Migrant children face education divide

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No discrimination

The program has been hailed as a significant step in the reform of China's education system, yet the segregation of students from different backgrounds (the exact number of schools doing so is not available but experts suggest it is common practice) has sparked fresh concerns over the equality of education in the country.

"Students like us have to be outstanding to be allowed into public schools and get the same standard of education as the locals. If not, we're placed in separate classes," said Wang Zefang.

There are still limits to what migrant children can accomplish, he said, "such as it would be impossible for me to get into a first-class public schools no matter how well I perform."

Yu Haizhou, head of Gaojin No 3 Middle School, denied any suggestion the school discriminates against migrants by putting them in different classrooms.

"We used to have 600 students, so you can imaging what a big burden on our educational resources it was to take in 300 students all at once," he told China Daily. "We made the most convenient choice and maintained a division between them.

"It's a question of management, not discrimination," he insisted, adding that huge differences in study levels also posed difficulties.

Migrant children in Shanghai use nationally standardized textbooks, while natives use books produced locally, which are far advanced in some subjects, particularly English.

"Also, migrant students are not allowed to sit secondary school and college entrance examinations in Shanghai (or in any other city where they do not have hukou)," he said. "They have to return to their hometown, where the test will be based on the nationally standardized textbooks.

"So it really doesn't make sense to teach these students together with the locals," the head teacher added.

The fact students eat and leave at different times is to prevent congestion at the school canteen, he explained. "Our school is already too small for 600 students, let alone for the new additions."

Yu revealed that parents put the school under a lot of pressure not to integrate its students because they fear it could hinder their child's development.

"We know this could be seen as prejudice but the fact is, on average, the migrant children are at a lower level in their studies and are a lot more difficult to teach due to their poor living conditions," he said. "They move from place to place, change schools often and most of their parents do not pay enough attention to their education.

"What we can do right now is to encourage more communication between the two groups and hopefully minimize the gaps and misunderstandings."

However, Zhang Yichao, founder of a voluntary center dedicated to providing free extracurricular education for migrant students in Shanghai since 2002, disagreed that differences in academic performance are a major hurdle to having children share the same class.

"Many people simply don't know how diligent these migrant students are," he argued. "Judging from my experiences, after a year of hard work most of them would be able to catch up."

Segregation in public schools will ultimately have a negative psychological impact on both groups of students, he warned.

"It's even worse than having schools exclusively for migrants. They may have poor standards but at least there the youngsters can feel equal with their classmates," he said. "The government has failed to take into account the potential impact of the new policy, which has actually sacrificed the interests of many innocent migrant children."

He urged the authorities to allow students to sit exams at the schools they attend to help remove the barriers in education and allow more people to go on to higher education.

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