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August 20, 2012

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Home » Metro » Education

Pre-school education seen as vital, but parents should beware

YANG Yang, 6, will be no stranger to learning when he starts school this autumn. Since infancy, his parents have enrolled him in early childhood education courses to prepare him for formal schooling.

"He can already read some books, do some simple math and communicate with foreign teachers," his mother Dai Lin said proudly.

Like Yang Yang, many pre-school children are being sent to toddler education centers by parents who believe it's never too early to start them on a ladder that will open the doors to prestigious schools and lead them to good jobs and successful lives in adulthood.

But parents, beware! Pre-school education is an unregulated jungle in Shanghai, with plenty of operators ready to prey on the best intentions of moms and dads.

The number of children in pre-school education in the city has mushroomed from an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 in the past five years on a spike in the birth rate, rising incomes and an influx of out-of-towners.

This burgeoning early childhood development market lacks any official oversight. Complaints about centers frequently relocating, about high teacher turnover, about exaggerated education claims and about exorbitant non-refundable fees are mounting.

Some centers close suddenly

Dai, a full-time housewife, recalls a pre-school program where she once enrolled her son at a charge of 150 yuan (US$23.60) for a 45-minute course. She was aghast at what passed for "education."

"Teachers just asked children to crawl from here to there," Dai said. "I could hardly see where that would help improve a child's abilities."

She said she withdrew her son from the center, losing the remainder of the upfront fee that she already had paid.

"These centers often demand parents pay all tuition in advance," she said. "When a problem occurs, it's always the parents who suffer the loss."

Sometimes centers cleverly ban parents from attending courses with their youngsters, figuring the children are too young to say what really goes on.

Worse, some centers abruptly close without warning after parents have paid thousands of yuan in upfront tuition costs.

A toddler-learning center called Baby Plan suddenly shut its doors earlier this month amid allegations of mismanagement. One branch of the franchise, located on Feihong Road, even owed the landlord 250,000 yuan in rent.

Police looked into the matter after receiving reports from the parents, who were anxious about getting their money back. There's not much that can be done when operators disappear.

It was no isolated incident. Dinosaur Creativity and several other pre-school centers were shuttered earlier this year without any advance notice to parents.

"No one supervises the market," said Tan Xing, an education expert with the Shanghai Association for Nurseries and Kindergartens.

The Shanghai Education Commission tried to determine the number of the pre-school education centers operating in the city, but no accurate count was possible because the centers aren't required to register with the commission.

The commission did take the step of banning all schools and institutes under its auspices from operating pre-school centers.

But where there's demand, there are operators ready to jump into a lucrative market.

Tan said industrial and commercial authorities in the city don't keep tabs on registered companies operating pre-school programs because they believe that is the bailiwick of educational authorities.

Because of this bureaucratic breach, the qualifications of the pre-school teachers aren't vetted. In addition, the content of the courses isn't monitored.

Many pre-school centers brag about foreign-language teachers on their staffs and internationally recognized education models in their curricula. The advertising is slick, but parents have scant means to verify the claims.

Similarly, there are no controls over pre-school education fees, allowing centers to charge whatever the market will bear.

Calls for city to begin regulation

Tan and other education experts are calling for the city government to step in and provide regulation and supervision over pre-school education.

Until that happens, Tan is urging parents to show restraint in their zeal to get their children's education underway. Enrolling a child in too many pre-school courses may impose an unreasonable burden on young children, she said.

It's a hard point to sell in a culture where education is considered the key to success and where competition for spots in the best schools is keen.

"Children need these courses to help themselves get into top schools," said Ge Min, a local father.

He decided somewhat reluctantly to continue a 10,000-yuan-a-year English course for his son, even after a Dinosaur Creativity center next door suddenly closed. Ge said he had no other choice.

His son is due to enter primary school next year, and the best schools demand that prospective students take an entry exam before they are accepted. The criteria are tough amid more applicants that available spots.

Yang Yang, after his parents spent tens of thousands of dollars on pre-school education, still had trouble in his primary school entrance exam.

"How many times will it take you to transport 10 watermelons if you can carry three at a time?" was one of the questions asked.

"We didn't enroll him in as many classes as other parents," said the boy's mother, Dai, ruefully. "So he was not able to answer that question."


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