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Young learners special: Barbie brings English lessons to China’s tiny tot market

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Ninety per cent of all Chinese kindergartens are private and most of them need English language teachers, finds Melanie Butler.

Toy giant Mattel is the latest big-name investor to plunge into China’s growing pre-school market, according to China Daily. Interest in the pre-school market has soared following legislation allowing private-sector providers working in the sector to register as for-profit companies. Early-years providers make up 90 per cent of the 163,000 private schools in China, according to Ministry of Education statistics quoted by Reuters.

In a joint venture with the Chinese investment conglomerate Fosun, best known as the owners of Club Med, Mattel plans to launch its network of ‘play clubs’, designed to combine pre-school education and shopping, in Shanghai next year. No details of the educational programmes on offer have been released and it is unclear whether English language teaching will be included.

Language schools in China have long targeted the pre-school age group: Disney English opened in 2009 and now has 27 centres across the country, while EF’s Small Stars programme is offered in 55 Chinese cities – with fourteen centres in Beijing alone.

The traditional model has been for children to attend Chinese-medium pre-schools and to enrol in a private language school as an addition. However, the move by English language giant New Oriental into offering bilingual pre-schools may signal a shift away from English as an additional subject towards English as a medium of instruction. The Nasdaq-listed company has opened five bilingual kindergartens so far. They are branded New Oriental Stars and are operated separately from its ‘Pop Kids’ after-school study programmes and its K–12 bilingual New Oriental Foreign Language School at Yangzhou.

The private sector has been the engine for the growth of pre-school education in China. Between 2003 and 2015, the number of centres soared from 55,000 to 143,000, according to business consultancy Research In China. Only 15,000 new public kindergartens opened over the same period.

Private-sector growth seems unlikely to slow any time soon. Not only is the decision to end the country’s one-child policy likely to result in a baby boom, but the government has announced a plan to increase enrolments in pre-schools by 10 per cent. Although central government will release some funds for state provision, it is keen to increase private provision by promising ‘preferential policies to attract private capital into the sector’, according to official government website Xinhuanet.

Unlike private primary and middle schools, which must follow the Chinese national curriculum under new regulations laid down last year, pre-schools are not restricted in the methodology they use. Around 10 per cent of all kindergartens now offer Western-style curricula, according to SupChina magazine.

At the top end of the private sector, there is a panoply of provision on offer – from Confucian Kindergartens to those following Western programmes, including Montessori, Waldorf and the Reggiano approach from the Reggio Emilia region of Italy. Parents attracted by the idea of their child becoming part of the global elite demand English lessons or bilingual classes with native-speaker teachers – preferably blonde and white, judging by teachers’ comments on some websites.

Most schools, though, also cover the basics of China’s pre-schools, such as with top-end providers like Golden Cradle with 400 centres across the country.

They aim to give children a head start by, for example, teaching pupils 800 Chinese characters rather than the 200 specified for government schools.

It is in the area of methodology where schools may be most at risk of government interference. Although the Chinese government needs the private sector to provide the facilities necessary to meet its pre-school expansion targets, it has been waging a campaign against the teaching of ‘Western values’. It has even been inspecting branches of overseas universities (as we reported last month).
In March this year censors began to crack down on the sales of foreign picture books for young children, banning the majority of them, according to SupChina.

Could Western-style pre-school methodology be next on the list?