Following the 720 policy to regulate private tutoring sector, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE) has issued further notice to define core academic subject tutoring vs. extra-curriculum as these two will be regulated very differently. An expert with a Ministry of Education background has suggested new directions for tutoring companies. This blog translates the items most relevant to ESL teachers for Chinese students (online and in-person) along with an analysis of what these policies do not specify – these are areas open for ESL tutors to interpret.
Academic subjects vs. extra-curriculum subjects
The 720 policy requires that academic subject tutoring companies need to register as non-profit organisations and will be strictly regulated. They can’t take up students’ weekends and holiday time.
These regulations don’t apply to companies that provide extra-curriculum activities such as sports coaching, piano coaching, etc.
Academic subjects include ethics and law, Chinese language, history, geography, math, and foreign languages (English, Japanese, Russian), physics, chemistry and biology. They will be regulated under the academic subject tutoring category.
Physical education (or well-being), art (or music, or drawing) and integrated practical activities (information technology education, labour and technical education) are extra-curriculum subjects. Therefore, they are to be monitored under a different category.
The government wants to regulate the tutoring industry not to shut it down, he suggested.
Recognising the tutoring industry’s role in enriching students’ lives, meeting personalised needs from parents and students, cultivating hobbies and broadening students’ horizon, he suggested that it’s hard to have one single, indiscriminate criterion to judge all companies. It is also valuable to use tutoring services to help students catch up if they are behind.
He encourages the tutoring companies to transform from teaching academic subjects to developing these three areas:
Serve public education
Serve children’s healthy growth
Serve parents (it is not clear what he means by this)
His speech suggests there are plenty of opportunities in these three areas:
Educational projects that promote traditional Chinese culture, such as learning through travel; practical training/community immersion; reading, little journalists, little public speakers, etc.
Training in science, technology and information technology: coding, artificial intelligence, brain development, etc.
Craftwork and invention: to foster students’ physical skills, critical and scientific thinking, and innovation.
Art and physical education, aesthetic education.
Vocational training, especially skills training for agricultural workers.
Training for teachers and school leaders.
What the policy doesn’t say
• What the policy does not indicate is the status of teaching extra-curriculum activities using English. If teaching English language is considered as tutoring an academic subject, what about teaching physical education through English? That is an unknown area.
• If hiring non-Chinese teachers outside China is prohibited, it’s unclear what companies should do with free-lancing teachers. Technically, platforms such as VIPKid does not hire any ESL teachers in a full-time capacity. The teachers are not considered as employees of the company.
• It does not say whether tutors can or cannot accept 1-1 tutoring bookings. As a result of this ambiguity, some private tutors saw their bookings increase by 30%. Some tutors have raised their 1-1 tutoring fee as a result.
• The policy does not mention products using interactive recorded learning materials. For those, students can choose their own time and ways to engage with recorded materials, which makes it hard to supervise and restrict.
Source of image: https://www.behance.net/gallery/8027781/punctuation-marks
Adapt for a different future
The past decades have seen very competitive dynamics in China’s K-12 online ESL education market. The competition is so fierce that a company spends on average about RMB4000 (US$620/£400) to get a new customer.
The latest policies, curbing the supply side of education, do not address the demand side. Some parents have contacted the customer services of tutoring companies, asking them to tutor parents themselves so that they can teach their children at home.
We are facing a market with abundant demand. But, it remains unclear who is there to fulfill it.
In July 2021, the Chinese State Council* issued a policy note known as the ‘720 policy’ (initially issued on the 20th of July) further regulating its private tutoring industry including that online. This blog starts with a reading of the policy especially of its impact on the online ESL sector. It is followed by a scenario analysis – what might happen to online ESL teachers in various scenarios. The final section emphasises what online ESL teachers can do. Last but not the least, it is important to understand that this policy might disrupt the supply of education but not necessarily lower the demand for good education.
(*The Chinese State Council serves an administrative role. It issues policies not laws. How these policies are interpreted and implemented may well vary from region to region.)
The stated objectives of the policy are to construct a virtuous ecosystem in education, reduce parents’ anxiety and facilitate students’ holistic and healthy growth. The document is 16 pages long so I am listing below the items that potentially have a direct impact on the online ESL sector:
Cut ties between private capital and the tutoring sector
Training institutions for core subjects are to register as non-profit organisations. These institutions are prohibited from initial public offering public on capital markets.
Impact on online ESL sector: It cuts the ties between private money and the tutoring sector. As a result, investors will leave the K-12 education sector.
