(Yicai Global) Nov. 29 -- Cases of child abuse at preschools have emerged in several Chinese cities over the past several weeks.
This phenomenon provoked a public outcry as preschool education has a considerable bearing on the future of the country.
The education steering committee of the State Council, China's cabinet issued an emergency notice on Nov. 24 calling on local governments to immediately carry out special inspections of working practices of preschool education operators focusing on their teaching staffs' professional ethics, per provisions of the Minor Protection Law, Teachers Law and Nursery School Administrative Regulations.
In cases of child abuse at nursery schools, the primary focus usually falls on the qualifications of their teaching staff. Current laws and regulations are relatively lax with child abusers. The latest amendment to the criminal law increased the range of punishable child abuse offenses to include acts committed by teachers as 'caretakers of minors.' However, convicting child abusers is difficult and punishments meted out to them remain lenient, thus vitiating the power of legislation to protect children.
China's preschool education market is itself still a toddler and this circumstance warrants drawing lessons from punitive sanctions against child sex abusers imposed in developed nations. In some countries, for example, child abusers are permanently banned from engaging in any children-related business. In some cases, they are even prohibited from going within a set distance from schools and day care centers. As well as effectively punishing offenders, these measures have also averted potential abuses.
Offenders' employers must also receive condign punished. For example, the business licenses of schools and kindergartens where serious child abuses occur must be revoked. Such sanctions seek to force school operators to enforce targeted rules and eliminate abusive practices.
The education authorities have instituted a nationwide crackdown. Judging by the existing ecosystem of the preschool and teacher training markets, a widening deviation from the main purpose of preschool services -- education -- has been underway as growing ranks of capital investors have entered the market in recent years. This phenomenon merits particular attention.
Teacher shortages are a persistent problem in the preschool education industry. The total number of nursery students in China grew from about 35 million in 2011 to 44 million last year, statistics show. By contrast, according to the latest data from the Ministry of Education, the country has a mere 3.82 million preschool teachers, and only 2.2 million of these are full-time employees, meaning that a qualified preschool teacher minds 20 children on average.
The ministry set a minimum requirement for employee-to-student ratio for full-time preschools in 2013, mandating that the ratio should be maintained between one to five to one to seven. Therefore, a shortfall of 2.5 million teachers exists. Many nursery schools have lowered their recruitment criteria faced with the severe shortage of qualified teachers. Statistics suggest that in many provinces more than 20 percent of preschool teachers had only a high school education as of last year.
Low income and limited benefits dampen the interest of young people in working in preschools and this factor gravely threatens industry development.
Ever more capital investors have meanwhile entered the preschool education market driven by recent years' strong demand. The number of nursery schools and daycare centers has continued to grow at an accelerating clip and private schools far outnumber their public counterparts. All investors want to maximize profit, and some preschool education firms have delivered on capital markets, but failed to improve service quality in line with share price gains. The recent child abuse incidents are a manifestation of this 'divergence' between market development and the underlying purposes of preschool education.
Authorities must ensure effective regulation of preschool teachers and introduce reforms to increase the teacher pool. Investors should pay due attention to profitability as well as the quality of teaching staff. These are basic requirements for all market participants. After the recent child abuse scandals, all players must rethink developing the preschool market andset it into a healthier and more sustainable groove.