International schools in Hong Kong

Mainland mums keen for children to have happy kindergarten days

Many mainland parents are keen for their children to enjoy their early schooling and dig deep to send them to international kindergartens

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:47pm

In his second week at one of Beijing's leading public kindergartens, three-year-old Yue Yue was instructed to place both hands on his lap and keep his legs pressed together as he sat on his chair.

Whenever he stood up, he was told, the leg of his chair had to be pressed to that of the table. He was assigned a corner of a table and a bunk, and ordered to speak only when allowed.

The contrast could not have been starker at the Ivy Academy, a plush international kindergarten in downtown Beijing.

Some children sat on the floor, others on a sofa while their American teacher, Jeff, showed them how to draw a bat based on the shape of their hands. Pupils were not afraid to talk to their teachers.

Later, when a girl crawled around the classroom on all fours, her teacher simply laughed and said "she thought she was a cat" instead of scolding her.

While most mainlanders wrack their brains to work out how to squeeze their offspring into one of the handful of precious spots at public kindergartens, wealth Beijingers are digging deep to pay for spots at international kindergartens that can cost more than the tuition fees at a university.

Thanks to small classes, the native English speakers who teach there can give more attention to each child, while the academic pressure seen in public kindergartens is non-existent.

It's a situation not unlike that in Hong Kong, where parents, distrustful of a public system that piles on the pressure to get top exam results, are prepared to shell out for an alternative.

In spite of the pricey tuition fees of 140,000 yuan (HK$172,800) per year for the international programme and 80,000 yuan per year for the bilingual programme, the kindergarten has seen steady growth in enrolments of children from Chinese families, who now represent 30 per cent of all pupils.

While parents in Hong Kong have long complained about the soaring cost of an international education, kindergarten fees in the capital now exceed them. For example, the English Schools Foundation's Abacus International Kindergarten in Clear Water Bay, charges HK$5,430 per month for 10 months.

Judy Townsend, head of the Montessori School of Shanghai, is upbeat about the market because of a baby boom. "What we anticipate is that the boom of kindergartens will continue until 2018. We are looking for various places to expand," she said.

Irene Ning, whose two daughters both attend the Ivy Academy, said she chose the expensive, private kindergarten so her children could have a relaxed childhood. "They teach too much stuff in public kindergartens and the pressure is huge, not only on children but also on parents," Ning said.

Even though the price tag is much higher than at a public kindergarten, with fees of about 1,000 yuan per month for a top public kindergarten in Beijing, many more-affluent middle class families like Ning's are happy to pay to be free of concern.

"Many parents come from the Chinese public system and they want to give their children something different," said Ivy Academy director Ryan Cardwell. "Children learn fast when they are happy and comfortable and slowly when they are scared and afraid to make mistakes."

Liu Jing , 32, had secured a spot for her son, who is now four years old, at a top public kindergarten in Beijing, but an interview there prompted her to put her son in Etonkids Bilingual Kindergarten even though she thinks the tuition fee of 9,000 yuan a month is too expensive.

"I went there [the Chinese kindergarten] for the interview and it felt terrible," Liu said. "The teacher was very strict and yelled at the children. The children were still crying when they came out of the interview minutes later."

Liu said teachers seemed to be "managing" children like they were factory workers.

"I could foresee the pupils there would be very obedient. But I want a place which cares about my boy's emotions," Liu said. "I think kindergarten is a place where you nurture your character, become confident, learn high self-esteem and develop good habits. For that I am willing to pay more."

Gao Ying , a full-time housewife in Shanghai, paid 100,000 yuan a year for her daughter's studies at the Montessori School of Shanghai after a year in a public kindergarten, where the girl was unhappy.

"She asked me to pick her up early every day. I went to their open class several times and found shy pupils like my daughter didn't receive much attention and the teacher seldom asked her questions. It did nothing to build her confidence," Gao said.

Jack Hsu, CEO of the Ivy Group which runs 13 kindergartens across the country, said: "We encourage imagination and confidence and children can achieve if they want to. They are taught to find a way and make a difference. "We also pay attention to personal development. We issue reports on personal development each week, month and semester."

While public schools have little choice but to emphasise discipline because they usually have big class sizes, the Ivy Academy's classes have just 15 children with three teachers, two native English speakers and a local.

Xiao Rong , campus principal of Etonkids Bilingual Kindergarten's Central Park campus, said the appeal of exposing children to the English language and foreign cultures had added to the international kindergartens' popularity.

"Parents on the mainland are keen to have their children study a second language in the period when they are sensitive to language," Xiao said. "In the age of globalisation they hope language will not become a barrier to their development."

Many parents also liked the diverse nature of the classes, and wanted their children to spend time with counterparts from different countries, she said.

Gao Xia , a researcher with the National Institute of Education Science, believes the growth of private kindergartens offers parents more choices.

The country's national education system only provided major funding for public kindergartens, private ones had to raise their own funds, she said. Facilities, qualified teachers and rent were all costly, so private kindergartens were forced to be profit-driven. Eventually costs would be passed on to parents, she said.

But Gao said while overseas concepts of education and teaching methods were more humane and encouraging individual attention, as happened at private kindergartens, was good, it did not in itself warrant higher fees.

"Parents who lack professional knowledge of education will choose kindergartens like choosing a commodity, believing high charges equal good education," Gao said.

But whether a kindergarten is public or private, expensive or cheap, is not in itself enough to judge its quality. A simple way to see if it suits a child is to see whether or not the child enjoys going to school.

Parents also need to assess whether the pupils have enough outdoor exercise and enjoy enough sunshine, as well as the communication among children and teachers.

Hsu, of the Ivy Group, advises parents to find out whether kindergartens that call themselves bilingual or international hire full-time native English speakers or just outsource them from talent agencies, because the latter would not guarantee they would spend enough time with children. Parents should also make sure the teachers all have proper teaching credentials.