Can private education be a source of effective altruism in China?
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
As a product of both state and private education, and having taught at a variety of institutions, I have often wondered which model has the potential for doing the most 'good' in society. A lot of people believe that free education is a fundamental human right. I would struggle to argue with that. But is the best way to provide free education through charities, NGOs, and state-run schools?
One of my frustrations in working for not-for-profit organisations in the past has been their unwillingness to evolve. Without the drive to generate wealth, non-private schools can find their staff demotivated, their courses outdated, and their students failing to make their grades. There is also a rising trend for volunteering programs around the world that are badly run and exploitative, seeking to benefit from the new culture of 'voluntourism'.
Many people struggle with the ethics of private education. They are convinced that private schools are too inaccessible and fail to care for the most needy in society. For a while, however, I have been convinced that volunteer programs run by private companies are the way forward.
Here in China, the government encourages investment in private education to increase efficiency, according to an article by Forbes. The article goes on to say that private education in China is expected to accumulate a revenue of 325.5 billion yuan (£39 billion) by 2020. It seemed that on every floor of shopping malls in Shanghai there were competing English-teaching companies. China's economy is becoming increasingly consumer-driven and capitalist, so it's not surprising that the rising middle classes want to invest in a more tailored, effective education for their children.
When I arrived in China, and started working at Education First, I was struck by how developed the courses were and how extensive the training program was. The company seemed so efficient and organised. Due to small class sizes, flexible lesson structure, and effective behaviour management, teachers were able to respond to students' individual needs. We were able to account for different abilities and learning styles. As time went on, I began to feel that the company's interests did not lie in the welfare and progress of its clients. Rather, its priority was the marketability of its product.
But one aspect of EF that I cannot fault is its pro-bono work. Within a few months of starting, I got involved in Education First's new volunteer program. It was started up by a colleague at my centre and is called the EF Orphanage Program. It brings EF teacher volunteers to an orphanage in East Shanghai called Shanghai Healing Home (SHH) for fortnightly English lessons. While it started out as just a small group, the program has now been extended to all 24 of EF's centres.
In fact, I loved SHH so much that I started volunteering there separately from the EF sessions. Most of my time there was spent tutoring a boy of 14. He was shy but had a great sense of humour. I would often find myself bent over laughing with him at his jokes. I also got to see a different side of the home. I saw more of the local staff and the executive team. I caught a glimpse of a few of the other programs SHH hosts, from music clubs to sign language to English classes.
What struck me the most was the dedication and passion of everyone there. I would often meet high school students on my way in or out who had come to the orphanage in their spare time. I wish I could have stayed longer to find out what made the organisation so organised and efficiently run, and how it attracted such a community of dedicated people.
Unfortunately, not all educational institutes are like SHH. Many organisations are badly-run, despite having passionate, qualified staff. Earlier this year, I did some work at a small private school run by a Shanghainese couple. I had to leave after a month, as I resolved that the school's philosophy was too at odds with my own. Bullying was rife and seldom treated. There was little to no room for discipline. Children of varying ages and abilities were learning in one large group, which meant that slower learners were being left behind. Perhaps the failure was on the part of the staff, perhaps it was the lack of structure. It's hard to tell. Here was a private school that, despite having the means, still managed to fail its students.
It is clear that some organisations manage to be more altruistic than others. But it is important to note that charitable work is not an easy task in China. Many charities lie on the outskirts of cities, just as SHH does. They are purposefully out of the public eye. The reason for this is that orphanages are to some extent seen as a blight on Chinese society. Moreover, there is a fine line between volunteers 'doing good' and social activism. The latter is totally unacceptable to the Chinese government.
Private corporations such as EF have the means and the man power to reach out to the community. Altruistic programs led by private corporations may not be the ideal left-wing utopia that some are searching for, but I believe it can be an effective way of providing high-quality education to those who need it.