented, Kate Whitehead and Linda Yeung report
Mark Kitto has made China his home for the past 16 years, but he has decided to call it quits.
The Welshman has had more adventures than most on the mainland - it's not every expat that gets accused of being a spy and a Muslim separatist terrorist. But that is not why he is moving his family to Britain - the deciding factor is his children's education.
"It's the last straw," says Kitto. "I tell that to my Chinese friends and they understand that. Because if they could, they'd leave, too. Those that can [afford it] send their children to international schools."
That does not sound very different from the situation in Hong Kong, except that mainland schools are not quite in the same league.
Think 12-hour school days with meals - lunch and dinner - eaten by pupils at their desks in the classroom. A system where homework largely consists of practice test papers studied over the weekend, where scoring under 95 per cent is considered a failure and those with bad grades are punished. And that's just primary school.
For seven years Kitto - a former Welsh Guardsman and metals trader, and for several years a media mogul - has lived in Moganshan, a peaceful mountain retreat 2½ hours outside Shanghai. He first moved there in 2005 with his Chinese wife Joanna and two children.
They were looking for a little respite after Kitto's losing battle with the government for ownership of his That's publishing empire, comprising entertainment-listings magazines for Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. He had to give up all this to his local business partner in 2004.
After moving to Moganshan, the couple were disappointed to find there were no international schools. So their daughter Isabel and son Tristan ended up attending local schools when they were old enough.
"When I asked friends about which school to send the kids to, I should have asked which was the worst school. They might have had a bit of sports because those schools don't care so much about results," says Kitto, who ran a cosy hikers' lodge in Moganshan with his wife.
The lack of sports is a particular concern because Isabel, now 10, is very athletic. She is also a good singer and dancer - talents that are overlooked in the school system.
Instead, his children start lessons at 7am and finish at 7pm in the same classroom all day. It is no surprise that half the students are boarders.
"I see children walking to school at 7am on a Sunday for extra lessons. At middle school, they will finish at 9pm or they will go home and do more homework until bedtime. They have no free time," Kitto says.
The son of his good friend even likens middle school to a prison.
Kitto, who read Chinese at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, is no stranger to the hard grind of studying, but he says imposing this on young children makes no sense.
He sees the education system as being little more than a test centre where students learn to pass exams.
"The government doesn't want free-thinking, creative people. They want everyone to be obedient little citizens who don't ask questions. There's no thinking outside the box. They want them all in the box with the lid shut tight," he says.
Kitto was horrified by reports last year of students in Hubei province hooked up to intravenous drips as they studied for their exams.
The consensus among those who have gone through China's schools - including his mainland-educated wife - is that it is getting stricter and more regimented. "The government is getting more and more paranoid. They want to keep young people off the streets. They don't want them out and about, talking, having fun, spraying graffiti or whatever. Social stability above all else," Kitto says.
Academically, mainland students in first-tier cities have indeed shown remarkable results. Shanghai ranked first in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009. It assessed the reading, maths and scientific skills of 15-year-olds.
Professor Fan Xianzuo, of Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei, lauds mainland students for their diligence. But he also acknowledges the immense pressure they suffer under a very competitive system and parents with high expectations - which hamper their personal growth.
"As China's economy grows and, under the one-child policy, parents want their children to excel academically, get into a top university and then land a good job. But there is not enough supply of good primary and middle schools. That is why it is common for schools to run extra classes.
"There is not enough room for the development of personality," he says. "Some students are actually having psychological problems."
Education authorities are beginning to be aware of the issue and have made efforts to foster whole-person development. Still, Fan says the exam-oriented system is hard to change.
This is why Kitto is moving his children out. In September, Isabel will start school in Norfolk in eastern England, where Kitto plans to start a business. Before that, Kitto plans to pull his children out of school in May or June for a road trip to Xinjiang.
"We're going to set up a tent in the grasslands and I'm going to sit there and teach them so they're ready for school in England," he says. "I think the kids are going to have the most wonderful time."