China - three very different settings
We’ve now completed three visits to early years provision in China, all very different but all fascinating
State and private: compare and contrast
Our first visit was to Cao Yang Neighbourhood No1 Kindergarten in west Shanghai. The 225-place Government nursery for three- to six-year-olds has a lot of space both indoors and out, including large sleeping rooms for the children to have their 2.5-hour afternoon nap. Each class has two qualified teachers and a helper, and the class size for the three-year-olds is 25.
The children’s day is built around a series of sessions (30 minutes long for four- to six-year-olds and 15 minutes for the three-year-olds). These include exercise routines, both morning and afternoon, maths and literacy. Between sessions the children engage in ‘guided’ play.
The curriculum covers broadly the same areas as the EYFS, but ecology, including recycling, has recently been added to the list of areas of learning. This addition is in response to China’s huge environmental problems including air pollution and water shortages.
The next setting that we visited was a private kindergarten in Suzhou. Until 30 years ago, Suzhou was a small town made famous by its canals. Today it remains small by Chinese standards, with a population of ‘just’ 6 million, and the privately-owned Wisdom House Professional Early Learning Centre aims to meet the demands of the many professional families that now live in the city: longer opening hours, and after-school care and education for their children. (China’s economic boom has been achieved on the back of long working hours for both mothers and fathers, while the country’s one-child policy have made many parents ambitious for their children and determined to provide them with the best education possible.)
So, Wisdom House’s opening hours are 8.00am to 8.00pm and children can attend from the age of 16 months old. The owner aims to provide quality through well-qualified staff and low ratios (around 3:10-15) and parents are prepared to pay handsomely for the provision — Y2,000 (just over £200) a month, as opposed to Y500 (around £50) a month in the state kindergarten.
Extremely popular with the parents is ‘hobby learning’ – puzzle- and games-based learning for children after school, so many grandparents pick up their grandchildren from nursery school at 4.00pm and take them to these after-school sessions.
A community-based model: a Chinese solution to Chinese problems?
Our third professional visit was to a poorer ‘downtown’ area of Beijing, where we went to meet Amy Zhou, founder of the Young Zen Foundation, and to see at first-hand an example of the community-based model of early years provision that she is developing and hopes will one day be rolled out across much of China.
Amy has several major concerns about child development and family life in China today. Firstly, many women work and most mothers return to work after a one or at most three months of giving birth, leaving usually grandparents to look after the child. Secondly, she fears children’s physical development is being compromised by parents’ tendency to overlook its importance, the lack of outdoor play areas, and the extremely high number of mothers having C-sections, which can adversely affect the development of their child’s proprioceptive system.
Under her model a Baby Gym of Community is set up in a community centre and run by the social workers (closer to health visitors in their role) based there. The name is misleading for far from being a simple gym programme, its sessions are seen as a primary means through which to reach parents and grandparents and to pass on important messages about physical education, parenting and home learning (in particular literacy, though the model aims to address all aspects of learning).
Once engaged, parents and grandparents are encouraged to attend other kinds of sessions, including ‘salon’ meetings, where they can gather in much larger groups to hear an expert talk on aspects of parenting.
Set up only 18 months ago, the Foundation now runs 30 centres in 17 cities. The Government is providing the spaces for free and sessions are also free for the grand/parents. The Foundation is waiting for a licence from the China Women’s Union, which will entitle it to fundraise, and ultimately, it is hoped that each centre can be self-supporting.
Everyone within our group thoroughly enjoyed the visit — watching the children playing a parachute game and making moon cakes – and left intrigued about the future of this model. It seems to fit neatly into the existing social worker system and surely has the potential to empower families and the local community.
The Centre that we visited is also reaching some migrant (rural Chinese) workers, of which there are 8 million in Beijing alone. Low pay and poor accommodation force many migrant workers to leave their children to be brought up by grandparents in the rural areas. However, this centre has attracted migrant families who have opted to keep their children with them by sharing accommodation and getting by on the husbands’ wage of around Y200 (about £200) a month. This programme they can access; without a Beijing identity card, they are excluded from state nursery education within the city and can't afford private nursery care.
Amy visited nurseries run by social enterprise LEYF, in London, as part of her research.
See details of our next China trip and other early years tours at www.mastertravel.co.uk