Last week, I visited two private elementary/middle schools here in Hangzhou. The difference? One was meant for domestic immigrants to the city of Hangzhou and the other was a high-priced exclusive school for Hangzhou locals.
China has a “hukou” system in place where each citizen belongs to a place (a village, a city) in China. If your mother was born in the countryside to parents who were also country-folk of a particular village, you too “belong” to that countryside village. The original purpose of the hukou system was to divide land among citizens and during the communist rule it easily divided citizens into units to distribute services. But today, the hukou system only exists to prevent every farmer from China’s interior or west from moving to the coast, the more prosperous part of China. One of the restrictions is that children that go to cities with their parents to find work (usually low-level hard labor in factories or construction) cannot attend public schools in the city that they don’t “belong” to. So, private schools fill the gap in education needs.
I expected the so-called “immigrant school” to be somewhere closer to the one-room school-house in dire need of chalk. But in reality, Hangzhou’s immigrant school was in excellent shape. They boasted music, dance, and computer classes alongside a student population of ethnic minorities, families with more than one child (60%). I was impressed. The principal, a man from Hangzhou, said the school had been open 8 years and that they were proud to be serving the immigrant population. Tuition was 500RMB per a semester, still a good amount for working families, but within reach because of government grants.
The supposed other end of the spectrum was a private school where uniforms and projector-installed classrooms reigned supreme. I visited a middle-school Chinese literature class on the great Lu Xun, THE Chinese modern author. I didn’t understand half of what the teacher was saying but most revealing was that class was a balance of old and new teaching. The first half of the class was traditional style, repeat after the teacher and keep your head in your book. The second half of the class included a powerpoint and lots of hands in the air waiting to answer questions. No one got a price on tuition here but chances are that it was high.
The goal of all Chinese, of course, is to avoid private school altogether. Public schools are not only cheap but have the best and brightest teachers and students. Overall, this week’s trips finally gave me a glimpse into what I study weekly in my one-on-one course on Chinese education.