CHINA - China has begun a nationwide inspection of schools after an expose in the past week of private kindergartens feeding medicine to thousands of pupils without authorisation.
The scandal has angered parents and uncovered a problematic practice. The Health Ministry has ordered local governments to inspect schools, particularly kindergartens, to see if they are giving medicine to pupils illegally, the China Daily reported last Friday.
A common practice among privately run kindergartens and childcare centres in China is to refund a portion of the school fees if pupils fall ill and miss a certain number of classes.
To prevent this from happening, operators are known to feed their charges medicine to keep them well, and in class. But some are found to be using poor-quality drugs that have sparked adverse side effects.
Pre-schools exposed last week used a cheap flu prevention drug called moroxydine ABOB or moroxydine hydrochloride. It is a prescription drug that is rarely used now as it has been overtaken by better drugs. It caused side effects such as nose bleeds, itchy skin and genitalia inflammation, said parents of the affected children.
The worst offences occurred in two pre-schools in the north-western city of Xi'an, where teachers admitted to administering the drug to pupils since 2008.
"The worst thing was that when it was exposed, some of the teachers did not seem to think they were doing anything wrong," said child protection expert Tong Xiaojun of the China Youth University for Political Sciences.
"There is a lack of awareness of child protection in China, due in large part to a lack of laws that mete out especially severe penalties for such offences."
Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday ordered government agencies to tighten their supervision over operators to prevent a repeat of the cases that have horrified parents and cast a spotlight on the private pre-school industry. Private pre-schools have mushroomed due to the dearth of government ones, which make up just 30 per cent of the sector. Most parents prefer public kindergartens because they are tightly regulated and charge lower fees.
Lawyers say weak official supervision is one key reason that the pre-schools could administer the anti-viral drug to their charges. Giving medication without parental consent is not explicitly prohibited by law. Amid outrage over the cases, the health and education ministries on Tuesday issued a directive prohibiting the administering of medication without parental consent and the presence of doctors. The medicine must also be from authorised pharmacies.
But others see a deeper problem that cannot be fixed by directives alone. Tougher regulation of private pre-schools or expansion of government-run pre-schools is needed, they say.
"The problem is that private pre-schools have to worry about financial survival, which we do not," said Ms Wang Fang, a teacher at a public childcare centre in Beijing. "Their management is usually poor, some hire teachers who are not properly trained, and the authorities do not check that standards are being met."
Industry insiders say standards vary widely, but all private pre-schools have some version of the fee-refund practice.
Among parents alarmed by the cases of pre-schools feeding medicine to pupils to boost attendance is medical doctor Chen Jing, whose two-year-old daughter atends a private childcare centre in Beijing. If her child misses a day of class, the centre refunds a portion of the 200-yuan (S$41) daily school fee.
"I suspect my girl's pre-school might be doing the same, as it seems the practice is so common elsewhere. But I don't know how to find out, as she is too young to tell me what's going on."
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