New policies ease access to kindergarten

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Parents and educators have welcomed government moves to make kindergartens safer, cheaper, more convenient and simply more available.

But for now, things can be rough for some parents.

Han Jun, who works in Beijing, for example, has put his 3-year-old son into a private kindergarten for two basic reasons-availability and quality.

"It is very difficult to get your child enrolled in public kindergartens because there are not enough of them, and I also worry about my son learning little at public kindergartens since they are forbidden from teaching any primary school material" such as math, Chinese and English, said Han, who is in his early 30s.

Private kindergartens charge fees ranging from 5,000 yuan ($720) to 20,000 yuan a month in Beijing, while public ones cost just several hundred yuan a month, he said.

The high cost has presented Han with a huge financial challenge as he and his wife together earn about 20,000 yuan a month.

The private preschool their son attends costs 7,000 yuan a month. They first considered enrolling their son in a cheaper public kindergarten that charges about 500 yuan, but the only public school with a good reputation nearby is reserved for residents in an area where land prices are nearly twice as high as where Han lives.

Children attending inexpensive public kindergartens (or low-priced private ones) will account for 80 percent of all preschoolers by 2020, according to a directive jointly issued recently by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council.

By 2035, three-year preschool education will be available for all children between the ages of 3 and 6, and a national preschool network will be established, it said.

Affordable preschools will be the priority of the campaign, the document said. Governments at all levels are encouraged to establish public kindergartens, in a bid to put about 50 percent of all preschool children into public education by 2020.

Communities, State-owned enterprises and public institutions such as universities are also encouraged to establish their own kindergartens.

Wang Yan, a public kindergarten teacher in Changsha, Hunan province, said the main reason for the shortage of public kindergartens is the difficulty of finding teachers. "The pay is bad, despite the heavy social responsibility we carry," she said.

Wang is busy caring for and teaching children during the day, while her evenings are devoted to preparing for the next day's games and events and addressing a never-ending stream of questions and requests from the children's parents.

Despite all these responsibilities, her monthly pay is 3,500 yuan, less than the city average.

Lyu Yugang, director of the Basic Education Department of the Ministry of Education, said the government will make sure that all kindergarten teachers, private or public, earn a decent salary. Their basic benefits, including insurance and housing funds, should also be paid in full and with no delays, he told a recent news conference.

Although it is still premature to include three years of preschool education in the country's compulsory, free education program, the government will spare no effort to deepen reform and better regulate the sector to make sure more students enjoy an inclusive, affordable and high-quality preschool education, he added.

Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, said the guideline shows the government's determination to provide affordable education.

Kindergarten teachers should have better salaries and a good working atmosphere so that more qualified individuals will apply for such jobs and college students majoring in preschool education will not opt for another profession, he said.

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