EDUCATION RENAISSANCE / Univ. schools spark Kansai’s interest in exam prep  (Yomiuri, Jan. 20, 2011)

Shoko Okuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series. This installment, the final of three parts, focuses on the growing number of Kansai schools that offer classes to prepare preschoolers for primary school entrance exams.

KYOTO–“Use your chopsticks to pick up the red marbles and carry them to your plate,” a teacher tells his students during a lesson on day-to-day skills at Shingakai’s Shijokawaramachi campus in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto.

At first, the kids were unable to pick up or hold onto the marbles. But by the end of the lesson, they all were able to complete the task in the allotted time.

As 4- and 5-year-olds, the children are in the second year of a three-year nursery school, but here they have begun learning under the curriculum for the upper age levels, a year ahead of their entrance examinations for private primary schools.

Michio Iida, chief of curriculum planning at the Shingakai preschool education service chain, says, “Over the coming year, we will be giving the kids a variety of practical lessons, which will help to drastically improve their skills.”

Established in 1956, Shingakai has since built a reputation for helping its students pass entrance exams for prestigious kindergartens and primary schools. The chain is headquartered in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, and operates 29 schools–26 in the Tokyo metropolitan area and three in the Kansai region. The company’s educational philosophy is to help children develop intellectual interest.

For example, teachers often use marbles and origami to turn lessons about shapes and numbers into a game, making it more appealing to the children.

On average, children in the upper age-level course attend class twice a week for a total of four hours. Half this time is spent on general learning, half is spent on study specifically tailored to the parents’ target school. Parents can expect to pay about 100,000 yen a month on average.

Shingakai opened its first Kansai school–the Shijokawaramachi campus–in 2008. Last year, the company expanded to include one campus each in Osaka and Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

Prior to its westward expansion, Shingakai had provided its know-how and experience to another school chain in Osaka.

Part of the reason the firm decided to establish itself in Kansai was that the region’s prestigious private universities–Kansai University, Kwansei Gakuin University, Doshisha University and Ritsumeikan University–have opened their own affiliated primary schools in recent years, stirring interest in local parents.

The market for primary school exam preparation was established in 2005, when Nishinomiya-based Hamagakuen–a cram school chain specializing in middle school entrance exams–inaugurated its “Hama Kids” class for preschoolers.

Another cram school chain, the Kyoto-based Kyoshin Co., began offering lessons targeting preschoolers in 2006 with its Kyoshin Purewan program.

In 2008, the expanding market in the region attracted Shingakai, which felt that “the need for a school like ours had grown to the point we could make effective use of our vast experience,” Shingakai’s Iida says.

Even before the universities opened their primary schools, children were preparing for primary school entrance exams. But, there was not as much demand for such courses as there were not as many private primary schools in Kansai as there were in Kanto, while people in Western Japan tended to favor schools with integrated middle-high school curriculums and well-respected public high schools.

For people in Kansai, the impetus behind their interest in preschool-age exam preparation is directly correlated with the explosion in primary schools affiliated with prestigious universities.