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Ensure Schooling for All Children

While millions of rural laborers are moving to cities for work, the education of their children has become a big problem.


Official statistics show the number of migrant workers has soared from 2 million or so in 1980 to over 80 million in the early 1990s. Although the number has not risen sharply since then, more rural people have moved to cities together with their spouses and children.


According to a census conducted among the 2.3 million migrants in Beijing in 1997, 32 percent of them were with families.


Despite migrant families' contribution to urban construction, however, schooling for their children in cities receives little attention, largely because of a lingering residency registration system.


A report by the Ministry of Agriculture's Rural Economics Research Center may shed some light on this issue. It is based on a survey conducted in Beijing in 2000 among 619 migrant workers with school-age children as well as case studies of 114 migrant-run schools in the city.


Asked what is the biggest barrier to them settling down in Beijing, 25 percent of respondents answered "the Beijing local government's tight restriction and control over migrants" and about 10 percent mentioned the difficulty in their children's schooling in the capital.


Only about 32 percent of the surveyed migrant workers had their children with them in Beijing at the time of study, with the remainder of children still living in their home villages.


The stiff residency registration system is a major barrier for children living with their parents. Known as "Hukou" the system was designed to curb the influx of rural citizens to cities by requiring people to live in the places where they were born.


Although China's economic boom has stimulated the flow of the labor force, the lingering "Hukou" system means migrant workers are not recognized by the public services and welfare systems offered to urban residents.


According to the survey, only about 14 percent of migrant workers have managed to send their children to public schools in Beijing. Almost 65 percent of migrant workers' children at school age study in their home villages, about 11 percent attend the shabby unregistered schools run by migrant workers themselves in Beijing and about 2 percent are not attending school at all.


Migrant workers have to pay high prices to send their children to public schools. Besides tuition fees levied on every local pupil, migrant workers have to pay extra fees that run up to tens of thousands yuan each semester, which is far too high for most migrants.


Special migrant schools have mushroomed in Beijing since 1995. Although not recognized by educational authorities, these schools cater to migrant children's needs for schooling. By rough reckoning, the number of such schools in Beijing had reached 200 by 1999.


The rapid growth of these schools reflects the huge educational demand from migrant families and reveals the absence of the government's education service in the area.


The investigation of 114 migrant-run schools has shown that the size of them varies -- some have less than 10 pupils, while others have hundreds or even thousands. The biggest had over 4,000 pupils in 2002.


But more than half of these schools do not meet official curricular standards. Most of them only provide maths and Chinese language courses.


Nevertheless, they are receiving more and more students because of their low charges. The average fees in some 101 selected migrant schools are only 490 yuan (US$59) per semester. At the very least, migrant children will be literate and numerate.


Like most modern governments, the Chinese Government lays great store in education. China's legislation also stipulates that every citizen has the right to receive nine years of education, covering primary and junior middle schools.


However, the paradox between the mounting flow of migrant families and the "Hukou" system have made it very difficult to guarantee the educational rights of migrant kids.


In 1998, the Ministry of Education issued a policy requiring schools to provide migrant children with opportunities for education and for extra fees to be reduced. But the rule has been pigeonholed in practice as many local educational authorities take local children over migrant families not willing to pay extra.


Some schools even falsely hold that children from migrant families, many of whom earn livings by selling vegetables or working as grocers and construction workers, have negative influences on urban children if they study together.


Addressing the question in the 2000 survey, "What are determinants in the selection of your children's school?" some respondents answered, "schools that do not have discriminative attitudes towards our children."


They said the removal of the "Hukou" system means not only a removal of additional fees charged by urban public schools, but also a removal of the inequality between urban and rural people.


Helping children of migrant workers study and live with their parents in cities will not only benefit the families, but also help foster a more harmonious society.


Obviously, the current educational institutions, which are compatible to the household registration system, are at odds with the fact that more migrants are seeking an education for their children.


City governments should take bold steps to free public schools from the "Hukou" red tape, and scrap extra charges to guarantee that migrant and local kids have equal access to public schooling.


Meanwhile, the large number of migrant-run schools should not be neglected. Considering the huge demand for these informal schools in the near term, the government can opt to help them improve their standards of teaching rather than simply closing them down.


(China Daily December 9, 2003)

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