Support for At-Risk Pre-Primary Children and Families
According the the OECD, in Japan, 80 percent of three-year-olds and 94 percent of four-year-olds attend daycare or preschool. However, only 46 percent of the cost of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Japan is covered by public funds—the lowest of all OECD countries. The remaining 54 percent is borne by families. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed making ECEC free of charge for all families. Japan will spend roughly ¥800 billion (US$7 billion) to expand its free preschool program to all three- to five-year-olds. By fiscal year 2019, five-year-olds will be covered and three- and four-year-olds will be added the following year.
Currently, the national and local governments provide subsidies to households with children enrolled in preschool or daycare based on socio-economic background and income. Of 1.25 million children enrolled in ECEC, more than 80 percent received subsidies in 2017-2018. About 120,000, or 9.6 percent, attended preschool for free. The government remains dedicated to improving supports for families with young children, in large part out of concern for the country’s low birthrate—Japan’s proportion of students as a percentage of its total population is the lowest of OECD countries.
Japan has also struggled to provide enough preschool and daycare spaces for those that need them. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, around 23,500 children were on the waiting list for certified daycare services in April 2016. But the Ministry said some 67,300 more children were potentially waiting to enroll, as the figure does not include parents who are on child care leave. Prime Minister Abe has announced plans to dramatically increase the number of government subsidized daycares and preschools by 2019. Currently, about 60 percent of preschools in Japan are privately run.
Supports for At-Risk Students
Local government oversees the hiring and transfer of teachers in Japan, so high-quality teachers can be assigned to high-need schools, such as those in remote or low-income areas. Conditions for periodic teacher rotation vary by prefecture. For example, Tokyo prefecture requires teachers to transfer every three to six years, and a teacher’s first four transfers must cover at least three of 12 geographic areas in the prefecture.
The government provides several forms of financial assistance for low-income students. Compulsory education students who meet income eligibility requirements can receive Education Assistance through the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, and Assistance to School Attendance through MEXT. Public schools do not charge tuition for compulsory education, so these programs cover other school expenses including meals, transportation, supplies and trips. For upper secondary students, the High School Enrollment Support Fund System provides tuition subsidies to families making below the annual income threshold, which is ¥9.1 million (US$83,447) for a two-parent, two-child household. Upper secondary students can also choose to use the subsidy toward private school tuition; in this case, the subsidy is higher for lower-income students. The High School Supplemental Scholarship Fund was created to cover costs other than tuition.
The Law for the Promotion of Education in Remote and Isolated Areas, passed in 1954, prioritizes conducting research on education in these areas; providing state subsidies for school infrastructure; and improving access to initial teacher education, in-service training, instructional materials, housing and healthcare. Teachers receive an allowance that varies depending on the remoteness of the school, as determined by criteria such as Internet access. As of 2012, Japan’s National Institute for Educational Policy Research reports that there is no meaningful difference in performance between remote and other schools on nationwide achievement tests.
Supports for Struggling Students
The compulsory education system in Japan is predicated on heterogeneous, age-based groups of students in each classroom. Thus students who are particularly talented are not removed from the classroom and placed in “gifted” classes or allowed to skip a grade. The same is true for struggling students. Instead of being sent to separate classes away from their peers, the needs of struggling students are addressed in the classroom so that they can progress to the next grade with their classmates. Classmates are also expected to help one another. Both the struggling and the excelling students benefit from this expectation, because tutoring another student reinforces the concepts for the stronger student while the entire process reinforces the sense of community within the classroom.
Teachers have a number of resources at their disposal to support struggling students. They can provide individual attention within a lesson, while students are working independently; students can receive after-school instruction from their primary teachers; and teachers regularly meet with one another to discuss how to help their struggling students. Teachers communicate regularly with all students’ parents, and in particular will provide information and advice to parents whose children are underperforming. Parents are expected to buttress the teacher’s efforts at home, and to seek professional help if the problem cannot be easily remedied.
Special education is provided in three ways: in special schools, in special classes and resource rooms within mainstream schools and/or within the mainstream classroom. The type of special education a child receives is based on his or her disability. Whenever possible, Japanese educators try to keep students with mild to moderate learning disabilities in class and on track with their peers, and as of 2014 less than one percent of compulsory school age students were taught in special schools. Special schools are reserved for students who may need more support than is available in mainstream schools, including students who are blind, deaf or otherwise handicapped. In 2014, about 3 percent of Japanese students in primary and lower secondary school received some form of special education.