Jinghua primary school, in the Chaoyang district of Peking, offers the sort of facilities that would astound most British parents. Its 150 children, aged between six and 10, learn English in the language laboratory, can sign on for extra-curricular classes in martial arts, chess or calligraphy, and have a wardrobe of 11 different school outfits. It is a world away from the 30 million children under 14 in China who have never attended school, or have quit early because their parents could not afford the arbitrary fees imposed by cash- strapped state schools.
Jinghua opened on 28 August, the first private primary school to receive permission from the Peking authorities. It is part of a revolution sweeping through education from kindergarten to degree level in China. While the state education system is desperate for money, China's new rich have plenty of cash to invest in the best schooling they can buy for their one-child-policy offspring. The result is more than 16,000 minban (literally 'people-run') non-state educational establishments, including 550 at tertiary level.
Zhou Yue, the vice-president of Jinghua, was stating the obvious when she said her pupils come 'generally speaking, from the wealthier families'. The school's start-up costs were funded partly by a private electronics firm, but mainly by a one-off initial fee of 30,000 yuan ( pounds 2,500) paid by the parents for each child. On top of this the annual fee this year is 13,500 yuan while the average annual urban income in China is still below 2,000 yuan.
Ms Zhou, who used to work in a district state education bureau, said she and the five other founders had started the school 'to meet the social demand. With the reforms there are more and more families capable of supporting their children to receive a better education'. She was right: the school - all pupils are weekly boarders - is full. The owners plan to open high school classes for older children as this first intake grows up.
According to the State Education Commission, China now has 1,500 registered minban primary and secondary schools with 200,000 pupils, and 14,000 kindergartens with 530,000 children. Facilities vary hugely, from opulent to below the state equivalent.
They are private in the sense that the financing does not come from the government. In China's half-reformed educational system, a grey area exists as private money and management encroaches on government ownership, especially higher up the educational level. There are, for instance, no individually-owned universities, but several privately-financed ones.
Minban colleges and schools first appeared in the early 1980s. It is government policy to encourage them, within a framework of regulations and under the watchful eye of the Communist Party. Schools such as Jinghua enjoy an autonomy that extends to choosing teachers and designing the curriculum. The State Education Commission Minister, Zhu Kaixuan, has said private schools are inevitable in a market economy, but should not be profit-orientated. And he warned: 'Schools that aim to train aristocrats should not be tolerated . . . No matter how superior the education and living conditions are, no matter how much money is invested, the private schools should adhere to the socialist road.'
According to Ms Zhou: 'We have better facilities, but we are not creating an aristocracy . . . When society develops, we should use modern facilities to have a modern education.' Boarding schools can guard against the phenomenon of the one-child policy 'little emperors', she argued. 'In their homes they are treated like little emperors; there can be four adults (including grandparents) just surrounding one child. At school they must look after themselves.'
Central government does not want to lose control of education but can no longer afford to provide free education for all. Inadequate funding has forced most state schools to rent out buildings or set up sideline businesses. Others, especially in rural areas, have been found illegally charging parents fees for everything from examinations to heating, forcing poor pupils to leave.
However, it is a tiny minority which enjoys the privileges of China's best private schools. In Peking there are nine private primary schools. At Jinghua, an exhibition of work included pictorial essays on 'My Family' in which two fathers were typically described as a general manager and a senior engineeer.
Jinghua can attract good teachers by paying more and by allowing them to implement their own teaching ideas. In the state system, wages can be lower than a factory worker's - and that is when the pay-packet actually arrives. Owed back pay had reached 340 million yuan in seven provinces at the beginning of this year. Teachers have been forced to take second jobs while others have left the profession.
A recent survey showed that financing children's education was the main savings goal for the Chinese. One parent, hearing about Jinghua's facilities, said: 'If I could I'd send my daughter there. I'd pay for the best private school in the hope that she'd then get into the best of the state universities.'
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