Shoko Okuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series, which examines cram schools. This installment, the second of four parts, focuses on the cram school industry’s strategy of coping with the declining birthrate by attracting younger students, and the reorganization of the industry.
Many primary school students had been at the cram school Yotsuya Otsuka since early in the morning June 6 to take a national standardized test being held across the country that day. Some were quite young, and came to the branch in Ochanomizu, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, hand-in-hand with their parents.
The test began in November 2007 under the slogan “OK, let’s compete,” and is given free of charge, intending to identify gifted students, as well as encourage children to enroll in cram schools, or juku. Nineteen Yotsuya Otsuka branches in Tokyo and 500 of its affiliated schools, as well as more than 500 other juku nationwide, conduct the test and provide other support.
About 91,000 students in second to fifth grades took the test on the day, the sixth since it began, at about 2,000 locations across the country.
“The follow-the-crowd mentality at public schools fails to spot excellent students. Cram schools play a role in training the leaders of tomorrow who will win competitions and contribute to society. This standardized test is a challenge that highlights this role to the public,” said Shuji Ichimura, director of public relations at Nagase Brothers Inc. in Musashino, Tokyo, which operates Yotsuya Otsuka.
The cram school gives students who score highly on the test various awards, such as an iPad ot a summer tour of prestigious U.S. universities. They are also given support on finding their future paths.
Those who achieve a certain score are admitted to Yotsuya Otsuka without having to take an entrance exam. If they are unable to attend classes at a branch school, they are offered the option of video lessons at an affiliate school to help ensure they become students of the juku.
Large juku focusing on middle school entrance exams have been trying to attract younger students for the last 10 years. The schools say this will help children acquire optimum study habits and gain an interest in learning at a young age.
However, some parents worry about putting their children in cram schools at such a young age. Conflicted feelings were expressed at an event held by Yotsuya Otsuka for parents with children not attending a juku.
“I don’t really trust the public schools, so trying to get into a [private or elite national] middle school might be a good option for my son’s future,” said the father of a second-grader from Kanagawa Prefecture. “But I’m not sure if it’s right for parents to guide their children in that direction.”
A mother of a Tokyo third-grader said: “I want my daughter to be stimulated and to improve her abilities by competing with others. But I don’t know if she has much of a competitive spirit.”
Kenji Yasuda, general manager of the information research and editorial department at Daigaku Tsushin (Campus Navi Network), a cram school industry journal, said, “Attracting younger students is a strategy that cram schools have adopted in the face of the declining birthrate and the reorganization of the industry.”
Juku mergers and acquisitions have increased in the last several years.
Nagase Brothers, which operates the Toshin Haisukuru cram school chain, acquired Yotsuya Otsuka in 2006. Benesse Holdings Inc., which provides correspondence courses, had acquired Ochanomizu Seminar Co. and Tokyo Individualized Educational Institute, Inc. by 2007. Since last year, the firm operating Sapix’s primary division, and the company operating its middle and high school divisions became affiliates of Yoyogi Seminar.
“Hierarchically arranging young children may put them onto tracks they don’t actually like, or give them a feeling of failure for no reason,” Yasuda said.
(Sep. 30, 2010 Daily Yomiuri)