Why China’s kindergartens have a problem with abuse claims

The rapidly growing sector is struggling to recruit and train enough teachers while ingrained cultural attitudes mean physical punishment is tolerated

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 December, 2017, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 1:39pm

These are boom times for the Chinese kindergarten sector.

Despite fees that are nearly double the average worker’s monthly salary, parents scramble to secure a place for their child at upmarket institutions in post-one-child-policy China.

But the private sector has also been dogged by abuse scandals. In Beijing, allegations of mistreatment have been directed against a chain owned by US-listed RYB Education, while in Shanghai, video surveillance footage allegedly showed abuse at a staff nursery for travel website Ctrip. Both incidents are under police investigation.

Experts say the sector is being undermined by a combination of poorly trained and unlicensed teachers, and lenient punishment and traditional attitudes that turn a blind eye towards, or even encourage, corporal punishment.

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The issue came to a head last week when vice-minister of education Tian Xuejun said the state authorities were considering new legislation on preschool education to guarantee the sound management of such institutions.

“We are doing research into the legislation,” he said. “We will strengthen the oversight of kindergarten teachers’ ethics and will strictly check teachers’ licences when they are recruited.”

The authorities were also planning to issue a code of conduct for teachers and to improve their “awareness on the rule of law and red lines”, he said.

The problems in the industry were highlighted in a report released by Beijing-based firm Zhi Yan Consultancy last year which found that teachers at China’s kindergartens were generally badly educated and a high proportion of them did not have a professional licence.

While the number of kindergartens across the country had grown rapidly over the past decade, it still was not enough to meet the strong demand caused by the loosening of China’s family planning rules, the report said.

About 17 million babies were born on the mainland every year over the past decade and this number is expected to jump by between 1.6 million and 6 million as a result of the universal two-child policy that was introduced at the start of last year.

“The increased population has boosted demand for the early education market,” the report said. “The imbalance between supply and demand is obvious.”

In the rush to fill this market gap, many kindergartens spent months or years operating without a licence, Legal Daily reported in May, due to the time-consuming licensing process.

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Monthly fees in privately run kindergartens in Shanghai’s downtown districts have generally increased at a double-digit rate or even doubled over the past two years.

Most of these kindergartens charge 3,000-4,000 yuan (US$455-600) a month for a child, while tuition at some high-end institutions offering bilingual education is more than 10,000 yuan. The average monthly average salary in Shanghai is 6,500 yuan.

The upmarket kindergartens are so popular among the middle-class families that securing a place has become increasingly competitive and each kindergarten has a long waiting list.

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However, staffing levels fall short of the teacher-child ratio in advanced countries, which is between 1:5 and 1:10, as well as China’s goal of 1:5-1:7, according to the Zhi Yan Consultancy report. It did not list the present ratio, but several parents told the South China Morning Post that in some institutions, one teacher was responsible for 20 or more children.

A teacher with more than 10 years’ experience at a publicly run kindergarten in a city in Jiangxi said her institution constantly faced staff shortages and had to recruit new teachers each semester.

These teachers’ qualifications varied widely and some had questionable intentions and ethics, said the teacher, who asked not to be named. However, she said the most of the teachers she encountered were responsible people.

“They will also undergo volatile emotions, get sick, feel pressured or complain about low salaries, but in the end they will adjust their minds and work with [a good] conscience.”

Another teacher, Zuo Ying, said scandals like the RYB incident had damaged the reputation of the industry. She said her publicly run Shanghai kindergarten received random inspections and operated according to clear regulations.

“As a Chinese saying goes, one piece of rat’s faeces ruins a pot of soup.”

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While new legislation may improve training and recruitment practices for teachers, some experts say attitudes need to change more broadly within society to prevent abuse and mistreatment.

Tong Xiaojun, from the China Youth University of Political Studies, who has been researching child protection for years, said abuse in mainland kindergartens was due to a mindset widely accepted in society that adults can use methods they themselves deem appropriate, like beating, scolding and emotional abuse or “cold violence” to control or educate children.

“This behaviour does no do good for children’s development, but many parents and teachers do this,” Tong said.

“People think it’s fine and never realise that beating or scolding children – which maybe would not cause serious injuries – is also damaging them.”

She said these “not-serious” behaviours were prevalent in China and part of a “continuous spectrum” of harmful actions against children.

To end child abuse, Tong urged all institutions dealing with juveniles to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on any form of harm directed at children.

“This is the red line that kindergartens should not violate,” she said. “But I am afraid teachers and parents are not aware of this issue.”

While some countries frown on or expressly forbid parents from beating their offspring, many Chinese people still believe in the dictum “spare the rod, spoil the child”.

Nor is corporal punishment explicitly banned in schools, unlike in most Western countries.

Instead China had a Juvenile Protection Law, but its clauses were not easy to implement, Tong said.

In many cases the question of whether physical punishment is acceptable depends on how the law is interpreted.

“The law forbids child abuse, but what’s the definition of child abuse? In many people’s eyes, it refers to behaviour with very serious results,” she said.

Even in cases of sexual abuse, the punishment for the crime was not tough enough to deter criminals, Tong said.

“In some child sexual harassment [cases], the sentences for criminals are lenient,” Tong said. “I think it is partly responsible for the emergence of these crimes.”

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Beijing Normal University law professor Song Yinghui echoed these sentiments in a report in Thepaper.cn. He was quoted as saying that the maximum three-year jail sentence for abusing children, the elderly, the sick and disabled stipulated in criminal law was light.

“There should be a separate clause for child abuse. Children are not able to explicitly express their problems and are not able to protect themselves,” he was quoted as saying.

“As long as there are assaults against children – whether abuse or molestation, no matter how serious it is – the behaviour should be regarded as malign.”

For Chinese parents, misdemeanours by teachers like hitting children’s hands, pinching their ears or ordering them to stand for a long time are neither surprising nor particularly shocking.

“I heard these things in many kindergartens, but it does not bother me when choosing a nursery for my daughter since it is so common,” said Guangzhou mother Cindy Lai who has a 30-month-old daughter.

While she was willing to tolerate mild punishment, Lai said she wanted to protect her child from serious harm.

“My requirement [for kindergartens] is that they ensure my girl’s personal safety,” she said.