When China moved to curb after-school tutoring last year, ostensibly to reduce the pressure on overburdened students, Chinese parents flocked to social media to vent their frustration.
“Parents’ anxiety is not reduced!” a Weibo user said.
“TAL Education Group was cheap and cheerful, now there’s only $160 one-on-one classes available,” another commented, referring to a popular provider of supplementary classes.
China’s crackdown on after-school tutoring services was aimed to decrease the workload of primary and secondary students, and to encourage couples to have kids as the country’s birth rate fell to a record low. The Chinese authorities also ordered schools to reduce the amount of homework assigned to students, which they hope would make not just the pupils’ but also their parents’ lives easier.
But one year after the ban went into effect, it not only proved hard to enforce, but also led to consequences that some say are worsening education inequality in the world’s most populous country.
“If parents are financially capable, they will invite the tutors to give classes to their kids at home,” said Hellen Huang, a former academic course tutor. “As long as there is a need, illegal tutoring will still exist.”
Huang lost her job after the ban decimated the private education sector. In 2020, tutoring giants like New Oriental and TAL Education Group peaked with over 10.6 million and 4.6 million student enrollments, respectively, across hundreds of learning centers in China. The crackdown wiped out virtually all of their enrollments and sent their stock prices into freefall. Many smaller education companies simply folded.
The measures were aimed at reducing the cost of raising children and reversing a declining birth rate that could slow the growth of the world’s second-largest economy. Within the same year of the ban on supplementary tutoring, China also moved to allow couples to have up to three children, a stark reversal from the “One-Child Policy” enforced in the 1980s and ended in 2016.
For poorer families, a child’s successful education is a chance at social mobility. But by eliminating affordable tutoring classes, children from poorer families may struggle even more, Huang said.
“If parents are forced to hire one-on-one tutors, many of them might not be able to afford the costs anymore,” she said.
The education inequality gap between rural and urban students is significant in China. While the Chinese government offers nine years of mandatory education free of charge, rural students drop out after the 8th grade at a much higher rate compared to their urban counterparts.
The Borgen Project, a non-profit with a focus on ending global poverty, reports 60 percent of rural students drop out after the 8th grade due to their inability to pay for tuition, with only 5 percent of the remaining students getting admitted to colleges. In comparison, 70 percent of urban students attend college.
Getting ahead largely comes down to how students fare in gao kao—China’s notoriously difficult national college entrance exam. Until the recent ban, many parents turned to private education companies to boost their kids’ performance, sometimes overwhelming the teenagers.
Dai Shuqi, an 18-year-old high schooler from the western Chinese city of Xi’an, plans to take the entrance exam this month. She said she remained haunted by the time she spent in a cram school, calling the experience “a very dark time” in her life.
She and other students would wake up at six in the morning and go back to the dormitory just before midnight.
“By then, we all felt extremely tired and we still had to attend classes the next day. So we took turns to do the homework. One person would do their homework first, while the others slept. And when you finished, you would wake the next person up to do their homework. This would go on until 3 a.m. sometimes,” Dai said.
“All parents want their children to go to a good high school, a good college. So they like to see children compete; they send us to off-campus courses so we won’t be left behind. That’s why we always have to carry such heavy burdens.”
Under the new policy on supplementary tutoring, such cram schools could no longer operate—at least not openly.
Some parents hope the ban could foster the healthier development of children in the country.
Tan Baole, founder of Youth Rising Education Company, holds this view. Unlike typical online lectures, his lectures focus more on lifting struggling teenager’s confidence and fostering independence. He believes parents should focus on the quality of children’s education because it would help their children grow up into a “healthy and happy person.”
“As the policy took effect, we saw the majority [of children] stop taking tutoring classes. The policy started to change people’s mindset and a new norm is getting recognized by more people,” he said.
“I used to take my oldest daughter to travel around different cities when she was really young,” he said.
Baole’s wife, Zhang Hui, also expressed similar sentiments on how she and Baole are raising their children.
“I think letting the kids explore their own talents is the way I still want to go,” Zhang said.
But not all are convinced that banning supplementary tutoring is a good idea. Some students blame the pressure on China’s demanding exams instead.
“The big entrance exams are still there,” said Liu Cheng Ze Hua, a college student. “We are still being selected by different schools based on our exam scores. If that remains the same, whether the policy is there or not, it won’t make much difference.”