Saturday, 7 April 2012

School Life

If you've been following this blog for a while, you're probably aware that my son is attending a public school here in Taipei. He's technically a Third-grade student (or Fourth Year in the UK) but at my request the school moved him down to the grade below, where he's been studying for roughly four months now.

School life here is very different from the UK. The school that he attends is comparatively progressive and more child-friendly than most Taiwanese schools, but it has still been a large adjustment to make.

The school day, for example, is much longer. Most schools start at 7.30 a.m. and finish at 4.00 p.m. (The number of full days increases as the grades go up. First- and Second-grade children finish at 12 every day except Tuesday.) At Conrad's school, arriving at 8.00 a.m. is tolerated (and, in truth, nothing really happens until then) so that's what we aim for. During the school day, the children get approximately 40 minutes in total break time. The longest break is 20 minutes, and often 5 minutes of that is taken up with exercises. The children also have an enforced 'nap time' of 40 minutes after lunch, though I've never seen a child actually asleep during this time. Most of them lie their heads on their desks and stare around, looking bored.

The reason for the nap time is because children generally go to sleep late in the evening, so theoretically need a sleep during the day, but I think sleeping in a classroom full of other children with your head on your desk (albeit with the small pillow most children bring along) is not really a possibility for many children. Conrad really doesn't like this. Sometimes he's lucky and the teacher lets him read. The other day, though, he was so bored he gave himself a haircut! This was alarming for everyone concerned except Conrad, who thinks he did a pretty good job.

The first part of the school day isn't a proper lesson. The children hand in their homework and copy down that day's homework into their diaries. On the day that the teacher has to go to a meeting, a parent volunteer will come in to give a short, fun lesson on an interesting subject, or just keep an eye on the class for the teacher. On the other mornings the children generally just seem to do the things required of them then relax and maybe eat their breakfast if they haven't had time before coming to school.

Proper lessons start around 9.00. At the lower grades, these are confined to very few subject areas. The curriculum is almost entirely concerned with Chinese, Maths and English in the two lowest grades, though the children also do P.E. and a little Taiwanese. In the afternoons on Tuesdays the children will often do Art. It is very much a chalk and talk, paper and pen-based style of teaching, although Conrad's teacher makes a good effort to try to make the classes interesting for the children. There is a strong emphasis on testing. As I understand it, there are four main tests every year, at the middle and end of every semester. And there are also weekly tests in Chinese and Maths.

Compared to a Western education, I'm sure this must sound quite onerous. And yet, despite the fact that it broadly adheres to the typical Taiwanese style of education, Conrad's school is actually far less pressured than most other schools. Conrad's school does not, for example, broadcast a child's name across the school if they've gone missing from classes (a not uncommon occurrence, perhaps unsurprisingly, and something that Conrad is wont to do on occasion too). In many other schools, the child who isn't performing up to scratch or who has problematic behaviour is not tolerated. Corporal punishment was banned only a few years ago, and traditions such as one hit of the switch for every incorrect answer were not uncommon. Conrad's school, on the other hand, has many children on its roll who have 'failed' at a more typical school and in general it has a more understanding and patient attitude.

Education occupies a central position in Taiwanese culture. To get your child into a top university is the ambition of most Taiwanese parents, and understandably so. Having a degree, preferably a Master's is a important status symbol and prerequisite for any kind of job with a future. Consequently, for many Taiwanese children, education doesn't stop at the end of the school day. They will often attend classes in the afternoon and evening too, to bring those test scores up into the 90s. This is one reason children go to bed as late as 11 o'clock: there just isn't time to fit everything in otherwise.

Schools usually offer some kind of after-hours programme, where the children can do their homework, have extra classes or do extra-curricular activities, attend clubs etc. As well as the additional educational opportunities this offers, many parents work long hours and simply need the childcare. Conrad attends the after-hours programme at his school so that he can get help with his homework and, if time allows, play with the other children (this seems to have helped enormously with his Chinese acquisition).

There are a few costs associated with schooling here. While public education is free, the parents are asked to pay for the books, and also make a contribution to their child's class fund. I'm not sure what happens if a parent can't or won't pay these fees, but they aren't high anyway. I think for Conrad's class we were asked to contribute about $NT 500, or £10 for the year. The cost of his books was included in with his school dinners (he eats lunch there Mon-Fri) and after school care, so I'm not sure how much they were. In total, we paid a little less than $NT12,000 for this semester, or roughly £240.

The year is broken into two semesters, each about four months in length, with occasional days off for public holidays. The Chinese New Year holiday in the middle lasts three weeks. That's been another big adjustment for us, coming from the British system where the longest a child will attend school without a break is eight weeks. I'm not sure if the very long school semesters are styled on the American system or due to the intense emphasis on education.

I think it would be fair to say that Conrad copes with his education here, rather than that he enjoys it. He certainly enjoys some of it, some of it he tolerates, and some of it he actively dislikes (such as nap time). However, it's important to understand that this is a child who didn't like school in the UK, and who is very clear about what he's interested in and what he wants to do, which of course doesn't make him the ideal school student. What's interesting is that he's largely forgotten much of his school life in the UK, despite only being here eight months. He can only vaguely remember a few people from his class and a few incidents that happened at school in Britain, so although he grumbles about it sometimes, school life here is just about all he knows.

If Conrad remains at his current school, he can expect to have formal lessons on Monday and Thursday afternoons next academic year, with Friday afternoons added in the final two years of school. Additional subjects, such as Music and Science appear in the curriculum next year too. Hopefully Conrad will stay in Taiwanese education to the end of Elementary School so that he can get a solid grounding in Chinese. The education system beyond this point becomes even more intensive and pressured, so we won't be sending him to Middle School.

I think this year has been a education for all of us. While I thought I had some idea of what school life would be like for Conrad before we came, there was no real way of preparing for or understanding it. Only experience has made us realise what an enormous challenge we were setting our son by putting him in a public school at eight years old. It definitely hasn't been easy for him and I'm very proud of his achievements. As to the future, I think we must never disregard the option of removing him if we feel it's just too much for him. I believe and hope he can succeed, though.

As for Conrad's opinion on it, well, in relation to a few problems we've had with teachers, I said to him the other day:

"You know, I think that deep down some people believe you can't ever learn enough Chinese to catch up with the other children."

"Well, they're WRONG!" he replied.


JJ said...

Great post - thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

You're welcome, JJ I'm glad you liked it.