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Backdoor education

(Global Times)

13:48, August 26, 2011

Parents examine a school's awards in Haidian district, Beijing. Photos: CFP

The year Ren Xiaoling was pregnant she began planning her six-year strategy to get her child into a good primary school.

"It's never too early to prepare for your child's education," Ren told the Global Times. "Especially in Beijing, where most parents have to come up with tens of thousands of yuan for a sponsorship fee," said Ren, referring to a payment that some equate to a ransom to key public schools that offer students an enriched education and boost a family's status.

Ren's family lives in Fengtai district, in southwest Beijing which is less developed, with few schools with good reputations.

After researching online and discussing her baby's early education with her family and friends, Ren decided instead of paying the annual ransom, the family would buy real estate in a hope their child would be allowed to attend a nearby key school.

Her daughter was only two at the time but her family pooled its financial resources and spent 870,000 yuan ($136,000) on a 40-square-meter "Xuequfang" apartment, which literally means "School District Apartment," as an investment in the child's future education.

"It takes three years for my daughter's residence registration to be officially moved from Fengtai to Xicheng," she said, adding that many of her neighbors also bought apartments in the compound for the same reason.

A mandatory donation

Beijing is not the only city where money buys a better early education at a public school. Wang Zhongping, a real estate agent in Shanghai, does a good business handling "Xuequfang." She told the Global Times that property prices near a school with a good reputation sells for thousands more than average.

Along with tricking the education system by buying apartments they don't live in, families with preschoolers need to start saving early for so-called "sponsorship fees" which are obligatory donations made directly to the school that parents want their child to attend.

"The Shijia Primary School in Dongcheng district this year charged a sponsorship fee of more than 140,000 yuan, and that didn't include other fees," said Ren with a wink and a nod.

Sponsorship fees help parents leapfrog their child into good schools even when they don't live in the area or when their child doesn't do extremely well on the entrance exams.

A sponsorship fee can range from tens of thousands of yuan to more than a hundred thousand yuan. Many public schools expect the fee to be paid every year the child attends the school.

A report conducted by Beijing Normal University in 2008 showed the average sponsorship fee in Beijing was 20,000 yuan, often accounting for half of a family's annual income.

Ren hopes the home she bought will be enough to get her child into a good school and she won't be saddled with a sponsorship fee or asked for other credentials.

"A sponsorship fee isn't just about money, you have to know somebody with good connections before the school will even accept your cash," said Ren, who is a salaried employee of an Internet company.

Ren said one of her friends used her personal connections with a ministerial-level official who wrote a letter to the Huangchenggen Elementary School in Xicheng district just to allow her son to take the school's admission exam. The 5-year-old child was tested for three hours on English, math and Chinese composition.

Many children of state ministers and high government officials attend Huangchenggen Primary School, which otherwise won't consider a child without letters of recommendation and a cash sponsorship.

"I checked some education websites and parents' forums and found paying 30,000 to 50,000 yuan as sponsorship fee is commonplace. In some cases, it can be six figures," Wei Ming, 44, mother of a grade four student in Shanghai, told the Global Times. She has quit her job so she can tutor her son fulltime.

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