China's extreme education starts at home
BEIJING // Kitty was 10 months old when her formal education began.
Between feedings and nappy changes, her mother would show her flashcards of Chinese characters, reading each one aloud as she did so.
Kitty, now almost 3, can recognise around 3,000 characters, nearly the same amount required to read a Chinese newspaper.
But her parents are not satisfied.
Kitty is also learning English and her mother is hatching a plan to get her started on Arabic.
"The Middle East will be like China in 20 years," said Ms Huang, an employee at China's foreign ministry. "We want her to be ready for that."
Ms Huang, like other parents interviewed, would only give her surname out of respect for her child's privacy.
Although her methods might seem a little extreme, she is far from alone.
In cities across China, members of the middle and upper class are increasingly turning to intensive early-learning methods to give their children an advantage in the country's competitive education system.
"China is a big country with limited resources. No good school, means no good university, means no good job, means no good marriage, means no grandchildren," said Li Hui, a professor of Education at the University of Hong Kong.
There are as many as 60 pupils vying for one seat at top primary schools, where they begin there academic journey to take the "gaokao" or common university entrance exam, many with the hopes of getting into one of the county's top 100 institutions. Every year more than 9 million students take the gaokao.
"Parents feel it is a race and that they have to win at the starting line," Mr Li said.
As result, there has been an explosion of companies promising to help children win that race.
As well as expensive private kindergartens - often sporting names that falsely suggest links to prestigious foreign schools and universities such as Eton and Yale - there are also companies that offer bespoke cradle-to-school development plans.
Such schemes cost around 300,000 yuan (Dh179,000) a year.
One such organisation is the Lion School, based in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou. It promises a "British noble man's education" and boasts, with only the faintest degree of truth, it has been recognised by Queen Elizabeth.
Children are given aptitude and intelligence tests and the school devises intensive study plans on that basis.
"We are very happy with our daughter's development," said Ms Liang the mother of a 3-year-old girl at Lion School. Her daughter attends group classes in the morning and has private classes in the afternoons to promote social skills, a love of music and better dictation.
"I am only sad this kind of education was not available when my son was younger," Ms Liang said.
But not all parents who invest in non-traditional educational methods are satisfied.
Last summer a group of Shanghai families each parted with 100,000 yuan for a 10-day course which claimed it could teach their kids speed reading and how to identify a playing card blindfolded.
In reality, the instructors taught the children how to fake such feats.
"I found that my child had learnt nothing except how to cheat," a man identified only by his surname Yang told Chinese media. He and the other families have sued the company Xinyu Education Centre.
Mr Yang may not be all that different to Ms Liang and Ms Huang. He said he was motivated by fears about his child's future and was, presumably, trying to navigate the wealth of choice that now exists.
"Many of these methods are totally unscientific. But they are well marketed," Mr Li said.
Thirty years ago there was no private education at any level and a baby was either cared for by a grandparent or looked after in a work unit nursery - which catered to child's basic needs.
Ms Huang, and other mothers and fathers, have rented a house on the outskirts of Beijing and hired teachers to continue their flashcard work.
This way they can give their children the education they want at a fraction of the price of institutions like Lion School.
The children start their day at 8.30am and finish at around 7.30pm, every moment of which is scheduled.
But Ms Huang and the other parents worry about their options when their children turn 6.
Curriculum in public schools assumes all children start school unable to read and write, something the government has done to create a level playing field. Parents worry their tutored children would become bored in class because they are so far ahead of their classmates if they enrol at their local school.
Another option is to lobby the selection committee to get children into one of the "good" government primary schools that links with a well regarded middle and high school, putting a child on the fast track to a good university.
Such schools quietly evaluate their applicants and ask parents for financial contributions for the school to secure a place.
Somewhat counter intuitively perhaps, Ms Huang is not keen on putting Kitty through that.
"The pressure in those schools is too much. She is happy and likes learning. I'd like to keep it that way."
Updated: May 12, 2013 04:00 AM