Ambitious, and perhaps naïve, Chinese parents have paid 100,000 yuan (around $15,000) for a course which promised to teach their children to read a book in 20 seconds and be able to identify playing cards by touch. With the surprising revelation that the course failed in its aims, parents are angry at being scammed.
The Shanghai summer course attracted 30 pupils aged 7 to 17 and lasted for ten days. The idea was that on completion students would be able to instantly see answers in their head when viewing a test paper.
But 10 days later their “special abilities” had not materialised. “I found that my child learned nothing except how to cheat,” one parent complained.
That 30 people were willing to pay such a large sum for a dubious course is indicative of how competitive the Chinese education system can be, with families losing perspective and rationality in a blind bid to ensure their child an advantage. The college entrance exam, or gaokao, has long been a focus of effort for parents as it can determine their child’s entire future, but now many families feel caught in a chain that starts at the birth. To get good grades on the gaokao the child should attend a quality high school, but the child’s high school depends on being in a good primary. So now there is a situation, not entirely unfamiliar to affluent Western parents, where nursery schools in big cities have long waiting lists and an interview process for acceptance.
After-hours classes, weekend tutoring and summer courses are common before middle-class children hit their teens. Few are quite as spectacular as the Shanghai programme, which claimed it achieved remarkable results by training children to use the right-hand side of their brain. A tutor told an undercover reporter from the Oriental Morning Post that pupils learned to detect “certain waves” that emanated from everything, including words.
Afterschool classes for core subjects such as English and math are common for many children now to ensure they don’t fall behind their classmates. However, now people are worried that there may be too much societal and parental pressure on children as studies suggest that a third of primary school children suffer symptoms of stress — such as stomach pains or headaches — at least once a week.
“The competitive and punitive educational environment leads to high levels of stress and psychosomatic symptoms,” said the researchers, who were led by Professor Therese Hesketh of the Centre for International Health and Development at University College London.
In addition, parenting experts say that the domineering approach of many parents may be counter-productive. If children aren’t allowed time to relax afterschool or on weekends — or even during holidays — there is a high risk that they will burn out and lose interest in studying.