Propose a more scientific use of after-class time
Schools and parents should guide children to participate in household duties, appropriate sports, reading, and art-related activities. Parents should actively communicate with children, care for their mental health, and help them foster a good learning habit (though the policy does not specify what this is). Online classes should last less than 30 minutes and finish no later than 9 pm.
Impact on online ESL sector: It means more restrictions on when and how long online teaching can take place.
Enlarge the role of public resources
Schools are expected to provide after-class custodian services to fit working parents’ office schedules. Schools can contract volunteers or people outside the public school system to provide such services. The Ministry of Education will develop free and good-quality online learning materials to improve education for all.
Outside-school training institutions should not rely on education materials from outside China. Academic subject training should not take up students’ holiday and weekend time. They should no hire non-Chinese nationals from outside China.
Impact on online ESL sector: This is the item that concerns online ESL teachers the most. I have a separate section – scenario planning – to discuss various scenarios as to how this article can be interpreted and implemented.
Regulate training activities for pre-school children
Online training for pre-school children will be prohibited and that includes English subject training.
Impact on online ESL sector: Unfortunately this means a contraction of online English education for Chinese children below the age of six or seven.
Nine cities have been selected to pilot three measures – to clamp down on private tutoring of core academic subjects; to extend school offerings for after-school activities, and to regulate private tutoring companies’ fee-charging. These nine cities are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Zhengzhou, Changzhi, Weihai, and Nantong.
Scenario planning for online ESL teachers
The ‘720 policy’ regulates training institutions registered in mainland China. If you are an ESL teacher working with a platform such as VIPKid, Magic Ears, Qkid, GogoKid, DadaABC, Whales English, 51talk etc, the future largely depends on what is the legal identity of the platform and how it navigates the situation.
Based on my research in the Chinese company registration database (Tianyancha.com), companies such as VIPKid, Qkid are registered as technology and IT service companies, not training companies. That gives room for interpretation.
Also, some online ESL teachers are paid from an overseas legal entity. Again, this leaves room for interpretation. Are these overseas legal entities subject to the ‘720 policy’?
After reading some expert analysis, I have formed the impression that the priorities are designed to cut the ties between private enterprise and tutoring, to clamp down academic subject tutoring and to restrict repetitive cramming.
I don’t form the impression that a freeze on hiring non-Chinese ESL teachers outside China is a priority of this current policy. I also have not read or heard that any Chinese online ESL platforms have received notification from the government to do so. It is also unclear in the policy what these platforms should do with existing teachers.
These are scenarios we can prepare for
Best scenario: Chinese-based online ESL platforms such as VIPKid are not impacted. Online ESL teachers to Chinese students can carry on as usual. The chance is relatively low.
Worst scenario: Chinese-based online ESL companies are told to end their contracts with every teacher based outside China. All online ESL teachers lose their teaching time with Chinese students. The chance is also quite slim.
Somewhere in between: the most likely scenario will be a gradual contraction of the current online platform business model. This might lead to less hiring of teaching professionals outside China, and a renegotiation of the payment structure from the platform to teaching professionals. Subsequently, some ESL teachers will leave the sector to pursue other opportunities or markets.
It will take some time for the industry to adjust and reshuffle. Meanwhile, what should online ESL teachers do to prepare for an uncertain future?
What ESL teachers should be doing:
Continue to excel at what you do:
Carry on teaching as usual and make sure every time you conduct a class, you do better than the last time. The habit of pursuing excellence will follow you everywhere no matter what you do.
Take a pause to reflect:
This might sound clichéd but a reflection on why you got into teaching initially and what you get out of it (on top of financial returns) is needed. You are more likely to overcome hurdles and turbulent times if you are pursuing a career path you are passionate about in the long term.
Plan your portfolio:
If you decide to stay in the education sector, it is time to plan a long-term portfolio so that you can manage your risk, build on your strengths and make your work fit your lifestyle. The last thing one can do at the moment is to apply for other jobs without a proper plan. If you have the right qualification and experience, you can further design your teaching portfolio based on the following directions:
Other countries: you could apply for jobs in other countries. But do bear in mind that many others will have the same reaction which can drive down the pay rate temporarily.
Other subjects: if you used to teach English as a second language, can you offer to teach certain content using English as a language? For example, teaching 1-1 biology tutoring in English for students who are preparing for overseas studies?
Other education: If the state education policy is to facilitate students’ holistic and healthy growth, is there anything you can do in the areas of critical thinking, creativity, character development, arts, and sports education?
Other customers – are there any opportunities around you to use your previous experience? Is there a need from parents of the students you teach? Is there a need from students in your physical environment you can reach out to?
Other partners: can you work with some language teaching institutions in the areas of curriculum design, in-person class or teacher training?
