A sharp decline in the number of students applying to private primary schools in Shanghai may indicate that the city's newly introduced regulations have cooled its long-standing ardor for the schools.
The number of applicants for kindergarten and primary slots at private schools in the metropolis dropped by half this year, according to registration figures from the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission.
Private schools have received only 19,900 applications, compared with 37,400 last year. The enrollment ratio - the ratio of applicants to available slots in private schools - dropped from around 3-to-1 in the past two years to 1.4-to-1 this year.
According to this year's primary school enrollment policy, applicants must choose a private or public school when filling out enrollment papers. This means that if one is not accepted into a private school - which can happen because of limited space and high demand - the student also risks losing his or her spot at a designated public school based on the residential proximity system. The student will then be subject to allocation to another primary school, which can be less desirable than the previously designated one.
Children could once be steered toward a private school without losing their spots in their neighborhood public school, because enrollments in private schools came earlier than in public schools.
"The new policy forces parents to be more rational in selecting private schools," said Xu Yanxin, assistant to the principal of ECNU Affiliated Bilingual School, a private boarding school serving students from preschool to Grade 12.
Zhou Ping, the mother of a 6-year-old, said the family bought an apartment in 2016 to ensure that her son would have a spot at a reputable public school nearby. She had planned to apply for a private school as a priority choice, with the designated public school as a backup.
After introduction of the new regulations, the family decided to drop the private school application, saying the risk was too high.
Competition for a seat at private schools has become so fierce over the past decade that in some extreme cases more than 70 pupils have applied for a single seat.
Anxiety about school selection has also led parents to enroll their children in intensive after-school private training sessions to ensure successful interviews. Anxiety has prevailed and complaints of children being overburdened have run rampant.
To ease the stress, Shanghai's education commission has, since 2015, narrowed the choices for private education. It ruled that each student could apply to two private schools and that schools without boarding facilities must not accept students from other districts.
In addition, all interviews for private primary schools were limited to just two days - this year on May 19 and 20.
At the same time, authorities have attempted in recent years to balance the education quality of private and public schools through methods such as curriculum resource sharing and high-quality teacher exchanges.
Despite the drop in the overall number of applications to private schools, however, anxiety remains high for many parents.
"The average ratio for all private schools may be lower," said a parent of a 6-year-old who asked that only his surname, Shi, be used. "But for the most popular schools, it's still a dog-eat-dog scramble."