Giving up his successful career as the head of a medical research firm to spend his days at home reading from children’s story books was a tough choice for Chinese father Zhang Qiaofeng.
However, Zhang, one of a small but growing number of Chinese parents who are turning their backs on the country’s rigidly exam-oriented state-run school system, felt he had no choice.
“China’s education system has special problems,” said Zhang, a wiry-looking graduate of one of the country’s top universities.
“I want my son to receive a style of education which is much more participative, not just the teacher talking while students listen. Most of my son’s time is set aside for following his interests, or playing,” he said.
From a small apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, Zhang teaches his son Hongwu for four hours a day, in contrast to the six hours of compulsory classes the seven-year-old used to sit through at primary school.
In the living room where he holds most of his classes, Zhang rattles through a long list of gripes with China’s education system, from what he calls its “obsession” with exam results to an overly authoritarian teaching style.
China has made impressive progress in rolling out universal education across the country, with urban areas such as Shanghai claiming a perfect school enrolment rate. The UN says China has a youth literacy rate of 99 percent.
However, many parents complain about the focus on rote learning and passing exams, which means that children spend long hours in class.
Chinese children spend an average of 8.6 hours a day in school, with some spending 12 hours in the classroom, according to a 2007 survey conducted by China’s Youth and Children Research Center.
Lao Kaisheng, an education policy researcher at Beijing Normal University, said growing numbers of Chinese parents were demanding more of a say in how their children were educated.
“There’s been a rapid rise in home schooling, especially in the past few years,” he said.
“Parents who home school tend to have more strict requirements for their children’s education and feel that schools won’t meet their children’s individual needs,” Lao said.
No official figures are available for the proportion of Chinese parents educating their children at home, but Lao estimates it at less than 1 percent.
One of the most prominent is Xu Xuejin, who moved from the booming eastern Chinese manufacturing hub of Zhejiang to the picturesque but sleepy southwestern town of Dali to provide a better environment for his two children.
“Chinese children are taught to compete from a young age,” Xu said by telephone. “Students who can’t compete are eliminated ... there’s too much pressure on them.”
Xu, a Christian, said he wanted to give his children a more “Bible-centered” education than they could get in school, a key motivating factor in countries such as the US where home schooling is becoming more popular.
An Internet discussion forum he started in 2010 for Chinese home schoolers to swap classroom materials and discuss educational theory now has more than 4,000 registered members.
Worries about the legality of home schooling feature heavily on the forum — Chinese law states that children must be enrolled in school aged seven and receive compulsory education for nine years.
“Chinese educational officials are split on the subject,” Lao said. “Some want to force children back into schools, while some would prefer to legalize home schooling, which is why there haven’t been any new regulations.”
However, questions over the legality of home schooling have not deterred Zhang, who says he hopes his son will never return to a Chinese school.
“My son’s Chinese and English skills are much higher than other children his age,” Zhang said, gesturing at a bookshelf filled with titles his young son has read.
“I plan to teach my son at home until he’s ready to attend university. I hope he can attend a great university like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge, I’m 95 percent certain he can achieve that,” he said.