Ren Yipeng has a busy schedule for a five-year-old. 'Yipeng brings back lots of homework from kindergarten, so it is usually around 11 o'clock when he goes to bed,' says his father, Ren Xingzhi.
But since the boy must be up by 7am to get ready for school, Ren says, 'I put on his clothes for him before waking him so he can get a bit more sleep.'
This year, Yipeng is expected to learn 15 new Chinese characters each day as well as the Roman alphabet, and add and subtract numbers from one to 100. His homework typically runs to four A4 pages every day, so after returning home at 4pm, he is allowed two hours of playtime. After dinner, he dives into homework.
His father, a 36-year-old construction site manager, wishes his son could finish his lessons sooner but realises it's too much to ask.
'Yipeng always wants his homework to look perfect. So whenever he is not satisfied with his handwriting, he erases it and does it again,' he says. 'When he sets a high standard for himself, it's hard for me to push him to write faster.'
Parents across the mainland are eager, if not anxious, to give their children a head start in education. And many private kindergartens, including some that operate underground, respond to this demand by cramming their classes with advanced material meant for older children.
Late last year, however, the Ministry of Education banned kindergartens giving homework and teaching primary school lessons. But the edict seems to be falling on deaf ears, including the private kindergarten that Yipeng attends.
Professor Yang Dongping, an education researcher from the Beijing Institute of Technology and critic of the mainland educational system, isn't surprised by the ban's minimal effect.
The directive follows a barrage of media criticism last year over growing study pressure on young children. Public kindergartens, which are mainly funded by the state, would be more inclined to follow the ban, 'but since 90 per cent of kindergartens in China are privately owned, the Education Ministry has little say in their daily operations', Yang says.
The 1,300-word decree from the ministry's Elementary Education Department, dated December 23, also said kindergartens and nursery schools must give pupils sufficient time for play during the school day.
The ministry also ordered primary schools to stop holding various entrance exams and interviews, and gave local education commissions three months to implement the policy. Although Yang doesn't think the schools will follow the ministry's instructions, he says 'it is a good way for the officials to make clear their stand on this issue'.
Liao Liying, a researcher from Beijing Education Science Academy, argues that a more comprehensive plan covering kindergartens and primary schools is needed to address the problem of overburdened children.
'Many primary schools rush through basic learning within one month, assuming that pupils have already learned that in kindergarten. Top primary schools also hold entrance exams to raise the bar of learning,' she says.
Still, it is significant that the curb on kindergarten homework is being issued in the wake of plans to boost funding for early childhood education, says Wang Huamin, deputy director of the early education society, who works closely with the ministry.
In its 12th five-year plan (2011-15), the central government pledged to allocate 50 billion yuan (HK$61.5 billion) on construction and renovation for 90,000 public kindergartens, which may add five million places for preschool children. By 2015, Beijing is expected to have 1,530 kindergartens, about 65 per cent of which would be state-funded. However, researchers estimate there is an equal number of underground nursery schools.
'When the government injects more money into establishing more public kindergartens, we can get them to reduce the homework load for children,' Wang says.
But in the meantime, private kindergartens continue to market themselves as institutions with higher standards by including course material intended for primary schools. Likewise, under-funded state nursery schools often seek additional fees from parents for so-called hobby classes that teach the primary school curriculum.
The surge towards 'turbo-schooling for toddlers' can seem overwhelming, but a few kindergartens are bucking the trend. Little Oak Children's House in Beijing's Chaoyang district is among them (see right). Set up in 2001, the nursery school aims to provide a relaxing environment where youngsters can learn through play. Pupils are given just one homework assignment each week.
Founder Wang Gan, a Yale University-educated anthropologist, says she launched Little Oak because she couldn't find a fun and stimulating kindergarten for her young son after they returned from the US. The school has grown steadily in the past decade despite fees that are three to four times the average. Now there is a waiting list of more than 200 to enrol in the kindergarten.
Although she views the ministry's call to stop overloading toddlers as a step forward, Wang has reservations about its plans to set up more public kindergartens.
'I believe variety is the best,' she says. 'Past examples have shown that when all education institutions become public, things don't necessarily run in the right direction.
'The government should stop allocating so much of their funds into a few key primary schools.'
She says the core issue is the uneven distribution of resources.
The competitive climate on the mainland means families are anxious to get their children into better, or more prominent schools from day one. So, even if the youngsters attend a public kindergarten where there's little homework, parents will force them to take extra classes to boost their chances of being accepted.
'I'm worried that primary school teachers may speed through lessons that they assume everyone else has already learned,' says Jessy Dai, a 33-year-old working mother from Beijing. So she has enrolled her preschool daughter in three weekend classes - accelerated Chinese, maths and drawing.
'When everyone else attends such courses, I have no other option. It's hard to buck the trend,' she says. 'But I have to say that education in China has gone wrong.'
Ren and his wife, too, hope to send their only son to a better primary school located outside their residential zone. This will require not only good results on entrance exams but also higher fees. To secure acceptance by an out-of-zone school, families often have to pay a large sum to a middleman and make a donation to the institution. The family are making inquiries.
A forum post that circulated widely earlier this year gave an indication of the fees out-of-zone pupils were expected to pay at top primary schools in the capital. Jingshan Primary School in central Beijing tops the list with a 250,000 yuan (HK$307,200) charge.
Meanwhile, Ren is laying more stepping stones for his son's success. Yipeng has been spending his weekends at a children's activity centre in Shijingshan district, which offers courses ranging from Chinese handwriting to traditional musical instruments.
Yipeng is enrolled in three courses - keyboards, go (chess), and a programme that claims to help pupils memorise 1,000 Chinese characters within three months.
'With go, he will learn how to think,' says Ren. He accompanies his son to the classes, and tries to remember the moves that the teacher is demonstrating on a board. 'I need to learn this as well so I can play with my son at home.'
Some academics may warn against putting undue stress on children, but Ren is unfazed.
'Small kids like to vie with one another on what they know,' he says in justification. 'When my son feels good about himself, he will be encouraged to learn more.
'Three weekend classes are just about right for him. It's better to learn these skills earlier than later. We cannot be lagging at the start.'Topics: Education Childhood Early Childhood Education Kindergarten