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Progressive preschools press to meet high global standards

The Japan News

A native English speaker teaches English using a picture card at Machida Kobato Kindergarten in Tokyo on March 8.

By Ikuko Higuchi / Japan News Staff WriterPreschools have been eager to introduce English lessons for years to attract parents’ attention, but some of them are becoming more serious about globalizing their curriculum beyond just English.

A private kindergarten in Tokyo that has recently become an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB, see below) preschool is one such example. The trend shows in part a growing dissatisfaction among parents with the current governmental educational curriculum.

Machida Kobato (little pigeon) Kindergarten, located in a residential area of Machida city in southern Tokyo, received certification from the Switzerland-based IB organization in mid-March. It is the first preschool in metropolitan Tokyo certified both by IB and the Japanese government, and the third such facility nationwide.

According to the education ministry, although there are 36 elementary schools and preschools that follow the IB Primary Years Programme, most of them are mainly attended by foreign children living in Japan and do not have governmental authorization.

Kobato Kindergarten currently admits about 280 children aged 2 to 5, of whom around 10 have one or both parents from foreign countries. Established 50 years ago, the preschool has been facing society’s globalization during the past decade, particularly the increasing number of foreign children.

“With Japan’s declining population and the government’s new policy of accepting more foreign workers, it will become normal for our children to have neighbors and coworkers from different cultures. The IB program, followed in many countries, will help them acquire common grounds of interaction with those people,” said Vice Principal Kaoru Kanzo, explaining the reason why the preschool introduced the IB program.

In order to obtain IB certification, the preschool not only increased the number of native English teachers, but also had all the teachers receive training for teaching the program. It has renewed its curriculum in accordance with IB principles, which focus more on developing children’s self-initiative and creativity, and less on discipline.

While the main language used in the classroom is Japanese, children are encouraged to speak English as much as they can.

Operating an IB-authorized school is expensive. For the kindergarten, the annual fee for teaching the program amounts to about ¥1 million. Because of that, the preschool raised its tuition this April. However, thanks to the government’s new program of “free preschool education” that grants every child aged 3 to 5 a generous subsidy, the tuition will go back down even lower than previously when the program starts in October, Kanzo said.

“Parents’ interest in the IB program is stronger than we expected. We have been getting an increasing number of inquiries about admission, even from people who live far from here,” Kanzo said.

Growing dissatisfaction

First Classroom Setagaya, a private preschool in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, aims to raise children to be able to live and work across borders. Principal Kenji Hashii started the preschool 12 years ago, after working for years at a foreign company in Japan.

During those years, he frequently made business trips abroad, bidding for international conventions and trade exhibitions, and became frustrated by Japanese people’s lack of assertiveness in international business negotiations.

“The strange thing is, most Japanese I saw abroad spoke fluent English. It was not because of a lack of language skills, but because they weren’t educated to be assertive,” Hashii said.

Hashii then decided to open a preschool in a bid to provide early childhood education to meet global standards. “Most preschools in Japan tell children to listen to their teachers. We encourage children to express themselves, and say what they like and what they want,” Hashii said.

During “Show and Tell,” children take turns showing something they have chosen to talk about and make a 3-minute speech in front of the class every day. Younger children bring their toys from home, while older children show pictures and talk about their families and experiences, Hashii said.

The preschool has received a flood of applications, even though it only has capacity for 36 children aged 2 to 5, including at the new branch that opened in April in the same ward, and charges about ¥120,000 for tuition and other fees per month, about four times the national average.

“When I started this preschool 12 years ago, applications were mainly from doctors and university professors, who were very mindful of their children’s education. These days, many of them are from ordinary company workers. I think there is growing dissatisfaction among parents with the current governmental educational curriculum,” Hashii said.

“Partly because of the growing number of foreign children’s enrollment, many preschools face the urgent need to change their curriculum to conform with international standards,” said Mika Ikemoto, a senior researcher specializing in preschool and nursery affairs at the Japan Research Institute Ltd. “The government should help those facilities by providing necessary information, know-how and anything else that may be required,” Ikemoto said.

■ International Baccalaureate: Education programs offered by the International Baccalaureate Organization. The first program was established in 1968 to provide children who move between countries with an internationally recognized university entrance qualification. About 5,000 schools in 153 countries and regions offered IB programs as of March 2019.Speech

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