New cram school blurs public and private line

by Akemi Nakamura

Cram schools have long played an important complementary role to classroom education, but a new type opening Saturday in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, is causing a stir among educators.

The school, Yoru Supe (Night Special), offers a one-year course designed to help top achievers in their second year at Wada Junior High School better prepare for high school entrance exams. The program is a rarity in that it singles out students with high grades and charges a high fee.

Some experts say the program at Wada Junior High gives an unfair advantage to students with greater financial resources and blurs the line between the public and private spheres.

But outspoken Wada Junior High Principal Kazuhiro Fujihara, a top salesman at major publisher and personnel agency Recruit Co. before becoming an educator in 2003, said public schools need to stimulate gifted students, even if it means collaborating with private companies.

Proposed by the former businessman known for his uncommon ideas on education, Chiiki Honbu (Local Headquarters), a volunteer group based at the school, runs the Night Special classes on the school’s campus. The group is made up of parents whose children graduated from the school and university students planning to become teachers.

Teachers from Sapix, a chain of cram schools operated by Sapience Research Institute Co., teach mathematics and Japanese on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights and English on Saturday afternoons, holding three 45-minute classes a day.

Tuition for the course is ¥18,000 to ¥24,000 monthly or ¥500 per 45-minute study period, depending on the number of subjects students take. So far only 19 out of 127 second-year students at Wada Junior High plan to take part in Night Special.

Earlier this month, the Tokyo metropolitan board of education said that because it charges a high fee, the Night Special course may violate a key principle of public education — that educational opportunities should be equally available regardless of financial means.

The board has also frowned upon Wada’s teachers for helping to create study materials for the Night Special course with Sapix teachers, saying that as civil servants they should not split their duties with private companies. One board official said that because public spaces are intended for nonprofit use, any profit earned by Sapix at the school could be a problem.

However, the Night Special course at Wada Junior High has in fact made access to cram schools more affordable, with rates roughly half those at many cram schools, Fujihara argued, adding that students from families on welfare can get a 50 percent discount. Suginami Ward official Noriyuki Sato said those fees cover only material costs and transportation for Sapix teachers.

Teachers only give advice Sapix to make study materials without being paid and do not work during their school shifts, Sato said.

Tieups between public schools and cram schools are not unusual these days, but many other public schools offering after-school classes taught by cram school teachers ask participating students to pay nothing and open their programs to a wider range of students.

For example, Saturday classes in math, Japanese and English have been held at all 10 public junior high schools in Minato Ward, Tokyo, since 2005, taught by teachers from major cram school chain Waseda Academy Co.

The ward covers the cost of tuition for the Saturday classes, an official at the Minato Ward board of education said.

Participating students there are divided into two groups: those needing to catch up with regular classes and others interested in advanced studies. About 70 percent of all students at the 10 schools take the Saturday classes.

Suginami Ward’s Wada Junior High has offered similar Saturday extracurricular courses to its students since 2003, but Fujihara called the Night Special program a response to the needs of elite students who will benefit from yet greater challenges.

“Not providing programs for upper-level students (at public schools) is a form of reverse discrimination,” Fujihara said.

More than one-third of the approximately 3,000 sixth-graders at Suginami Ward public elementary schools end up attending private junior high schools because of dissatisfaction with public school standards, Fujihara said.

Not offering his brand of advanced classes would cause the “popularity of public schools to drop” even more, he said.

Holding after-school programs may indeed burnish public schools’ image.

Back in 2005, roughly half of sixth-graders at Minato Ward public elementary schools chose private junior high schools, according to ward statistics. But thanks partly to its tuition-free Saturday classes, that figure has dropped several percentage points, the ward official said.

Recently, education boards across Tokyo have taken a page from the business sector, allowing students at public elementary schools and their parents to choose which public junior high schools to attend in the hope that this will prod schools to craft attractive programs.

Wada Junior High is a good example. Under Fujihara’s stewardship, experts in fields such as finance and science are invited as guest speakers for the Saturday tutoring and Yononaka-ka social studies courses.

Both have been heavily covered by the media.

But Naoki Ogi, an education critic and professor of education at Hosei University in Tokyo, opposes cram schools operating within public schools, like that planned at Wada Junior High. Ogi believes they may widen the gap in education programs between Wada Junior High and other public schools in Suginami Ward and create a psychological divide between elite and other students.

“I’ve been impressed by Fujihara’s ideas, such as Yononaka-ka, to motivate students to learn actively, but the cram school is disappointing,” said Ogi, a former junior high school teacher.

With the Night Special course, he said, “It’s possible that students who take Saturday tutoring may develop inferiority complexes.”