I suggest you spend some time thinking through these options and exploring the most suitable path for you. It is important to stay put and plan a long-term strategy instead of sending resumes around in a rush.
Path to independent teaching
This is the most rewarding but also challenging path. We need to bear in mind that the ‘720 policy’ regulates the supply side of education. But if the demand for good education for their children remains high from Chinese parents, who is there to meet the demand? There may be opportunities for freelancing teachers to fill the gap.
In order to do that, a teacher needs to change the mindset to be an entrepreneur, to understand customers and to set up infrastructure for marketing and payment. It is a big step to move from a teacher delivering classes for a platform to a teacher-entrepreneur who has to understand customer needs, design products and deliver education. Most times, one needs to work with various partners to get started. But each tiny step counts for a future giant leap into independence.
This summer, the Chinese Government has announced affordable childcare centres for elementary students to assist working parents in selected provinces and cities. What exactly is this policy? What do these childcare centres offer? How do Chinese parents respond to this policy? Will it change the way Chinese children’s summer holidays? And what is the implication for the online ESL sector and tutors? This blog answers these questions through first-hand interviews, reading and analysis of survey results.
The note selected some local governments to launch discounted childcare centres through schools and local communities during this summer holiday. Areas, where these institutions are based, are circled in blue in the map below. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, cities where most of the current 1-1 online ESL students reside, are among the cities where this policy experiment is taking place.
Source of map: https://vividmaps.com/china-gdp-in-2020-by-province/
These childcare centres fulfil a child-minding purpose. They will not provide academic teaching and are optional. By using resources from the public sector to replace private companies which organised summer tutoring classes previously, the government hopes the stress of bringing up a child will be more manageable.
It is made very clear that these centres will not provide any academic teaching classes. Rather, schools or local communities open their libraries and space for self-studying, as well as organise physical education or general education classes. They usually start at 8 to 8:30 am and finish at 4 to 5:30 pm, at a relatively affordable price for a middle-class family.
Source of image: https://www.behance.net/gallery/10149935/KidsPark-Integrated-Brand
Details of how each centre designs the daily program, recruits childminders (engages its own teacher or recruits volunteers or outsources to a private vendor), gets funding and sets the price vary from region to region, from institution to institution. Therefore, the quality of each centre will differ.
This is an example from a typical childcare centre to run this summer
Dates: 5th July to 13th August
Time: 8 am to 4 pm (including lunchtime)
Price: RMB200(US40| £22.4) per child per week
Childminder: university students are recruited as volunteers
Activities: can be doing sports or arts & crafts, or just resting in the centre.
Usually, it is very hard to get a placement in a well-run childcare centre. But it is also very possible a childcare centre might offer a boring program and receive little interest.
What do Chinese parents respond?
So how do parents respond to this policy? The three insights below are either from my interviews with parents or reading news articles and surveys in China.
The childcare is a basic babysitting package: The consensus is that these centres merely look after the children, with little educational value. For parents who have time and means to tailor-make their children’s summer experience, they are not content with this basic package. They take their children to travel, hire private coaches (academic subject, piano, swimming, etc) or sign up for private summer camps.
It does not change the overall picture: Most parents believe as long as the GaoKao (university entrance exam) system does not change, nothing has really changed. The pathway to university education is competitive and most parents feel peer pressure throughout. Setting up childcare centres does not alter the overall landscape.
The war to grab individual tutors has begun: One survey question asks parents ‘If private companies can’t offer tutoring classes during summer/winter holidays, would you look for individual tutors for your children?’. Of the 800 parents who responded, 62% chose Yes, and 15% chose No. Some parents have already prepared to recruit individual tutors for their children’s summer.
How do Chinese children spend this summer?
This is a survey result of how parents actually make arrangements for their children’s summer. 40% will still seek (in person) training classes. In case private tutoring in-class format becomes illegitimate, they will go for online tutoring classes or find individual tutors.
The survey was conducted by South China Education Federation.
Source of information: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/qYwRRSs4i6k_iWpHaC0hbQ
How does this impact online ESL tutors?
It does not look like parents’ aspirations for their children is changed. One of their ways to show love to their children is to find the best educational resources (perceived) for them. Therefore, they will continue to look for the best tutors/teachers, classes and educational experiences.
Parents don’t see the launch of these summer childcare centre as serving their educational needs. But if children become happier, healthier, and more social through relaxing and playing in these centres, I believe it is good news for the child, the parents, as well as on-site and online tutors.
Online tutoring is seen as a major plan B by parents (41%) if tutoring in a physical class format becomes difficult. This possibly means further growth of the online ESL teaching sector, especially 1-1 or in a small group format.