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    Off the Books: Inside the Struggle to Save China’s Preschools

    Facing low admissions, fierce competition from public schools, and financial pressures, China’s private kindergartens are upping marketing efforts and offering nursery classes. To boost enrollments, teachers are also increasingly taking on roles as sales reps.

    After more than a decade at a private kindergarten, 32-year-old Lin Xiao is swamped by tasks that keep her far from teaching. Instead of focusing on her young students, she’s snapping photos for school activities, drowning in paperwork, and distributing admission flyers at residential compounds.

    “I hardly spend 15 minutes a day directly interacting with my students,” says Lin, who works in the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou. With enrollments down 60% from two years ago, and neighboring schools closing, Lin’s daily grind is a desperate fight to keep her school viable in a fiercely competitive market.

    Lin’s boss has made it clear: Each new student enrolled can cover two months of a teacher’s salary.

    This crisis is not limited to Lin’s kindergarten, or even Guangzhou.

    Across China, kindergartens, particularly private ones, are feeling the pinch amid declining birth rates and subsequent drops in enrollment. And a government push to expand and improve public kindergartens has only intensified competition, making it tougher for private schools to attract and retain students.

    Data from China’s Ministry of Education shows that in the past two years, around 20,400 kindergartens have shut operations nationwide, mainly due to financial difficulties exacerbated by dwindling student numbers.

    Last year alone, about 15,000 kindergartens closed, with the impact most severe in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, setting a precedent that could extend to other regions.

    The rapid pace of kindergarten closures has sparked widespread public debate on social media, particularly after a viral domestic media report this March detailed the struggles kindergartens face.

    The report shed light on how some institutions have repurposed their facilities into elderly care centers. And with few options, many kindergarten teachers are now diversifying their careers too, taking on roles such as social workers and livestreamers in a desperate effort to adapt.

    Education experts predict that a continued decline might soon even affect primary and middle schools. 

    In response, many kindergartens are now following government directives to set up nursery classes for children under 3 to meet the growing demand for baby care services. This integration of early childcare with education is seen as a potential recruitment channel.

    But with parents often hesitant to send toddlers to preschool, questioning its suitability, and kindergarten owners doubting its profitability, discussions about job security are now commonplace among educators.

    Hustle 101

    For Lin, the pressure intensified when her kindergarten introduced a 500-yuan ($69) reward for each new student a teacher brought in during promotional events. Management also demanded that teachers constantly monitor parents with more than one child at the school.

    “I feel more like a salesperson than a teacher,” Lin admits.

    Across provinces, teachers tell Sixth Tone of how their work days now stretch beyond regular hours as they hustle to boost enrollments. Their tasks include placing ads, setting up informational stalls in residential compounds, and constantly updating social media — all in an effort to attract new students to their struggling schools.

    In the northwestern city of Xi’an, Lei, the director of a private kindergarten, admits recruiting new students is top of the agenda. “A war for admission is raging,” says Lei, who asked to be identified only by his surname since he’s not authorized to speak to the media.

    To keep up, some schools have established dedicated sales teams within their faculty, while others entice applicants by offering free preschool courses and door-to-door tutoring services.

    Teachers also assert that private kindergartens are particularly vulnerable due to rising expectations for teaching quality and facilities. With high-quality public kindergartens now easier to access, private options are often overlooked.

    This challenge stems from a significant policy shift in 2018, well before the demographic downturn became apparent, when the government initiated its “5080” initiative. It mandated that by 2020, 80% of all preschool-aged children between 3 and 6 would be enrolled in public or affordable kindergartens, with at least 50% of all preschoolers attending public institutions.

    By 2021, the landscape of Chinese education had transformed, with the number of public preschools surging 150% compared with a decade ago. Following the 5080 push, over half of all kindergarten students now attend public institutions.

    In China, public kindergartens, managed by government entities, offer standardized, affordable educational services. In contrast, private kindergartens, which charge higher fees, provide premium education options primarily for wealthier families. These options often include diversified courses and better facilities.

    The expansion of public kindergartens across China was designed to transform an educational landscape long dominated by large schools with oversized classes and too few teachers, Wang Haiying, director of the Preschool Policy Research Center at Nanjing Normal University, tells Sixth Tone.

    “But while many local governments quickly implemented these changes, they often did so without a thorough scientific assessment of the demographic needs in their regions,” Wang adds.

