When Sunday Becomes The New Monday: The Race Of Life Continues Over The Weekends

When God created the world, he took the seventh day off and rested from all his work. Most of the students in China do not have that luxury. They need to continue the race at cram schools over the weekends, as competition gets fierce for key school admissions and employment in China.
Being one of the many born in late 1970s in China, I was often told that “life is a race” when I was growing up. The saying remains popular today, despite China’s rapid economic growth and wealth creation over the past decades. In fact, people are now facing more pressure from competing for resources on the back of China’s ongoing urbanization process. No doubt the race is getting tougher and lengthier.
It is not a new phenomenon in China that classrooms at private tutoring schools are usually full during the weekend. Still, when I visited an early childhood education center on a Sunday morning, I was surprised to see a group of kids about three years old, accompanied by their parents, sitting together and learning English. Suddenly I felt a sense of guilt while I was watching them through the classroom window, as if I had not worked hard enough.
Well, that is not completely true. I did work hard when I was in junior high. At that time there were not many private tutoring schools around like there are today, but students who achieved excellent academic results could be selected to join an elite group to represent the school in all sorts of competitions. I was once chosen to be one of the “elite” representing the school in a mathematics competition, and for three years I had to attend a full-day class every Sunday in order to get myself prepared for the Mathematics Olympiad.
My observation at the early childhood education center and my personal experience at junior high are only two of the many examples showing that “elite culture” is deeply-rooted in the Chinese education system and is increasingly embraced by Chinese society as a whole.
Moreover, the growing mentality among China’s younger generations today of being unique, coupled with the ambition to succeed in life, is greatly shaping the landscape of China’s education market.
As more and more students and parents are looking for personalized education beyond the public school’s standard services, an increasing number of private players have tapped into China’s education market through premium educational services offerings. The so-called premium educational services can be described as tailor-made content, personalized learning format and “premium” pricing.
Most private educational services providers have developed course content in-house either for the preparation of school entry exams in China or preparing students to study abroad. Some of the educational services providers who focus on early childhood education have tailor-made content for children aged 2-4. Different from the large class teaching format (40-50 students) at public schools, most of the in-house developed content is taught in personalized settings, such as small classes (10-20 students) and VIPs (1-on-1 or 1- to-5), at privately-owned learning centers. Students who attend private tutoring classes typically pay the course fees upfront, which can vary from Rmb50/hour to Rmb1000/hour, depending on a teacher’s quality and the school’s reputation, as well as the subject being taught.
Due to the growing demand for personalized learning and rising household income in China, the K-12 after-school tutoring market is also expanding rapidly. It is estimated that China’s primary and secondary after-school tutoring market will likely grow from $19.5bil in 2009 to $32.5bil in 2014.
Despite its huge market potential, the private tutoring market in China remains fragmented. New Oriental, China’s largest private education services provider offering a full spectrum of educational services, ranging from overseas test preparation to childhood learning, generated a total net revenue of $771.7mil for the fiscal year ended May 2012, up 38.3% from a year ago Yet the company accounts for less than 1% market share in China’s private tutoring market.
As someone who does research on China’s education sector, I often question the trade-offs for students who attend the cram schools. More often, I question the trade-offs for the society as a whole as the after-school tutoring market prospers in China.
While I am one of the many who does not see the value in China’s “Gao Kao” system, I also have to admit it might be the only way for the ordinary people who are not “the 2nd generation rich” to have the opportunity of winning the races of life.
Knowing that more and more people turn their Sunday into Monday as they march through the battles of life, I really wish that at some point they could have the luxury to enjoy life a bit more. I still remember what one of my friends at junior high told me one day as she decided to quit the “elite” group: “Life is not a race”, she said, “or numbers”.
Life is not a race, but a journey.

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