More children in China being homeschooled

Back in her hometown in northern Shanxi province, little Liu Yanxiu used to struggle to finish her school homework, staying up till 11pm on some nights. But that heavy workload is now lifted off her little frame, with her days a lot less stressful.

After seeing her struggle for two years in the public education system, which is free up to junior high school, her parents enrolled her in a private "homeschool" earlier this year in Beijing opened by homeschooling dad Zhang Qiaofeng. This is despite the yearly fee of around 80,000 yuan (S$16,300).

At the Beijing Dragon Academy, which is actually the living room of Mr Zhang's apartment, converted into a school and a reading corner, Yanxiu, eight, takes lessons such as English language and reading with her sole classmate, Mr Zhang's son.

Mr Zhang decided to share his teaching method with other parents last year after he started homeschooling his son, now eight, two years ago.

"I like going to school at home because there isn't that much homework. It's fun because we also get to go to the nearby parks to play," said Yan- xiu who lives with Mr Zhang's family.

Her parents, who work in the financial industry in Shanxi, visit frequently when they come to Beijing for business and also keep in touch through Internet video calls.

Yanxiu is among an increasing number of children in China whose parents are eschewing public schools in favour of smaller-scale alternatives.

Frustrated with the rigid teaching methods, the slow pace of learning and a spate of student abuse scandals in the public schools, more Chinese parents are rethinking their children's education.

About 2,000 children are being homeschooled in areas such as Beijing and Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces, where mothers have largely taken on the role of educator, according to a report last month by non-governmental organisation 21st Century Education Research Institute.

There are no comparable figures from previous years.

Homeschooling is illegal in China under the 1986 compulsory education law. But the authorities seem to be going easy on the practice, with even the state media reporting on the rising trend as far back as 2005.

In Singapore, education is also compulsory and parents who want to homeschool their children must seek permission and provide information on their homeschooling programme to the Government.

While the trend in China is still in its infancy, interest is rapidly rising.

An Internet discussion forum set up in 2010 for Chinese homeschooling parents to swop classroom materials, for instance, attracted 1,800 members within a year, with membership surging to more than 10,000 members now.

Education scholar Cheng Fangping of Renmin University told The Sunday Times the numbers are growing as more people realise that alternative forms of education exist and are opting for them instead.

One reason for this awareness, he said, is the influence of popular Chinese author Zheng Yuanjie, who withdrew his son after primary school about 18 years ago. The younger Zheng was taught by tutors and his father and is seen as a homeschooling success. Now an entrepreneur, he owns bookstores, magazines and photography studios.

Stories of how homeschooling has produced successful personalities such as celebrated novelist Han Han also help to spread the word.

But concerns remain about the impact of homeschooling on a child's development, such as whether these children, mostly born into one-child families, might be isolated and poorly socialised.

Also, China's national college entrance exams - or gaokao - allow only registered students to take the tests, making homeschoolers ineligible.

Thus, 34 per cent of parents in the 21st Century report plan to send their children back to school for the gaokao. Another 36 per cent intend to send them abroad.

Despite these uncertainties, the homeschooling trend is expected to stay - and continue to gain traction, experts say, as better-educated and wealthier parents pay closer attention to their children's education.

Thus, more should be done to improve homeschooling resources, which are insufficient, they say.

Rather than discriminating against it, the authorities should give homeschooling some direction and even help develop a proper teaching model, Prof Cheng noted.

Said Professor Xiong Bingqi, 21st Century's deputy director: "Anything that diversifies the education system or personalises it to fit a child should be supported. There is no best method, but more options should be created because the system is far too narrow now."

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