    Sun, a kindergarten teacher since the early 2000s, witnessed the changes firsthand. Her private kindergarten in Foshan City in southern China, once commanding the highest fees in the region, saw its enrollment plummet to just 30 students last year, operating at only 40% capacity.

    “The expected baby boom hasn’t arrived, and it caught us off guard,” says Sun, who asked to be identified only by her surname. Before 2019, her preschool education group managed over 20 kindergartens, but now more than half have closed.

    Qian You, a 41-year-old public kindergarten teacher in Ningbo in the eastern Zhejiang province, observed that while some private kindergartens have closed or are not operating at full capacity, state-owned ones like hers are relatively stable with mostly full classes.

    However, even in these public institutions, the pressure to attract students persists. Recently, in an unusual move, her principal deployed staff to residential areas to promote their kindergarten.

    “Parents were shocked to hear there was barely any threshold to enter, when just a few years ago they couldn’t find a way to squeeze their children in,” says Qian, adding that new policies now allow children to enroll in any kindergarten within the district.

    This open enrollment is a departure from previous policies that mandated that children could only enroll in kindergartens near where they lived, intended to curb excessive enrollments at sought-after institutions like Qian’s.

    “I’m worried about my career prospects as a veteran, but my younger colleagues are even more anxious because of their limited work experience. What we can do if we are fired is a frequent topic of discussion these days,” she says.

    In response to the demographic shifts and wave of closures, the central province of Hunan, in November, became the first to overhaul its educational infrastructure, spanning kindergartens, primary, and middle schools. According to provincial education authorities, all new kindergartens constructed in residential areas must be public, while rural areas are restricted from building any new kindergartens.

    Despite the reforms, Wang warns of more kindergarten closures. “The closures are expected to start in the eastern regions and will likely spread to the central and western parts of the country,” he predicts.


    To address the crisis, kindergartens across the country are now introducing “nursery classes” targeting children under the age of three. These programs are designed not only to diversify revenue streams but also boost enrollment.

    The survey by the China Association for Non-Government Education last year showed 57% of kindergartens surveyed had implemented such services. Private kindergartens made up 85% of those surveyed.

    The pivot to nursery classes meets a critical national need to address the shortage of infant and child care services. The government has pledged to ensure that the number of childcare spots for children under 3 will reach 4.5 per 1,000 population by 2025. While such policies date back to 2019, top officials have recently reiterated their commitment to these initiatives with 5 billion yuan in state funds to expand services.

    “Even a penny counts when survival mode is turned on,” says Sun, the teacher from Foshan.

    She also sees potential for success, particularly with increasing demand from parents who, under high work pressures, seek more comprehensive care for their children.

    Despite the hopeful outlook, the China Association for Non-Government Education survey also found that 58% of kindergartens offering nursery classes are operating at a loss, with only 15% achieving profitability. The survey underscored high fees and marketing costs as significant factors.

    Starting classes for younger children typically requires kindergartens to hire additional teachers or provide training for current staff, asserts Xu, who manages a private preschool education group and offers consulting services for kindergarten directors, both in Shanghai.

    “The educational systems for different age groups have distinct requirements for teaching staff,” says Xu, who also requested to be identified only by his surname.

    The new nursery services are yet to gain traction, according to Wang Haiying, director of the Preschool Policy Research Center at Nanjing Normal University. “There’s a disconnect between demand and reality,” she says, adding that many parents are hesitant to separate from their babies and weigh factors like safety and convenience.

    “The extension of baby care services into kindergartens is a possible option, but it won’t play a major role in the childcare system.” Instead, she says alternatives, such as nursery services offered by activity centers and children’s museums, are often preferred due to their proximity and flexible schedules.

    On the flip side, public kindergartens are hesitant to open nursery classes. According to Wang, local governments have mandated that these services can only be priced up to 30% higher than regular preschool classes, limiting their profitability. As a result, private kindergartens, which need to charge higher fees to cover costs, find it challenging to compete with their public counterparts.

    Lei, the private kindergarten director, doesn’t see baby care classes as the ultimate solution since both services depend on childbirth rates. Lei’s concerns grew after a recent visit to the police station revealed that last year, the number of births in the district was only about 30% of the 2019 figures.

    In an effort to survive the wave of closures, Lei’s kindergarten is renovating classrooms and providing professional training for teachers. He says: “In the future, there will only be two types of kindergartens: public ones and high-end private ones offering premium services offering better teachers and facilities.”

    Additional reporting: Huang Yang; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: A teacher walks with two students at a kindergarten in Huizhou, Guangdong province, 2015. VCG)