Unlike other parents whose nerves are stretched to breaking point by the time the new school semester comes around, Guangzhou residents Jeremy and Mary Ming aren’t worried. Their children, Melody, 13, and Max, 15, are educated at home.
Dissatisfied with traditional schools, the Mings decided to take their children’s education into their own hands two years ago. Their two children are taught the bare basics in English using books from America and Singapore. Locally hired tutors teach the licensed local school curriculum and more specialist topics in Mandarin for five hours a day during the week. Mary also assigns monthly research projects and sends the children to swimming, music, art and English classes, all timetabled in their weekly lesson plans.
“Our children did not really enjoy going to school. They spent all day with their heads in their books, memorising concepts without being truly stimulated. We could not bear to see them like that,” explains Mary. “We wanted them to be bilingual, to learn through inquiry, to be challenged and motivated. They do get lonely sometimes, but we try to get them involved in regular group activities to meet friends.”
While industry experts have raised concerns that homeschooling can have a negative impact on psychological development due to the lack of communication with peers, the upside is that it encourages self-directed learning and time for play, exercise and art – concepts crowded out in many local schools to make time for academics in order to ‘win at the starting line,’ a local phrase coined to describe the obsession with obtaining the best educational resources starting as early as possible.
It appears that the Mings are not going at this alone. More and more Chinese parents, especially those from regions like Guangdong, Beijing and Zhejiang, are choosing homeschooling. According to the latest report by the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing-based NGO, roughly 18,000 people are considering practicing homeschooling in the Mainland, with more than 2,000 already doing so. The top reason respondents gave for their decision was dissatisfaction with the rigid local educational pedagogy, followed by the pace and content of lessons, lack of respect for children, aversion to school life, religious intentions and other factors like abuse and punishment.
In theory, however, Chinese law does not allow for homeschooling. The Compulsory Education Law, promulgated in 1986, mandates nine years of education for all children beyond kindergarten at registered schools, whether public or private. But official oversight and other legal loopholes have allowed more parents to homeschool their children, in an effort to emulate the success of programs around the world. In America, for example, 3.4 percent of the school-age population, or 1.77 million students, are homeschooled.
In particular, there are very well-organized Canadian homeschooling movements, which have been adopted by many expat families living here in China. Hailing from the Great White North, Patrick and Sofia Lynch, who have resided in Guangzhou for several years, are very passionate about homeschooling their eight children.
“We are keen to discover each of their qualities and interests and see how to enhance them, as well as how to help them overcome their weak points,” says Sofia. “We have also had many amazing friends who have lent their skills and time to help with certain aspects of teaching.” The oldest two of the eight are currently registered in Canada as online high school home learners, in order for them to transit back to their native land when university beckons.
The concept of homeschooling and its many benefits may be slowly gaining acceptance in the Middle Kingdom, but whether this can go beyond a fad remains in question. With little encouragement from the wider community and few precedents in place to support their cause, progressive families like the Mings know that it’s going to be a rough road ahead for their children, especially when it comes to applying to local universities. For example, home-based learning students are unable to acquire certificates issued by registered schools – a must for those preparing to sit national university entrance examinations, known as the gaokao. Melody and Max Ming have to pass an extremely difficult exam issued by individual universities for students who haven't completed local school, a nearly impossible feat considering the competition.
“For now, it doesn’t look like I have a choice but to send the children to universities overseas. There’s no looking back now because they don’t have the certificates. They will not be recognized as being educated locally. But that is a risk we are both willing to take for the sake of their well-being and future,” says an optimistic Mary. “Homeschooling has worked successfully in other countries around the world so I am confident that it will also work for us.”