Should parents be allowed to educate their children at home?
A legal loophole has opened the way for an increasing number of mainland parents who are disillusioned with the education system, amid more and more reports of child abuse in schools, to follow a controversial overseas practice.
Subject to regulations, homeschooling is legal not only in many Western countries including Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States, but also in Asian nations such as India and Indonesia as an alternative to the conventional school system.
Chinese law does not allow for homeschooling. The Compulsory Education Law, promulgated in 1986, mandates nine years of education for all children at registered schools, whether public or private.
Homeschooling beyond kindergarten is, in theory, illegal. But official oversight has allowed more parents to teach their children at home or send them to home schools run by like-minded parents or private tutors.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, a Beijing-based research institute found in a recent survey that, of the 18,000 parents who had expressed interest in homeschooling, about 2,000 had already begun the practice. The majority cited dissatisfaction with the rigid pedagogy of traditional schools as the main reason, followed by a slow pace of lessons, lack of respect for children, their aversion to school life, and religious factors.
Homeschooling might also be fuelled by a lack of legal protection of minors. In addition to a string of recent revelations of sexual abuse in schools, a culture of corporal punishment among teachers has prompted more parents to consider alternative schooling. In 2012, several high-profile cases of "eye-pulling" and other incidents in kindergartens across Hubei , Zhejiang and Shanxi provinces triggered a public outcry and heightened calls for tougher laws.
At present, child abuse is not an offence under the mainland Criminal Law. The offence of "abuse" applies only to family members without specific provisions for children. Hence, teachers found to have abused their pupils might instead be charged with "provoking a disturbance", an offence punishable with up to five years in prison.
Alternatively, one may stand trial for "harming one's dignity and reputation through violence or other means", which carries a prison term of up to three years. But it requires the victims to first file a lawsuit.
More controversially, child-sex offenders are often charged with "soliciting sex from under-age girls" instead of the far more serious charge of rape.
For now, more than 48 per cent of the parents surveyed were optimistic about the prospect of homeschooling on the mainland. But whether this can go beyond a fad remains a question. For example, homeschooled children are unable to acquire certificates issued by registered schools - a must for those preparing to sit national university entrance examinations, or the gaokao.
It is also uncertain whether homeschooling will be tolerated for long. On December 23, the Communist Party's Central Committee gave its latest instructions on ideological education. According to the guidelines, "core socialist values" should be incorporated into the national curriculum and "cover all schools and those receiving education".
If the education law is enforced seriously amid a tightened ideological climate, the days when children can learn in the comfort of their own homes may be numbered.
Dr Karen Lee is an assistant professor with the Hong Kong Institute of Education's Department of Social Sciences