Time to rein in tutoring firms

Time to rein in tutoring firms

I have always been puzzled about why so many Thai parents send their children to private tutors after school. Even my 9-year-old niece has to study on weekends when she could be enjoying time with her parents or playing with two lovely cats at home.

It's true that most Thais including myself despair about the quality of the education system, and certainly parents want their children to have any advantage they can get. But the little ones also need time to relax and refresh themselves on weekends and get ready for classes on Monday.

Professionals involved in children's wellbeing, including educators, are increasingly speaking out against the fast-growing number of pushy parents who subject their children to additional evening teaching, sometimes from as young as four years old, and often against their will. Some even say that sending pupils to private tutors for hours after school is tantamount to child abuse.

Many argue that rather than increasing a child's confidence in a subject, tutoring can make a child feel their parents are dissatisfied with their achievements and start doubting their abilities. An over-reliance on tutoring can also foster a culture of dependence -- a child feeling they can't do their homework or prepare for a test without a tutor to help.

The dramatic increase in private tutoring is less a case of children actually needing help academically and more a case of tutoring becoming the new normal. In China, millions of students find themselves in after-school programmes each year. According to the Chinese Society of Education, about seven in 10 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, receive after-school tutoring in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

As more classmates join, parents feel the pressure to pay to keep up. One survey found that 92% of parents sent their children for extra classes, and more than half were spending over 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) a year, equal to almost 40% of the median income.

For middle- and low-income families, especially in rural areas where incomes are 60% lower than in cities, such costs are prohibitive.

Big education providers in China are now under fire for their core business: charging money and profiting from teaching schoolchildren. For years, they attracted global investors, who threw billions of dollars at listed companies that promised to capitalise on the hundreds of thousands of families striving for better opportunities.

An article posted on the website of the Ministry of Education said the out-of-school education industry has been "severely hijacked by capital", and "that broke the nature of education as welfare". President Xi Jinping in March said he took a dim view of the industry's tendency to exploit parental anxiety.

That explains the new regulations announced last week which bar local authorities from approving new private education companies that teach primary and secondary school subjects, require existing schools to register as nonprofits, and restrict flows of foreign capital into the sector.

The rules also call for tighter controls over teacher hours and the use of foreign curricula and textbooks. Weekend and vacation-period classes are banned.

The crackdown is the latest in a series of moves by Beijing against industries from tech to real estate, affecting powerful firms such as Ant Group, Didi Global and Evergrande.

The latest announcement sent China's stock markets into a tailspin, since they effectively render the business models of some huge listed education providers non-viable. But I applaud what Beijing is doing: the tutoring business, in China and elsewhere, is in need of some properly thought-out reforms.

Taking a broader view, Beijing has always been acutely sensitive to business activities that have widespread social implications. Reining in tutoring businesses should ensure that private tutoring works in the service of China and its students, not executives and their investors.

The move to reduce the financial burden on parents also supports the government's policy to encourage couples to have more children, at a time when the country faces a demographic challenge.

Inequality is always been a concern for modern leaders, and allowing the private education sector to contribute to widening disparities is clearly untenable under President Xi, who sees the gap between rich and poor as a threat to the nation.

Our children already feel enough pressure and school hours can be long, so why add to them? Their happiness is not something anybody should sacrifice for profit.

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