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July 17, 2009

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It's not as simple as 'buy the house and get into the school'

GETTING their only child - the bearer of family aspirations - into the right schools is all-important for many young parents. It's so important that pregnant women are commonly told it's already time to start planning the right kindergarten, three or four years in advance.

"Don't lose at the starting gate," is a common saying. Pressure on children and parents is enormous.

From the best kindergartens to the best primary schools to the best middle and high schools to the best universities - and finally to a degree and job that leads to money for the whole family. That's the path.

To that end, many parents spare no expense, and that includes buying homes in areas that feed key public schools - kindergartens, primary and middle schools.

These can be little more than four walls and a roof, but they're prized as "elite school properties or xue qu fang (school area house)." And prices are sky high, often 1,000-2,000 yuan (US$146-293) more per square meter than for housing further from plum schools, according to parents who are home shopping.

It can be a risky investment; enrollment isn't automatic.

And that's for those who don't go for more expensive private schools. As for high school admission, that depends on grades and test scores, so buying a home near a good high school is no guarantee of admission.

Sometimes families give up much better houses and quality of life further away from the desired school.

In fact, owning a home near a good public school, K-9, doesn't automatically ensure enrollment, but the chances are bad to nonexistent for those not in the catchment area.

Kindergarten is usually three years of education starting when a child is three years old - preschool is not just fun and games, it's education, though it's not compulsory.

Key kindies may or may not be near key primary schools, but the best primary and middle schools are usually relatively close together.

These days on the Net there's a popular "golden book" or real estate investment manual for parents looking for homes near the best schools throughout the city.

It's a long blog, apparently written by parents who have done extensive field research and have current, first-hand experience. It appears on many real estate Websites.

The article details dozens of neighborhoods close to top schools in the city's nine downtown districts. It analyzes prices, locations, transport, urban amenities and, of course the schools, their faculty and facilities, specialities and record of sending kids onward to top schools.

Thus "elite school property" has become a buzzword among young parents in this summer holiday before the new semester.

Education authorities require all public schools to enroll only from their catchment areas, but there is often some redrawing of boundaries from year to year, such as rotating among building clusters in a residential complex.

Of course, prices are sky high for the plum apartments.

"I think I'm being bullied, but there's no way to resist," says Long Xiguan, who has a six-year-old daughter. He just bought a small flat in Pudong New Area, right opposite highly desired Meiyuan Primary School.

The building is almost 15 years old and not in the best condition, but Long says he paid 200,000 yuan more than comparable old flats that are not close to the school. He declined to disclose the sale price.

"It's all for my kid," says Long.

Shanghai's housing prices suffered a slight slump last year, but "elite school apartments" were not impacted at all, says a senior realtor surnamed Jin at Xinmin Property Agency, who declined to give her full name.

"Now housing prices are rising again and those flats near top schools are even hotter," she says.

Getting into an ideal school is not easy.

It requires purchasing a flat, getting the family name on the Property Ownership Certificate (deed), relocating the child's hukou (registered permanent residence), applying for the school, and making sure the child passes the schools face-to-face interview and skills test, and so on.

Some kids flunk the interview - so there's big business in helping tots prep for the meeting.

Top schools, of course, want their students to succeed and some may not meet their standard.

"From the very first step to the last, each one is difficult to fulfill," says Eric Jiang, who is looking for a good primary school for his three-year-old boy.

Parents sacrifice not only money, time and energy, but often quality of life if they relocate from a more desirable house and neighborhood.

In 2007, Jiang bought a 60-square-meter apartment near Century Avenue in Pudong with the money made in the stock market.

"We planned to send my kid to nearby Fushan Foreign Language Primary School at that time," he says, "but now we realize the flat is far too small for our family and far away from our offices."

He now rents the flat to a newly wed couple.

"We're still looking for an ideal one," he says.

Liu Yun, mother of a 13-year-old girl, echoes Jiang's views, though she did manage to get her child enrolled last year in elite Yangpu Middle School in Yangpu District.

