Parents 'pull out all stops' to enrol children in top primary schools

This year 30,000 more Shanghai children than last year will enrol in primary school, making competition for top institutions even tougher

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:49pm

Shanghai mother Serena Lin was relieved when her six-year-old son, nicknamed Dian Dian, last month was accepted into the Yangpu Primary School, a top institution in the district where they live.

"We started the process of getting my son ready to be enrolled in this ideal school a long time ago and we have endured plenty of difficulties," she said. "Now my boy has been selected and all our efforts and anxieties have paid off. I am so proud of my son!"

To ensure Dian Dian would outperform other children when the time came for the all-important application interview conducted by the school, Lin enrolled him in two years of English classes and drilled him in the ability to recognise 3,000 Chinese characters.

She even bought a piano and signed her son up for lessons.

That wasn't all.

Dian Dian also spent five five months attending the Golden Sun Learning House, one of dozens of private institutions that have mushroomed in Shanghai in recent years to prepare kindergarten children for primary school life.

At Golden Sun Learning, Dian Dian attended three 45-minute classes every Sunday morning, learning pinyin, English and mathematics.

Lin admitted she had even tried to bribe education officials, but the officials she approached were not senior enough to get her son into a top school.

Lin is just one of the tens of thousands of parents in Shanghai who pull out all stops to secure places for their children in top public or private primary schools.

They know the names of the top schools by heart and spend hours in online discussions to learn enrolment tips.

Some even stage interview rehearsals with their children, based on questions or tests found on the internet.

Many say their nerves are on edge for months before the school interviews.

A child in Shanghai can be admitted to a public primary school without any entry test if their hukou (residential registration) is in the area where the school is based, or if their family has bought or rented a house in the area.

Consequently, property prices near top public schools have skyrocketed, with the Shanghai Morning Post reporting that some "school-district houses" are selling for at least 70,000 yuan (HK$88,000) a square metre.

Meanwhile, top privately run primary schools, charging around 10,000 yuan a semester, accept applications from any child, regardless of their hukou or property ownership.

Parents covet such prestigious schools, believing they have the best teachers and extracurricular activities and chance of entry into top middle schools.

Some top private primary schools have as many as 40 applicants for each vacancy.

This year there will be 166,000 children enrolling for their first year of study at Shanghai primary schools, about 30,000 more than in the past two years, making competition for places even fiercer. Needless to say, a lot of parents end up disappointed.

Ni Kun was dismayed after her son, nicknamed Ka Ka, failed to pass interviews at three top foreign language primary schools. Now his only choice is an ordinary public school near his Minhang district home.

"I don't like that school," Ni said. "We call that kind of public school a 'wet market school' because they enrol many kids whose parents work in wet markets.

"I am worried about the environment in that school, but I have to accept the result and I don't have the ability to change it."

She said Ka Ka, who will turn six next month, had probably failed the interviews because he was shy and not good at mathematics.

In the interviews, children are asked to do addition and subtraction involving numbers below 100, answer questions in English and follow teachers in sports exercises.

Qiao Lingling, a white-collar worker living in Shanghai's Songjiang district, said she started grooming her daughter, Bei Bei, for entry into a top primary school two years ago when she started kindergarten.

Bei Bei, who won't start primary school until September next year, spends an hour a night learning mathematics from her father and another hour learning Chinese and English from her mother.

"I think my daughter is happy with the arrangement," Qiao said. "I am confident that my daughter can go to the target school next year."

She admits feeling guilty about not letting Bei Bei spend more time playing, but added: "If a child is not enrolled by a top school, it's impossible for them to go to a key middle school, and then it's not possible to attend a first-class university."

Han Xiaoyan , a sociologist from East China Normal University, said parents felt helpless in these situations.

"We can't criticise these parents because all parents want to provide the best education for their children and in China each couple has only one child," Han said. "We should ponder what's wrong with our education system and what is wrong with our society."

Wu Zunmin, an education expert at East China Normal University, said schools only focused on academic knowledge and neglected to educate children in areas such as social responsibility and ensuring they had a good personality.

An official from Shanghai's Hongkou District Education Bureau said the strong competition for admission to top schools was the result of imbalances in the distribution of educational resources.

The official, who declined to be named, said primary school education was compulsory so the government had to ensure that every child could attend a public school.

"What parents and their children compete for is the limited number of top schools and this competition is white-hot each year," he said.

He said education authorities had been introducing measures to try to make public schools more equal, including sending experienced teachers from top schools to public schools where they instruct other teachers.

Education expert Wu said it was not a good idea to let kindergarten pupils learn what they should be taught in primary school. This could see them "lose interest in studying and quite possibly will lose out to latecomers several years later".

"What parents are doing is like trying to help shoots grow by pulling them upwards," he said.