What is happening?

The principal of a preparatory school in England recently spoke out publicly against parents who “hothouse” their children. Richard Foster, headmaster at Windlesham House School, said hothousing children in order to have them accepted into prestigious private schools takes away their childhood and damages their health.

“Hothousing” describes a controversial “results-driven” form of education intended to accelerate a child’s learning, often from a very early age.

Mr Foster joins a growing list of educators urging parents to allow their children to learn and develop at a more natural pace rather than pressuring them to excel in exams. He says over half of all primary-aged children in London currently receive extra academic tuition; a state of affairs that “can’t be healthy”.

Why is it happening?

Experts claim that the hothousing trend has developed partially in response to a growing demand for limited places in elite private schools. Overwhelmed by applications, many of these schools have begun to hold entrance exams to assist in pupil selection; in turn, spawning a whole new private tutoring industry aimed at meeting selection criteria and providing exam preparation. An increasing number of parents now subscribe to these services, which include programs for children as young as three.

While some educators blame parents for harbouring “unrealistic expectations” and a lost “sense of perspective” regarding their children’s education, others say there are other contributing factors, including: an increasingly competitive culture, exacerbated by league tables, standardised tests and international rankings; “information overload” for parents, who are persistently advised about all aspects of childrearing; and the exploitation of parental anxieties by some tutoring services in their marketing strategies.

Where is it happening?

Hothousing is a growing trend in many developed countries. It is a booming multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, encompassing private tuition and a plethora of extra-curricular activities from kinder-gyms to music and language classes.

According to reported figures, the average American child participates in around12 hours of extracurricular activities a week. After-school maths and language “enrichment” franchise Kumon now has a growing presence in 48 countries around the world including Canada, Germany, Ireland, Mexico and Australia.

In numerous Asian countries, hothousing has long been a cultural expectation and considered a sign of good parenting. Some argue that the consistently strong performance of students from countries like Singapore, South Korea and China on international tests is prompting other nations to mimic their success.

Interestingly, however, as the hothousing trend takes hold elsewhere, several Asian countries have begun the process of educational reform away from traditional systems (and the rote-learning focus) toward “21st century skills” that incorporate imagination, collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Furthermore, they are confronting the less-discussed mental health costs of hothousing culture, including: suicide, high rates of student depression and anxiety and declining physical health.

Does it exist in Australia?

In addition to the plethora of extracurricular activities available to Australian children, private tutoring has become a fast-growing, lucrative industry. The Kumon program, for example, has experienced a steady rise in enrolments over recent years, as well as a decrease in the age of children taking part: many are under the age of 5.

According to the Australian Tutoring Association, many parents now engage private tutors to prepare children for NAPLAN testing, and — in echoes of England’s experience — to coach children for the entrance exams required by many private and selective public high schools. Government-run selective school places have become highly prized; particularly among Asian students who overwhelmingly dominate enrolments.

While a hothousing ethos is more traditionally associated with the Asian experience, many say its impact is now being felt more keenly here, particularly as competition for school places intensifies.

What do critics say?

Experts say there is no evidence that hothousing from a very young age offers any advantages over the long term. Researchers assert that it can be physically and psychologically harmful for children, and therefore, ultimately counter-productive.

They argue that attempts to drive early academic achievement are more likely to promote depression, anxiety and low self-esteem; foster resistance to learning; contribute to the increasing incidence of myopia (short-sightedness) in Chinese students, and “snuff out” a child’s independence and resilience.

Overwhelmingly, experts contend that children learn primarily through free play, movement and spontaneous, open engagement with others: that child-centred exploration, rather than an adult-motivated agenda, is a vital component of their growth. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, play is an essential part of childhood development and, indeed, a human right.

In conclusion

In Australia, private tutoring was once the preserve of small numbers of students in need of remedial assistance, but in more recent times, has been increasingly undertaken by parents to gain a “competitive edge”.

However, as Asian countries begin the march away from this approach, some experts declare that by simply sending children outside to play, we may ultimately nurture happier, more creative, innovative children who are better equipped to face the unique demands of the 21st century.

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