The family bought a small flat, only a five-minute walk to school, but moved from a more spacious apartment in Minhang District.

"Except for the convenience, there's nothing good about this place," says Liu.

The nearest food market is a 15-minute bike ride way. There's no nearby bus stop and it takes Liu 45 minutes to drive to her office.

It cost 120,000 yuan more than their home in Minhang. They paid more than 1 million yuan but Liu declines to give the price.

"We just want her to have more sleep in the morning," says Liu. "Students have to be in class before 7:30am and she can sleep till 7:10am. If it were in Minhang, she'd have to get up at 6:15am."

She didn't want her daughter to board at the school. "We are worried. She is so young and cannot live by herself," Liu says.

"A good education is more important than anything else."

It's widely believed that if a child gets into a good kindergarten, then he or she is virtually assured of getting into a top primary or middle school.

This is especially true if the family moves into the "right" housing estate.

Then, doing well in school means a chance for a key high school, which leads to a top university, and so onward and upward.

But purchasing an apartment and moving to the "right" housing estate is a risky investment.

"It's not as simple as 'buy the house and get into the school'," says Yang Guofang, a teacher in Xinsong Middle School. "In many cases, children are still rejected by the school even their parents buy houses nearby."

Take the Caojiaxiang Community near the Primary School Affiliated to East China Normal University. Many local property agents say kids can go to this top school only if they buy flats in No. 1-15 buildings in the community.

But the fact is that there's a rotation among buildings. For example, this year it is the No. 1-5 buildings whose residents can send their kids to the school. Next year it will be No. 6-10 buildings, and No. 11-15 the year after next.

No.1 Primary School Affiliated to Shanghai Normal University in Jing'an District requires hukou for both parents and children in its nearby Sihe Community, while Huishi No.1 School in Xuhui District requires three years residence in nearby neighborhoods for parents and children, and hukou to prove it.

"The whole procedure is quite complicated, but some tricky agents won't tell this to parents," says property agent Jin.

What's more, each year the local education bureaus make slight adjustments in dividing "school neighborhoods." That is to say, this year one neighborhood may be included in the catchment area of a given top school, but next year the same neighborhood feeds into an ordinary school nearby.

"Such things occur every year and some parents who speculate become victims," Jin says.

"It is costly, high-risk investment," says teacher Yang. "I understand the parents, but a good education doesn't only mean a good school. I urge parents to get enough information from local education bureaus before buying houses." The high cost of raising kids today

Wing Tan

Many parents spare no expense on their children, and predictably it's getting more and more expensive to raise a child in Shanghai.

Rearing a child in China through the age of six costs on average 118,000 yuan (US$17,272), accounting for 20 percent of the family income, according to recent survey conducted by East China Normal University.

And many parents spend much more, especially in the city of Shanghai.

This cost goes up to an average 306,000 yuan if the child graduates from middle school at 15 - this represents an average monthly expense of 2,359 yuan, according to a recent survey by Shanghai Morning Post.

From pregnancy to childbirth, the cost is around (again an average) 22,000 yuan, including nutrition, checkups during pregnancy, delivery cost and salary lost during maternity leave, according to a report compiled by Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in 2005.

When a child enters school, the cost soars.

Annual expenses on telecommunication fees from mobile phones and the Internet increase from 317 yuan in kindergarten to 2,500 yuan in secondary school.

With the development in social welfare, annual health insurance for a child costs more than 1,000 yuan; it's 2,500 yuan for a pre-school kid who is more likely to need healthcare than older children, the academy report indicates.

Education is the biggest cost, ranging from 22 to 41 percent. Pre-school/kindergarten is not compulsory, so it's costly. The average annual cost per child is around 4,600 yuan, but it can reach 20,000 yuan.

Standard educational fees are monitored by the Shanghai Education Commission, but extra fees are increasing, such as those for school uniforms, books, resource materials, private tuition, training, stationery, insurance and other things. These fees can reach 9,000 yuan in primary school and 12,000 yuan in middle school.


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