Chengdu is a city of nine million people located in Sichuan Province deep in the interior of the People’s Republic of China. It is the closest city to the home of what many Americans regard as the most famous image of China—the panda. But Chengdu is also the home to something that is much more surprising—a private school that looks like a movie set.
Private schools are a new phenomenon in a country where the government has long assumed exclusive control for education. Today, though, private schools are flourishing.
The first private school established in China in over forty years is found in Chengdu. Guangya School was established in June, 1992 by Mr. Qing Guangya, who modeled the school after sets that he had designed for movies in his previous career.
I visited the Guangya School in December of 1996 and met with Mr. Qing, its founder and owner, to explore the possibility of some of his students coming to visit the United States. As a new organization, Pacific Link International Exchange Students (PLIES) was working to partner with private schools in China whose students wanted the opportunity to study English and learn more about American culture. I could tell right away that the Guangya School was unlike any school I had ever seen in China.
Most Chinese public schools are drab looking with dusty chalkboards as the only teaching tool in the classroom. By contrast, the Guangya School amazed me with its brightly colored classrooms, a library building built like a country lodge and a beautiful lake in the middle of the school campus. Inside the classrooms, students and faculty enjoyed access to the latest computer technology. The students had come from all over China to take advantage of the opportunities and resources that only such an elite private school could offer them—and all of this located in the midst of rice paddies an hour west of Chengdu city.
The development of private education in China has important consequences for both its economy and culture. The rapidly growing economy has encouraged many non-governmental agencies as well as individuals to devote themselves to new private schools. Following the economic reform of 1978, more than 50,000 private schools have been founded, ranging from preschools to colleges. Approximately 10 million students now study in private schools staffed by 400,000 teachers and support personnel.
The senior high schools in China are divided into three groups: key public schools, common public schools, and private schools. The best students often attend the key public schools, which are famous for sending more than 90 percent of their students to enroll in colleges or universities in China.
The common public schools, by contrast, are not quite as prestigious, and the students there are not as likely to attend college.
The third group is private schools. The teachers working at these schools are retired from the key public schools, so they possess exceptional experience and skills. Many of the students who attend private schools dream of attending college in the United States. Since they did not perform well enough on the exam to enter a key public school, they are pursuing the alternative route of attending an elite private school. They hope that such a school will prepare them for college in the U. S. or to begin a lucrative career with a foreign company in China.
There are three different types of private schools in terms of their ownership, financing, and management. The first type is funded and owned by private investors. Some of them are former educational professionals, but most are successful businessmen. For them, running schools is running businesses.
The second type of private school is owned by Chinese business firms or individuals in collaboration with foreign investors. These schools are joint ventures between Chinese and overseas partners with the goal of making profits.
The third type is owned and administered by Chinese enterprises or non-governmental departments, institutions or communities.
Private schools are subject to the authority of the local educational authorities. With few exceptions, all private schools have to fulfill the core curriculum set for any public school by the State Education Commission (Ministry of Education). Usually, the local municipal education commission ensures that private schools are politically correct and monitors their educational revenues and expenditures.
Private schools in China are very expensive. The tuition at the best private schools is greater than two years wages for an average Chinese worker. However, private schools are within reach of China’s rapidly emerging middle class and business elite. Many of these successful entrepreneurs did not receive a formal education because they were children during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s when schools were closed so that Chinese youth could further their nation’s revolution. The combination of the lack of opportunity to have received an education themselves, and the economic resources they enjoy today, impels many of these new Chinese business leaders to spend whatever it takes to provide the best possible education for their own children—or often their only child—at a private school.
The very idea of private education seems incompatible with the nature of the government of the People’s Republic of China. But private education has been endorsed by the central government in Beijing as a means of easing the state’s financial burden.
The government sees other benefits as well. The Ninth People’s Congress emphasized the importance of education and science for China’s prosperity and development in the 21st century. The official “China’s Educational Reform and Development Scheme for the 21st Century” explicitly “welcomes and encourages,” “gives full support to” and “strengthens regulations” regarding private institutions. The Chinese government envisions an integrated educational system with public schools playing the leading role and private schools providing the same services to a different clientele of students and parents.
In order to control and guide private schools, in 1997 the State Education Committee issued “Regulations Governing Private Education.” These regulations officially legalized private education so that all registered private schools are licensed as government-run educational institutions. Private schools are still controlled by the central government in Beijing as they must meet requirements for faculty quality, school management, facilities and curriculum to obtain a registration certificate from the government.
The story of the Country Garden school in Guangzhou is typical. It opened in September 1994 with 1,700 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. The student body more than doubled within six years. Country Garden now offers 102 classes taught by 960 faculty members. It is one of the largest private schools in Guangdong Province, where Guangzhou (previously known to Westerners as Canton) thrives as home to much of the rapid development of the Chinese economy. The school emphasizes the importance of moral education, patriotism, teaching “life’s ideals” and encouraging service. All of the students live at the school, sometimes far from their parents, thus making the school responsible for much more than academic progress.
Still, private schools in China are different from schools in America. Even in private schools, students are required to attend political training meetings and moral education classes that are regulated by the central government in Beijing. Chinese students are much less likely to be exposed to any teachings about religion, especially Christianity. Nevertheless, one school that I visited in China demonstrated that such ideas are taking root there. As I toured the school’s campus, I noticed three words painted in English in large letters on the outside of one of the classroom buildings: faith, hope and love. Those words point toward the best hope for the future of China, its private schools and its students.
Image credit: Faith hope love by Eric via Flickr.
Lisa Nagle, BA, MA, has been working in and around China since 1991. She has lived in Changsha, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Lisa is founder and executive director of Pacific Link International Educational Services (PLIES, www.pacificlink.us) which provides short-term and long-term study abroad experiences for youth from China. View Full Bio