China’s innovative ‘happy schools’ popular with parents leaving the academically demanding mainstream education sector


When Zhang Fen visited the aptly named Happy School with her son Tian Tian, ​​a second grade student, she thought, “This is school for us. The students spent less time studying, but they seemed happier and had more freedom in the alternative style school.

As China seeks to harness its hyper-competitive education system by banning after-school private lessons and placing more emphasis on physical activity, alternative schools that prioritize individual achievement and happiness through report exams and test results are booming.

It’s no secret that a growing number of Chinese parents are turning away from the country’s rigorous public education system, which has been accused of placing a heavy workload on both students and parents and creating unnecessary anxiety. In addition to independently run schools, such as international schools, a third choice has emerged and gained in popularity: innovative education.

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In Beijing, a year at Happy School, or similar innovative schools, will typically cost parents from 70,000 (US $ 11,000) to 100,000 yuan (US $ 15,730) or more. Despite their high cost, they have been attracting middle-class families since 2005, the WeChat Real-life Stories blog recently reported in an article on Happy School.

Tian Tian spent two years at a prestigious public school in Haidian District, Beijing’s mecca for extracurricular education, where he was bullied and struggled to make friends. At Happy School, he thrived in a more friendly environment, said Zhang.

Like other innovative schools, there are no rankings or exams at Happy School. Public school books are also rarely used. Instead, teachers use original material to teach everything from current events to Chinese classics.

With 400 Kindergarten to Grade 9 students and a US branch in New Jersey, Ririxin School is one of China’s most prestigious innovative schools. It was founded in 2006 with the mission of promoting a more natural approach to education, emphasizing the academic and personal development of each child and their overall well-being.

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However, despite the growing popularity of innovative schools, issues remain with their perceived validity and recognition. This form of education is not registered with the central government and cannot claim to be a formal school. Instead, he has to settle for xue tang, which ironically is the name used for more traditional private schools.

Despite the lack of official registration with the government, innovative schools have grown beyond Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the four main metropolitan areas in China.

Dali in southwest China’s Yunnan Province has become the preferred choice of many “elephant parents” – the antithesis of “tiger parents”.

An estimated 10.78 million high school students took the Gaokao University entrance exam in 2021. Photo: Getty Images

A popular travel destination nestled between Cang Mountain and Er Lake, Dali is considered a paradise among China’s innovative and thriving school industry.

Melody Liu, the mother of six-year-old daughter Mango, moved to Dali earlier this year.

“We moved to Dali for the education, family and community ecosphere. Before coming to Dali, school education and family education were isolated for me, but here they work together, ”she said.

“I became friends with the teachers at Mango, we can talk about everything from the weather to education. In Dali, we have appointments for the children all the time, the parents get together just to share our life stories and our views on education.

Mao Mao Guo Er, one of Dali’s best-known innovative schools, describes itself as “an educational community of 180 children aged 2 to 12, with over 40 teachers.”

Founded in 2012, the school values ​​students’ ability to experience happiness and create motivation for lifelong learning. However, innovative schools are not for everyone.

Prices are high, with monthly fees for a kindergarten student in Mao Mao Guo Er 4,500 yuan (US $ 708), more than double the average monthly income in Dali in 2020, according to government statistics.

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According to Wang A Wan, travel blogger and mother of five-year-old son Derek, “talk of money” is considered shameful in Dali. Innovative schools are not just a financial challenge for parents; some believe that teachers are not paid enough.

When Wang found out that most of the teachers in Derek’s school are paid 3,000 yuan (US $ 550) per month, she wondered if they should be paid more. Wang refused to disclose the name of his son’s school.

“Most people in the community, however, say that salary shouldn’t be a priority, that passion is what matters most to a teacher,” she told the South China Morning Post.

“The more innovative education, the more demanding it is for teachers,” said Wang. Besides passion, teachers need a wide range of knowledge on a variety of subjects, a flexible way of thinking and providing effective guidance to their students.

“I don’t think their current salary is attractive enough to keep good teachers,” Wang said. “I really appreciate the educational philosophy of the school, but not all teachers are able to carry it out.”

After spending nearly a year in Dali, Wang and her family returned to Shenzhen, southern China’s Guangdong Province, in April of last year because she felt the reality of l school had not met his expectations.

In an announcement seeking kindergarten teachers in 2020, Mao Mao Guo Er listed the candidates’ requirements as “energetic”, “lifelong learning” and “love for children. At the top of the role description. Teaching experience or a certificate was described as optional, but a “belief in your talent as a teacher” was.

For Xu Xiao, who has a four-year-old daughter named Joy, who studies in Yunduo Kindergarten, one of Dali’s most famous innovative schools, her biggest concern is the availability of teachers.

“A lot of the teachers are travelers, they stay here for a few years before they leave,” Xu said.

Teachers are not the only ones who do not stay long in innovative schools. Half of Joy’s class plan to emigrate, while the rest will transfer to international schools, and only a few plan to stay.

For Sophia Zeng, mother of seven-year-old Zaizai, a dedicated education in an innovative school has significant benefits.

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“It’s like a utopia in Dali, where the whole community comes together to raise our children,” she said.

Zeng uprooted her family from Chengdu to move to Dali in 2017 and enrolled Zaizai in a thriving innovative school, which she refused to name.

“He has grown so much over the past few years here at Dali, from his ability to perceive natural beauty to creativity and inner motivation,” Zeng said.

“The experience in Dali also helped me and my husband to learn how to be better parents,” Zeng said, adding that the family has grown closer.

In her innovative primary school, Zaizai teachers adopt the problem-based learning approach. Together with his 19 classmates, he studies Chinese, mathematics, English and other subjects in what are called general courses. Classes are based on research projects on topics ranging from the Big Bang to the extinction of dinosaurs.

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Last July, her end-of-year exam took the form of a scavenger hunt, in which the students’ knowledge, concentration, fitness and social skills were put to the test.

Observers were assigned to follow the students and take notes. No report cards were sent to parents or students afterwards, but families were invited to a WeChat group to “watch” the exam in real time.

“What I love most about my school is that we are all free to do what we want to do, to be what we want to be,” Zaizai said.

“I don’t want to glorify innovative education in Dali,” Zeng added. “It’s not without flaws, no school or education is perfect, but in the end we chose what works best for our family. “

Even though many students thrive in innovative schools, and parents like Zhang, Zeng, Wang, Xu, and Liu enjoy seeing their children thrive in an unconventional educational approach, not everyone stays behind. not in the alternative school system.

After four years in an innovative school, Zhang decided to re-enroll Tian Tian in a public school at the end of elementary school, along with more than 30 of his classmates. After a positive early childhood at Happy School, it is time for Tian Tian to face the academic competitiveness of the public school system, she said.

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