Like many girls in Shilaquan Qiaolu Villag, Dongxiang County of Northwest China's Gansu Province, Ma Jinhua had never entered the grounds of a school because she was too poor.
She used to be busy with household chores with her mother day after day, but she dreamed for years of going to school.
The dream finally came true two years ago, when the 10-year-old got a scholarship from Qiaolu School in the village.
Ma was one of the beneficiaries of the Gansu Basic Education Project (GBEP), a co-operation project between China and Britain which has been mainly operated in Dongxiang, Jishishan, Hezheng and Kangle counties of the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Northwest China's Gansu Province.
Funded by the British Government Department for International Development (DFID), the project started in 1999 and will run for six years with a total investment of some US$18 million. It is managed by the Gansu Provincial Education Department, with support from a team of international and national consultants provided by England's Cambridge Education Consultants (CEC) firm.
The goal of the project is to help Gansu to universalize primary education by 2005 and achieve the nine-year compulsory education goal by 2010, according to Li Weiguo, deputy director of the Gansu Provincial Education Department.
"We hope to help more girls and boys from poor and minority population families to enter and complete the primary and junior middle school cycles in Gansu, especially in the four target counties, and to help reduce the inequalities within the educational system," Li added.
Four years since the project was first carried out, the enrolment of school-aged children in the four counties has increased from 71 per cent to 87, said Li.
New access to school
Located in remote mountainous terrain, the four counties are the most poverty-stricken areas in Gansu.
About 50 per cent of the population are not Han people and most of them are Muslims.
"The main barrier to school attendance is poverty and the inability of parents to bear the costs of schooling," said Hu Wenbin, an education adviser who is in charge of CEC's consultant team.
Economic factors were compounded by gender and minority status issues. Official statistics showed that enrolment rates for girls in the counties were below those for boys and on average 10 per cent below their representation in the population.
"Many parents have a higher desired level of education attainment for sons than for daughters," Hu said.
The situation for girls was particularly severe in Dongxiang, with only about 30 per cent of the primary school pupils being female. Many girls of school age like Ma used to be denied access to schooling.
With a strong emphasis on increasing enrolment rates, particularly for girls, the project has tried to reduce education costs for poorer families and lighten the burden for parents.
A scholarship scheme has been launched in the four counties to help disadvantaged children such as those of minority groups, from disabled families, single families and orphans without schooling.
Up to now, over 6,000 children have received scholarships from the project, 75 per cent of which were girls.
"Thanks to the project, I can finally go to school and complete my primary and secondary education," said Ma, who is one of the top students in her class.
Local educational officials also noted that the lack of female teachers was an important factor hindering the enrolment of girls in basic education. Some Muslim parents were reluctant to send daughters to schools where there were no female teachers.
Through the project, 47 women teachers have been posted to schools in remote mountainous areas.
For a long time, conditions in rural schools were not conducive to learning - dilapidated buildings, lack of heating, few teaching materials and poor sanitation.
Since the project was launched in 1999, 151 schools have been built and renovated, and equipped with necessary heating and teaching facilities.
To make school more attractive to children, the GBEP has also strived to create a more friendly climate in schools.
In the Qiaolu School, the classrooms look a little different than before. Tables and chairs were no longer organized in lines and rows; instead they now form rectangles and squares. Students gather together.
Sports and gaming equipment, like chessboards and tables to play table tennis, which were easy to acquire and low in cost, were welcomed by students.
Many students do not go home to have lunch because the school is far away from their village. A pilot free meal programme is now being offered in two counties.
To increase enrolment rates, teaching quality and school management levels, the GBEP introduced a pilot programme - School Development Planning (SDP) to the four target counties.
"SDP has been in practice in many countries in the world for over a decade, but it's a new concept in China," Hu said.
Villagers, teachers and headmasters assemble together to discuss the existing problems, solutions and future development of the schools.
Farmers' participation in the project has connected the school's development with the community, and has encouraged both sides to shoulder their educational responsibilities, said Hu.
To make the implementation of the SDP better, the Gansu Provincial Education Department, with the assistance of CEC's consultant team, has compiled training handbooks on SDP and trained local headmasters.
He Long, headmaster of Xinji School in Hezheng County, has attended the training workshop three times since 2000.
"We used to rely on the government in school development. But now we've learned how to mobilize local people to participate in school affairs," He said.
The relationship between the schools and local education authorities has also changed, as the schools have more autonomy on their own affairs, and they have begun to decide how to make the best use of limited resources from government allocations.
"School development plans used to be made by the government. It's from the top to the bottom, but now it's just in reverse," said Zhang Xinwu, director of the Educational Department of Hezheng County.
Schools and communities decide the future plans, solve problems they encounter and work out long-term and short-term plans that can then be submitted to the educational department for approval.
"The programme has given local people a chance to have a say on school affairs for the first time in the last few decades," Hu said.
"Local resources have also been mobilized to a certain extent to support school development. The closer links between schools and communities in the counties have contributed significantly to the increase of enrolment rates, lower drop-out rates, and a much stronger sense of the value of education to parents," Hu added.
To upgrade the quality of teaching, special working groups were organized, with a mixture of university experts and primary and secondary school teachers, to carry out research into the needs of school teachers in poor areas.
Based on the identified needs, new training methods were introduced which focused on the participation of trainees rather than dated training methods.
With many new ideas for education, the training courses developed by the GBEP were full of trials and approaches but based on the reality of local conditions.
A supporting system was established at the county and township levels to help teachers continue improving their practical teaching skills.
By the end of 2002, over 4,500 teachers from the four target counties have been trained.
"A teacher training network has been established for the development of minority education, which in the long run will ensure the sustainable development of quality education," said Li Ming, director of the Gansu Provincial Educational Department.
"The implementation of the GBEP is a process full of difficulties and complications," exclaimed Hu. "The concern of the project is only a small part of the ongoing educational reforms in the country."
"What the young generation is experiencing today will have a profound impact on the development of society and on thousands of households in Linxia in the future," Hu concluded.
(China Daily September 29, 2003)