CHINA - When the time came for Shen Jiaqi to start schooling three years ago, her parents bought an expensive apartment just to get the five-year-old a spot in a nearby elite primary school.
"If it were not for Jiaqi to have a good future, I wouldn't have bought a house here," said housewife Han Yumeng, 31, who bought the 3.5 million yuan (S$719,000) home in Beijing's Haidian district at twice the price of their previous home.
Like her, Chinese parents pay top dollar for homes, beg for favours or blow a few months' wages on informal "school selection" fees to better their child's chances of entering a top primary school.
While competition for places in branded schools also exists in countries like Singapore, it is more intense in China, which has a system of elite public schools called key schools (zhongdian xuexiao) that hog the best resources.
But key primary and junior high schools may be on their way out if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) carries out a pledge made at a top policy meeting earlier this month.
There have been attempts for years to do away with key schools but the Third Plenum of the party's central committee marks a deeper assault on them.
Among the plans approved at the plenum held from Nov 9 to 12 are steps to boost equality in education, reduce the stress of students and promote holistic development. In particular, the CCP has pledged to level the playing field by rotating principals and teachers from better schools to weaker ones.
Key schools were promoted in the 1970s and 80s to help China groom a pool of special talent to help with its modernisation and economic development.
But critics said key schools - equal in prestige to say, Raffles Institution in Singapore - have outlived their usefulness and have worsened inequality.
The meeting stipulated, for instance, that all public schools should have standard facilities. Currently, some key schools have such deep pockets that they have their own swimming pool and touch-screen whiteboards. By contrast, rural ones may not even have tables.
"Some schools in Beijing and Shanghai would scout for the best teachers across the country, leading less developed regions to have fewer good teachers," said education scholar Cheng Fangping.
The plan to do away with elite schools comes on top of pledges to devote more resources to schools in the countryside and improve the pay of rural teachers. Officials have also promised changes such as more physical education and art lessons.
While observers laud the good intentions, many are not convinced things will change.
For example, even if there were no key schools, most believe parents would still flock to those that enjoy a good track record or have famous alumni, like Tianjin Nankai High School, the alma mater of former premiers Wen Jiabao and Zhou Enlai.
"In China, many of the reforms sound good on paper, but it is a different matter when it comes to implementation," said Ms Feng Ziyan, 37, whose only child, eight, is in a Beijing primary school.
The planned reforms also do not include relaxing rules that require students to sit the national college entrance exam (gaokao) in the town where their household is registered.
Beijing resident Zhang Haiyan, 31, a housewife, worries that her two children, aged nine and six months would have to return to their home town, Lanzhou in north-western Gansu province, if they had to take the exam.
"We have been away (from Lanzhou) for years. It will be hard for the children to adjust to schools back in our old home... we hope there will be changes."
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