Two years ago, Pei, an outdoor-loving kindergarten mother in Beijing, enrolled her son in English lessons three times a week to give him what she called an “immersion environment” for language learning.
But now, as the Chinese government bans all private lessons related to school studies after school and on weekends and holidays, Pei, a middle school teacher who does not speak English, has been forced to stop private tutoring for her son.
This is especially troublesome for Bi because learning English is compulsory in Chinese schools, and is one of the four main subjects of the National College Entrance Examination, or Gaokao, that her son will take when he turns 18. For most students in China, testing is the only factor that determines whether they will be accepted into top universities in major cities, often ensuring a better job at higher wages over the course of their career. In the worst case scenario, he cannot be accepted into any university.
“What if he can’t keep up with his colleagues?” asked Bee, who asked not to reveal her full name for fear of losing her job for speaking to a foreign media outlet. “The school offers two 30-minute English classes a week for first and second graders without any homework. We have to do something before he enters middle school.”
In the wake of the Chinese government’s crackdown on tutoring programs to relieve pressure on students, lower the costs of educating families and ensure equal access to education, Chinese regulators announced in June that they would shut down the after-school tutoring industry from kindergarten through school. It’s a blow to a business that made $123 billion in 2019, according to a 2020 report from consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
The State Council, China’s highest executive body of state power, on July 24 officially banned all tutoring programs from teaching co-curriculars such as English, mathematics and Chinese, with few exceptions. Private tutors, who are often licensed public school teachers trying to make extra money, are also prohibited from teaching outside their university campuses.
But this does not prevent parents from seeking help for their children. Some parents are turning to more expensive private tutors whether or not they get permission from the government. Bee said that parents in her circle secretly hire private tutors or public school tutors to teach in their homes, even if they usually charge more than tutoring companies.
“That’s why I’m hesitant,” B said. “Private tutors charge us 2.5 times more than the institution. Decision [of hiring tutors] It varies greatly from family to family and the amount we want to spend on educating a child.”
The Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment.
“The burden of a lot of private tutoring and the increasing costs of hiring teachers will be effectively reduced within one year,” Yanbin Hu, an inspector with the Supervision Bureau of China’s Ministry of Education, said during a press conference in August. “It will be significantly reduced in three years.”
Driven by China’s college entrance examination, which can only be taken once a year, the country’s education system is forcing students and their parents to support this cumbersome test-focused system for most of their young children’s lives. For those from rural areas or low-income families, who usually only have one child, this test can help take their children to bigger cities to study and eventually get to more lucrative jobs when they graduate.
This is a ‘turn around,’ said Pei, referring to a term commonly used on Chinese social media to describe highly competitive conditions that persuade parents to do something because their peers do.
“I wouldn’t dare let my son rest at home,” he said to me. “He is happy at the moment. But he will blame us for not taking him to teaching when he grows up and fails the exam.”
The world of highly competitive teachers is particularly concentrated in urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai, where there are more experienced teachers and financial support from the local government.
“Cities have opportunities for parents to make their own decisions,” said Fred Mednik, professor of education sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium. “It’s a choice issue, and it’s related to the stock issue.”
The increasing demand makes teachers continue to teach despite the risks. Jenny Shi, a 24-year-old private teacher in Beijing, has taught primary school English for two years. But she was laid off from the educational institution where she worked in June. She said she now runs an unlicensed tutoring studio.
“Parents are begging me to continue teaching because they haven’t been able to find someone else familiar with their children’s study habits,” Shi said, using her English name to avoid reprisals.
They charge $30 per hour compared to the $12 per hour enterprise fee. But, she said, “Parents never complain about prices.”
She said that her teaching job does not have the necessary employment permits issued by the local education department. To fulfill certain requirements, you need to have a teaching license and all of your teaching subjects follow the National Curriculum Standards. But she said she was not worried about being reported.
“If my students’ neighbors saw us doing tutoring, they would just come to me and ask if their kids could join us,” Shi said.
Not all teachers were so lucky to find a new job.
Tianyu Zhao, a 25-year-old college graduate who was planning to join TAL Education as a Rubik’s Cube teacher in June, said his job offer was canceled two days after the government crackdown. In China, many parents send their children to tutoring to improve their mental reactions and help them stay focused and determined. Zhao said his administration is waiting for an exemption because the new regulations argue that cubing has nothing to do with the school’s curriculum.
TAL Education, New Oriental Education and Technology Group, and Gaotu Tecedu are three of the largest Chinese education companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. But they have been banned from making profits, raising capital or offering the school curriculum to the public as of this summer.
The tutoring campaign has forced families to step back and rethink how much they rely on tutoring. Mednick said there should be a deep, top-down look and introspection into how Chinese children are taught.
“This is an education system driven by wealth, where everything will be sacrificed for it,” Mednick said.
Bee, a middle school teacher, tries to make sure her son isn’t pushed too hard and fosters his curiosity. Except for teaching English, her son takes one piano lesson every Sunday and spends Saturdays playing football and taking long walks with the family.
But other parents are finding other ways for their children to keep up with the competition. Meri Ma said she started her daughter a weekly Ruan lesson, a traditional Chinese instrument lesson. The 36-year-old mother wants her 7-year-old daughter to work for extra credits for the high school entrance exam, or Zhongkao, which will take place in eight years.
We cannot guarantee that she will do well in Zhongkao or Gaokao,” said Ma, also using her English name. “With fewer private lessons, you need to learn something else, because her peers are doing the same.”