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Horseback Classrooms Become History
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Thirty years ago, Seqinbilig was a 12-year-old son of a herdsman living on the vast Xilingol Grassland in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Everyday, he looked forward to his "horseback teacher" coming to tell stories.

Now, as the principal of a primary school in Xilinhot, capital of Xilingol Bund, Seqinbilig's dream is to enroll many more herdsmen's children in his urban school to give them better education than he received as a child.

In the 1970's, herdsmen lived far and between on grassland in Inner Mongolia, usually four or five families to one settlement. It was nearly impossible to support a school in such a sparsely populated place.

Education was provided by horsemen who paid weekly visits to the herdsmen's settlements. The tents where the children had classes were nicknamed "horseback schools" and the teachers "horseback teachers".

"My teacher was a kind old man. He taught us how to read and write, and told us folk stories. He opened a window for us, a window to the outside world," Seqinbilig recalled.

A 13-year-old Mongolian girl Zola, a herdsman's child as well, is much more fortunate than her headmaster. She enjoys the same education, and living conditions as her urban peers. Besides her own Mongolian language, she can also speak fluent Mandarin and even a few English words.

Zola's good fortune is the result of the elementary schools restructuring project in grassland areas which started three years ago, aiming to provide better education opportunities for the offspring of herdsmen.

Yang Jing, governor of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said, in the 1980s, boarding schools were set up in the grassland area so that children from different parts of the vast grassland could study together. However, the education quality lagged far behind the urban schools. Some of the students, unable to get used to life in the city, eventually left school and went back to grassland.

Since 2004, the region began to transfer students from the grassland areas to schools in county seats or cities and waived all tuition fees.

The region's government also plans to allot more than 300 million yuan (US$40 million) every year between 2006 and 2009 to subsidize schools admitting "migrant students".

"We will achieve the goal of putting all the herdsmen's children in urban schools by 2008," said Yang.

The Xilingol Bund, boasting one of the largest grasslands in China, has a population of more than 210,000 making a living on husbandry. Its government has transferred about 6,200 students from 60 township schools to city schools at a cost of 5.9 million yuan (US$787,000) in the past three years.

"We don't need to pay tuition and what's more, we get 150 yuan (US$20) allowance every month," said Zola, who likes her current school life although she lives about 200 kilometers away from her home.

"I can go to the cinema and KFC at weekends, and also attend extracurricular activities," said Zola.

According to the region's education department, as of June, the primary school attendance rate of school-age children in Inner Mongolia reached 100 percent. The number of college students from minority groups is 69,400, three times that of 2000.

"We also offer some courses featuring ethnic cultures, including Mongolian chess, Matouqin (traditional musical instrument) and wrestling, so the kids can be familiar with their own ethnic cultures and pass them on," said Seqinbilig.
(Xinhua News Agency August 5, 2007)

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