Parents, professors doubt party's renewed pledge to end elite schools

Institutions that cater to the rich and powerful thrive despite a legal ban. But parents wonder if leaders can finally bring equity to the system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 4:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 4:02am

Tang Wanyuan, the father of a sixth grader in Beijing, is sceptical of the Communist Party's pledge to stamp out privilege in the public education system and stop the spread of elite schools that cater to the rich and powerful.

The schools would continue to exist, Tang predicted, and parents would continue to resent them while coveting a spot for their own children. What the government should have done, Tang said, was to push for the enrolment process to be made more transparent, so average parents had a chance for their children to attend, he said.

The party has put a renewed focus on equitable education. In a document issued after its recent third plenum, the party's Central Committee said education authorities could not designate schools or classes as elite. Such a ban already exists - it was added to the Education Law in 2006 - but it has been poorly enforced.

The plenum document seems to recognise the growing public dissatisfaction with the current system.

"These schools are almost certain to continue operating the way they have, only under a different name such as 'model schools' or 'schools with special characteristics'," Tang said.

He is more concerned about whether his son will attend a good middle school, as standards of teaching vary widely.

"If anything, parents want transparency over enrolments at elite schools. That way we'll know what chance, if any, we stand of having our children admitted. Parents want policies that don't cause more stress for us," he said.

As part of its effort to reform education, the Central Committee said primary and middle school principals and teachers would be rotated to different schools to ensure consistency in the quality of instruction.

Under mainland law, primary school and the first three years of middle school are free.

Yet the demand for elite-school places is so high they can cost parents a one-off fee of 250,000 yuan (HK$316,000) or more via shady deals that secure "rights" to choose a school, according to an independent study led by Beijing educator Wen Feng.

Professor Chu Zhaohui , a research fellow at the National Institute of Education Sciences, said the party took the unusual step of stressing the ban because worsening inequality in access to schooling threatened the party's aspirations for "a harmonious society". However, Chu said education authorities at the municipal and township level were to blame for the phenomenon because they often granted elite schools a disproportionate share of funding for facilities, equipment and experienced teachers, often at the expense of other public schools.

"If authorities are serious about rectifying this inequality, then they should just stop favouring elite schools with public funds," Chu said.

Beijing Institute of Technology Professor Yang Dongping said the schools were keen to retain their status by reserving places for pupils from elite families, such as the grandchildren of Politburo members.

As a result, many regional education authorities had failed to abolish the elite school system, despite earlier promises, Yang said. "What authorities have said is one thing and how they're going to deliver on their promises is another," he said.

Wang Xiong, a senior history teacher from the elite Yangzhou Middle School in Jiangsu province, shared Tang's general wariness about the proposed reforms. He wondered how effectively education authorities could carry out the initiatives given the policy's lack of detail.

Wang said a ban on elite classes could end up harming those pupils who, no matter their family's status, truly needed a classroom environment that demanded more of them. The rotation of school principals and teachers would have a limited effect on improving equality, he predicted.

It remained to be seen whether teachers would rotate across schools within a district or the whole city, and how the system would be managed.

"Principals and we teachers are not at the core of the problem," Wang said.

"In fact, it seems that we've been denied a say in such important issues."