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On the Horns of an Educational Dilemma

American Christian parents face tough decisions about to how to best provide for their children’s education. But the toughest part is often deciding between a comparatively rich supply of good and legal options – local Christian schools, homeschooling (with a nearly overwhelming array of good curriculum and  models), co-ops, hybrid homeschool/co-op, on-line Christian school, sometimes a good public school influenced by Christian teachers and administrators. All these choices offer their children a quality education and a clear path into college and the workplace.

Consider the two basic choices facing Chinese Christian parents.

On “horn #1”, they can be legal and give their child a path to college and career by enrolling her in the officially atheistic, rote-memory focused, pressure-packed, test-driven public school that fails to help her develop critical thinking skills.

But if they choose “horn #2” – a Christian education – they must wade into a legal “gray area”[1] full of risks and with no apparent path to college or career. This “horn” is especially pointed because of a Chinese cultural tradition and because of the compulsory retirement age of 60[2]. Parents depend on their one legal child[3] to support them in their older age. So they have even more than the usual motivation to provide their child the kind of education that can help them get a good paying job!

In the last few weeks, Christian parents in China enrolled about 1.5 million children into the first grade of government schools there. They enrolled perhaps 3,000 (my estimate[4]) into the first grade of the approximately 250 small, private, unregistered Christian schools. Another 5,000 children embarked this year on the not-clearly-legal homeschooling journey. In America, where the number of Christians attending church on any Sunday is about the same as in China, the number of Christian schools is more than 20,000, with about 3 million students[5]. And there are 2.2 million homeschooled children[6], mostly Christians.

My estimate, admittedly rough, is that only .3% of Chinese Christian families (fewer than 1 in 300) have opted for a Christian education over the government schools. Why such a low number?

To answer this, let’s look at the pointed realities of “horn #2” … the Christian education option.

For those choosing homeschooling, they have almost zero Christian curriculum in their language. They typically have no examples to follow or friends to share the journey. There are no co-ops and no Chinese language online schools. Their own education did not generally equip them with a Christian world and life view, or with good pedagogical models. The child is generally not permitted to sit for their standardized college entrance exam (Gaukau). One parent must forego their income (In most Chinese families both parents work full time). Their culture does not prize individuality or the kind of break with norms that homeschooling represents. And since most Christians in China have yet to realize the importance of a Christian education, homeschoolers often lack the moral support of even their church friends.

For those choosing private, unregistered Christian schools (the only other Christian education available), the challenges are no less daunting. The cost for tuition and books represents a high percentage of the family’s income. The schools operate with the daily reality that they may be closed down without warning. We met with the leaders of one school that was just marking its 5th anniversary. It has been closed down 8 times. Each time they had to find another location to rent, move the school, and hope and pray for the best. We heard similar stories from most of the other schools we visited.

The schools are not “accredited”, and can’t be. Their graduates can’t generally sit for the Gaukau. They have virtually no Christian curriculum in Chinese from which to teach. They have few models in China to follow, and none more than a few years ahead of them. Schools are not generally able to pay teachers anything near the salary of public schools. Teachers may have an education degree, but their own education generally did nothing to prepare them to teach a Christian worldview. We found that many teachers in these schools earn the equivalent of $200 per month, even in cities where a tiny, one-bedroom apartment rental alone (outside the city center) averages $300-500, so finding and retaining good teachers is even harder there than here. (In spite of the sacrifices these teachers make, oh, how zealous and committed and joy-filled were so many of them that we met!)

For Chinese Christian parents, both “horns” of the educational dilemma are indeed sharp!

But remarkably, this pioneering few is now quickly growing in number and determination. More and more are taking the bold steps to blaze a trail forward for their children and for future generations of Christian families. They seek to make the dilemma into a “false dilemma” by creating a third way … a way between the horns. A handful of visionary leaders and organizations are now providing teacher training, planning for a Chinese Christian curriculum, developing academic standards for students and teachers, creating partnerships with established institutions in the West, forming a process for school accreditation, and creating pathways into the workforce and ministry vocations.

I love these pioneers! Pray with me that their courageous risks in following their Biblical convictions will be blessed, even as the Hebrew midwives were blessed for doing good at great risk (Exodus 1:20). Pray that their children will become wise, bold, winsome and fruitful followers of Jesus, for His sake and for the sake of China.


[1] China law requires children from 6 years old to attend a registered school. Christian schools cannot generally be registered. Homeschooling is not expressly permitted, though it is currently being overlooked.

[2] China’s retirement age is 60 for men, 55 for female white collar workers and 50 for female blue-collar employees.

[3] There have long been various exceptions to the so-called “one child” policy, with some recent further relaxation of the rules, and some parents simply pay a fine to have a second child, so current fertility rate in China is 1.4 –

[4] Statistics for unregistered Christian schools and homeschooling in China are not generally available, so we must rely on anecdotal data and reports from people in the trenches.

[6] National Home Education Research Institute –

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Henry Banks

Henry Banks

Henry Banks (pseudonym) has worked in cross-cultural church planting and education in the Americas, Asia and Africa for the last 15 years, with a more recent focus on China. He has worked with scores of Chinese leaders and teachers in Chinese unregistered schools in a dozen cities, and with hundreds …View Full Bio

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