Try Getting Your Kid Into a Beijing Public School
The competition is cutthroat and the authorities are always tweaking the rules.
On an afternoon in late May, two Beijing parents, each with a 6-year-old son, are plotting out strategies at an upscale teahouse in the Chinese capital. Ding Zhe, 37, works as a manager at a state-owned machine tool and pharmaceutical conglomerate; Tina Qi, 41, is an auditor at Deloitte. The two are trading tips on a stressful rite for China’s new elite: getting one’s kids into one of the country’s ultracompetitive public primary schools.
Ding and Qi each assembled documents for the initial online application, including copies of their sons’ birth certificates (a child must be at least 6 on Sept. 1 to enter first grade), the family household residency permit, and crucially, a certificate of title showing they own an apartment in their desired school districts. They’re closely monitoring popular educational websites such as Beijing Children Rise to Primary for news of any last-minute changes in enrollment policy. And they have exchanged WeChat articles with advice on how to prepare for the dreaded family interview—which is an often unannounced home visit by teachers or education officials. That, and a separate on-campus interview for wannabe students, will occur just before decisions are made in late June.
“The competition is intense,” says Ding, who moved to Beijing from southwestern China in 2000 for university and stayed for work. “Our resources are limited, and the population is too large,” frets Qi, who got her master’s at the University of Southampton in the U.K. before returning to Beijing, her hometown.
In many ways their experience mirrors those of parents in New York, Washington, and London. But it’s a uniquely Chinese ordeal because of the scale: A hundred million or so children are enrolled in elementary school, with 17 million entering each year. (Primary education runs for six years, followed by three years each of middle and high school.) China has 190,000 elementary schools, but the majority just won’t do for urbanites ambitious for their kids’ future.
Strivers such as Ding and Qi are focused on a small number that have achieved almost talismanic status and are often discussed in respectful tones. Of Beijing’s 984 elementary schools, only a couple of dozen fall into this category, including Zhong Guan Cun No. 3 Elementary School and Experimental Primary School of Beijing Normal University. Most were once zhongdian xuexiao, or key institutes—a designation that dates to the Mao era and refers to institutions tasked with educating the children of the Communist Party elite. These schools have traditionally drawn the lion’s share of financial resources as well as the best teachers.
They’re the equivalent of “feeder” schools in the U.S.; administrators and parents keep close track of how many of their graduates eventually make it into top academies such as Tsinghua and Peking universities. In Beijing almost all the most sought-after schools are located in just three of the city’s 16 districts—Haidian, Xicheng, and Dongcheng—home to government ministries, universities, and research institutes. “The biggest challenge for education in our country is glaring inequality,” says Xiong Bingqi, vice president for the 21st Century Education Research Institute. “There are regional differences in quality, but this problem also exists within each city, and parents know which are good schools and which are not.”
Educational authorities several years ago ordered public schools to stop using academic proficiency tests in the admissions process. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s antigraft campaign has diminished the appeal of backdoor channels, including bribery. That leaves only one main criterion for admission: location.
In Beijing, where parents must own property near competitive schools if they wish their children to attend (renting isn’t enough), demand for what are known as xuequfang, or “school district houses”—often small, overpriced, and sometimes rundown apartments in desirable districts—has surged. When her son was a toddler, Maggie Huang set her sights on the Fangcaodi Primary school in Chaoyang, a district that’s home to embassies and foreign company offices. So five years ago she and her physician husband sold their 100-square-meter apartment in another district and bought one about half as large and more expensive situated just across the street from Fangcaodi. “We sacrificed a lot to get a xuequfang,” says Huang. “We had to sell our bigger place and crowd into this small one.”
Some wealthy families are buying apartments next to desirable schools but not living in them. One couple spent 5.3 million yuan ($779,000) on a tiny 11-square-meter room near Beijing No. 2 Experimental Primary, considered one of the city’s best schools, making it “the most expensive school district house ever sold in China,” Xinhua News Agency reported in March of last year.
To clamp down on this practice, Beijing’s education officials instituted the home visit. “While some schools will call parents to inform them in advance, most instead suddenly attack, with no advance warning,” cautioned an online article published on March 14. “They will ask your child, ‘Do you really live here?’ They know children can’t tell lies,” says Ding with a laugh.
Rejection can be painfully impersonal. Mikko Lan, a vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations in Beijing, says that while his son was admitted in 2012 to the prestigious Hongmiao Primary, his daughter was turned down when she applied two years ago. “There is no discussion with parents, no email, no notification of any kind,” he says. “You just get online and find out.”
Authorities are trying to manage the cutthroat competition (as well as curb soaring property prices) through trial policies. At some select schools, new rules specify that an address may be listed on an application only once every six years; moreover, the family must have owned the property for at least three years. Other ideas being considered: merging good and bad schools and having parents apply to only a group of several schools rather than specify a top choice.
The Deloitte auditor, Qi, doesn’t expect the recent changes to affect her son’s prospects of getting into Shijia Hutong, a top school, but a colleague with a 3-year-old child, who, like her, bought a xuequfang, may not be as fortunate. People who’ve put their life savings into high-priced apartments could see their value suddenly depreciate if education commission officials sever their connection to a particular school. “We live in a world of never-ending policy change,” says Qi. “What direction they will take after a number of years is impossible to know.”
The bottom line: The competition to get into the right public schools is more intense in Beijing than in New York or London.