Early one Sunday evening, I saw about 30 children huddled in the escalator of a Beijing mall. Against the grain, I went to figure out what it was. They were all leaving a school that teaches programming, English and math as an after-school activity. Even on Sunday.
A few months later, a Brazilian newcomer to the city told me that for her young son’s birthday, she had invited the school’s 15 classmates to help settle the boy. He chose a large children’s party house in Beijing, sure it would be a success. Three children appeared. Everything else was occupied, on a Saturday afternoon, with private lessons.
Far from being isolated or trivial episodes, the stories are representative of something the Chinese government takes seriously. The extracurricular industry was the subject of the main legislative session of the year in March. It is “a social problem”, concluded the leaders of the country.
Because I think they are right to be worried. I thought about it when I filled out my child’s registration form for school. One question: list your child’s strengths and weaknesses. A three-year-old? Seriously? The questionnaire seemed to come directly from a job interview.
After a few days of school, I received the list of extracurricular activity offers. I wondered what the Cambridge English course would look like for students who had barely left their diapers.
Competition for access to the best high schools is the immediate explanation for the extracurricular activity machine in major Chinese cities. At the same time, the phenomenon reflects deeper cultural issues. Competition in the country is high, as are ambitions and expectations.
The busy agenda has impacts on the physical and mental health of the little ones. And in the pocket of adults. Research cited by the Caixin news site indicates that 92% of parents enroll their children in extracurricular activities. Half of them spend more than US $ 1,500 (R $ 8,300) per year on these courses alone.
The social implications are obvious. The best schools, which favor entry into the best universities, end up having their places filled with children who have had access to extra help – and well paid.
The Chinese government will use regulations to alleviate the problem. This will better discipline the performance of the companies that offer these services. The market quickly realized that this would happen – and drove the stock prices of these companies down after the People’s Congress met.
Regulations with this objective also affect the real estate market. Usually, the place of residence defines the public school to which one has access. Properties near the best colleges in Beijing and Shanghai have extraordinary prices. The apartments are advertised as a bridge to an elite school. The authorities rightly want to review the logic that perpetuates inequalities.
To tackle the problem, the government also intends to act on the supply side, by increasing the number of good schools. This would help make the system less elitist and reduce the pressure on children and adults.
On the other hand, it is difficult to reduce parental demand for extracurricular activities. The Chinese recognize the problem. But they continue to replicate the practice they criticize because, after all, the neighbor’s son is now taking a math preparation course for the World Olympics. Yes, there are also courses for that. Fortunately, they still don’t offer for three-year-olds.
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