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Parents put kindergartens to the test

By Wang Hongyi | China Daily | Updated: 2014-04-09 07:13

Drug scandals expose deep-rooted problems in preschool education, reports Wang Hongyi in Shanghai

During the past year, Xu Xinchang has been busy visiting kindergartens, doing research and gathering parental feedback.

"It's so difficult for parents to find the right school nowadays," said the 30-year-old from the northern city of Tianjin. "There's still a year to go before my daughter is old enough to enter kindergarten, but I must fully prepare for it by using a comprehensive selection procedure."

Because it is too difficult to gain entry to a public kindergarten, Xu and her husband have had to focus on private ones. "But this has also prompted questions," she said. "Some private establishments are poorly managed, and teachers there aren't professional."

Having looked into many local kindergartens, Xu planned to send her daughter to a private kindergarten next year, one that targets middle-class parents who are relatively affluent. The cost is almost double that of a public kindergarten.

"At least it looks good. There have been reports about problems in private kindergartens. I hope my daughter can grow up in a healthy and safe environment. That's the hope of every parent. Finding a reliable kindergarten would be more reassuring for us," she said.

Xu's comments reflect the concerns felt by many parents after a widely reported drugs scandal in a number of kindergartens.

In March, media reports said that at least six private establishments in four provinces had administered anti-viral drugs to children without their parents' knowledge or consent.

The latest incident occurred in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, where a kindergarten illicitly gave the children prescription drugs to ward off illness and boost attendance.

In response, the Ministry of Education and the National Health and Family Planning Commission launched a joint nationwide inspection to see whether children have been given unauthorized medical treatment or unsafe food.

The news caused uproar among parents, who are concerned about their children's safety and have blamed local authorities for inadequate supervision.

The scandal has revealed deep-rooted problems in the country's preschool education sector, an area that has lacked government investment and supervision for a long time.

The demand for preschool education has grown rapidly in recent years, as those born in the 1970s and 80s have become parents. Meanwhile, the limited number of State establishments means finding the right school for their children has become a nightmare for parents. Consequently, they have to send their children to private establishments, which often cost more and are poorly managed.

Lack of choice

Unlike in many Western countries, preschool education in China is not covered by the country's compulsory education system, which means a lack of choice for parents.

The dearth of kindergartens and qualified teachers has become a common problem in nearly all China's major cities. In Tianjin, only one out of every four applicants gains entry to the public kindergarten of their choice. In the southern boom city of Shenzhen, the 1,000-plus kindergartens can only accommodate 73,000 3-year-olds, although there are at least 135,000 children in that age group in the city, according to reports by Xinhua News Agency.

According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report released by UNESCO in 2007, the proportion of children attending school in three-quarters of countries was higher than 75 percent. In China, the rate only reached 64.5 percent in 2012.

The shortage of schools and the growing demand for preschool education have contributed to the sharp increase in the number of private kindergartens, which have played an increasingly dominant role in the development of preschool education in China.

In 2012, China had 124,600 private kindergartens, accounting for 68.7 percent of the total, up from 55.3 percent recorded in 2005.

In addition, there are a large number of unlicensed kindergartens, which are not included in the official figures. The majority of illegal kindergartens and nurseries, which usually have poorly infrastructure, unqualified staff members and safety shortcuts, are found in the rural areas, which means they often go unnoticed by the authorities.

But the rising number of private kindergartens is not the solution to the problem and the lack of preschool education resources has forced many parents to lower their expectations. Except for a few wealthy parents such as Xu, who can afford to send their children to expensive establishments, children from low-income and migrant workers' families usually attend substandard, sometimes unlicensed, establishments.

Lack of funding

In many countries, private kindergartens play an important role in preschool education. They have high standards of management and are strictly supervised. "But in China, private kindergartens have unqualified staff members and a lack of supervision, which has led to a series of incidents", said Xiong Bingqi, deputy head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing.

Xiong has long called for the government to include preschool education in the country's compulsory education system.

Lacking government funding, private kindergartens are responsible for their own profits and losses, and their revenue is based on attendance.

The kindergartens implicated in the drugs scandals were reportedly paid on the basis of attendance, which provided an incentive to keep the children healthy and in school. Children at the Fengyun Lanwan Kindergarten in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, were found to have been given regular doses of moroxydine ABOB, a prescription antiviral used to treat flu, since 2008. School officials allegedly administered the drugs without parental permission and even asked the children not to tell their parents.

About 2,000 children who attended kindergartens in the provinces of Shaanxi, Jilin and Hubei are now receiving medical treatment for ailments such as dizziness, stomach ache, leg pains and genital swelling.

The drugs allegations constituted another blow to China's preschool education system, and followed a series of scandals concerning food safety and claims of physical abuse during recent years.

In 2012, abusive acts against children committed by two kindergarten teachers in Wenling, Zhejiang province, provoked public anger. At the time, two photos went online. In one of them, a kindergarten teacher grabs a boy's ears and lifts him as the boy screams in pain, while in the other photo, a child's mouth is taped shut, apparently by the teacher. An investigation discovered that the teacher was not licensed.

Yuan Xu, head of Guangxi College for Preschool Education in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, thinks that many private kindergartens have neglected their core function as educational institutions, and have become nothing more than sources of revenue for their owners.

Guangxi has 7,554 kindergartens, 6,900 of which are private. Of these, more than 4,000 are operating without licenses, according to official local statistics.

"More appropriate support in funding and teacher training should be given to kindergartens. Meanwhile, the authorities should make long-term plans for the expansion of kindergartens," Xiong said.

Baby boom predicted

Demographers predict that China will experience a baby boom in the coming years as a result of the recently announced relaxation of the family planning policy, which limits most families to one child. That, in turn, will result in greater demand for preschool education.

Meanwhile, a rising tide of evidence showcasing the benefits of proper early education has also spurred the government into action.

"The policy change will prompt a rise in the total population. And in the long term, the authorities should take far-sighted measures to cope with the rising population, especially the greater demand for kindergartens and schools," said Zhou Haiwang, deputy director of the Institute of Urban and Population Development Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

In 2011, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued a statement about the development of preschool education. The move was an attempt to address the needs of pre-schoolage children for kindergarten admission and promote the development of preschool education in a scientific way.

The authorities also drew up a three-year action plan, under which governments at all levels must identify local preschool education resources, the current level of demand, and take measures to advance its development.

Under the plan, more than 90,000 kindergartens will be built, expanded or renovated nationwide, and more than 5 million children will be enrolled.

In addition, the central government will invest 50 billion yuan ($8 billion) during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) to boost the development of the preschool system in central and western rural areas to ensure that children in those regions will receive a proper education.

Earlier this year, Yan Qi, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, suggested that the government should amend the law and include preschool education in the compulsory education system to enable it to become fully government funded. Yan also suggested that the financial support provided for preschoolers should vary according to the prevailing conditions in the coastal and western regions to ensure a level playing field for children across the country.

Contact the author at wanghongyi@chinadaily.com.cn

 Parents put kindergartens to the test

Above and below: Children from Litian Kindergarten in Lanzhou, Gansu province, undergo medical checks after allegations that members of staff gave students prescription drugs without parental permission or medical authorization. Ding Kai / for China daily Bottom: Moroxydine ABOB is a prescription antiviral used to treat flu. Deng Xiaowei / for China Daily






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