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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Chinese parents demand answers to kindergarten abuse claims

Children at Beijing preschool reported to have been molested, forced to strip and to take unidentified pills

Parents take photos of a notice posted by the RYB kindergarten announcing measures taken in response to allegations of children abuse in Beijing on November 24, 2017. Ng Han Guan / AP Photo
Parents take photos of a notice posted by the RYB kindergarten announcing measures taken in response to allegations of children abuse in Beijing on November 24, 2017. Ng Han Guan / AP Photo

Dozens of upset parents gathered outside a kindergarten in Beijing on Friday to demand answers after reports alleged some children had been abused and molested. The case has drawn widespread attention in China and triggered outrage over potential lapses in supervision in the booming private preschool industry.

The scandal erupted after influential newsmagazine Caixin and other Chinese media quoted some parents as saying their children were molested, forced to strip as punishment, found with unexplained apparent needle marks on their bodies and made to take unidentified white pills. The claims could not be independently verified.

The Beijing Municipal Commission of Education said it would inspect other kindergartens in the Chinese capital, while the US-listed company that runs the preschool, Beijing-based RYB Education, said It had suspended three teachers. It promised to co-operate with police in a thorough investigation and vowed "zero tolerance" for abusive staff.

It is the latest case involving schools to spark online outrage in China.

"Laws must be enforced, supervision strengthened, teacher wages increased," an editorial by the official Xinhua News Agency said. "The childcare industry cannot be allowed to grow in an uncivilised fashion."

Earlier this month, surveillance video emerged of abuse at a Shanghai daycare centre run by China's largest online travel company, Ctrip. The video, uploaded by angry parents on Chinese social media, showed teachers slapping a crying girl, pushing a toddler to the ground, and force-feeding students a substance later confirmed to be wasabi. In April, RYB Education suspended the headmaster and two teachers at another branch in Beijing after a video of a teacher kicking children was widely shared online.

On Friday morning, a group of parents waited for answers outside the Xintiandi school gate while other parents led their children past reporters and plainclothes security agents to the doors.

"We need clarification. As parents, we have the right to question the school, don't we?" said a father who gave only his surname, Wang.

In its statement, RYB suggested it was the victim of frame-up and false accusations by an "individual" and said it raised this with police.

Concern rippled beyond families at the school. Pictures of alleged injuries were widely shared by users of China's WeChat messaging service before the country's internet censors started deleting posts.

"This is quite terrifying," said Zhang Yang, a mother in Beijing whose children do not attend RYB schools. She said the allegations were alarming because they were being made against a well-known private institution.

"All my friends went home and asked their children if they've ever been given medications or injected," Ms Zhang said. "Mothers are at a loss for what to do."

RYB and its franchisees operate 1,300 daycare centres and nearly 500 kindergartens in 300 Chinese cities, according to its website.

The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September, joining other Chinese providers capitalising on rising demand from the country's emerging middle class for educational services.

In China, private early education programmes have seen steady growth in a market forecast to reach 200 billion yuan (Dh110bn) this year, according to the China Online Education Institute. But experts and parents say China lacks skilled and experienced teachers and adequate oversight over the rapidly expanding sector.

Early childhood education providers like RYB that are focused on rapid expansion to drive profits will find it hard to ensure teacher quality, said Yong Zhao, a professor specialising in Chinese education at the University of Kansas.

"When education becomes a profit-driven centre, you have to sacrifice somewhere," Mr Zhao said. "You will not be willing to spend more money on people and you will not attract high-quality educators."