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Closing the Education Gap in China

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Education inequality between migrant and urban children has been a major problem to be dealt with in the China’s education sector. There are two major social structural causes for the discrimination against migrant children’s education - the Hukou household system and the low household income of migrant workers.

Hukou system is one of the greatest barriers that prevent migrant children from attending public schools in urban areas. It was put in place in 1958 and gradually became an instrument of controlling population movements during the three decades (1949-1979) of planned economy (Knight & Song, 1999). The majority of migrant workers only get the temporary stay status in urban cities. However, access to public schools requires permanent residence status. Without a permanent residence status, migrant children cannot share the equal opportunity to attend qualified urban public schools with children born in the urban areas. The 1986 Compulsory Education Law stipulates the responsibility to the governments in which migrant workers’ Hukou belongs to take care of migrant children’s education. But with the urbanization process accompanied by millions of population flows into cities, this policy is rendered outdated. The 2001 “Decision of the State Council on the Development of Elementary Education6” and the 2003 “Decision of the State Council on Further Strengthening Rural Education” (two national education policies) switched the responsibility for providing education to migrant children from the out-flowing rural areas to the receiving cities, with the focus on education within the state school system. But the ambiguity leads to the incomplete implementation. As a result, the ratio of migrant children attending state public schools is 78 percent, which is dramatically lower than that of children in urban cities which is 99.8 percent.

Hukou reform is the ultimate and long-term solution to this problem. The parents of migrant children make a vital contribution to the economic development of the cities. They live in the cities and pay taxes, thus their children’s welfare needs to be provided for, as people in urban area. Reducing the disparity between urban and rural areas in terms of socio-economic development and welfare provisions, and to eventually abolish the Hukou system is the final solution for the education discrimination problem.

In the current stage, government should start to facilitate migrant children’s education as an initial step to reform the Hukou system. Municipal government, which receives the migrant workers influx, should include the education fee for migrant children in their budget and provide adequate education for migrant children.

Government should strengthen the link between social services and household registration (Hukou) for children. All children should be entitled to the same rights to education services, social advancement and social participation. In an article in Qiushi Journal, Zhou Yongkang, a Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, noted there is an "urgent" need to speed up the reform of the Hukou system and to explore new models to manage the flow of the work force nationwide. As research has identified that the reform of Hukou is of great difficulties. It is appropriate to regard Hukou reform as an ultimate and long term goal to realize the reduction of migrant children’s education discrimination.

Another reason that leads to migrant children’s discrimination is the low household income of the migrant workers. Eight year old Yuhui’s father explains how he finds it hard to educate his daughter since he’s a low-income earner and that children are not enrolled in the absence of a local Hukou (The Guardian, 2007). Governments can solve this problem by subsidizing the educational fees for migrant children. The 2006 National Survey on migrant children’s education showed that “average annual school fees for the children of migrant workers in the city is 2,450, accounting for about 20 percent of total family income”. However, most migrant worker’s annual income ranges from 8,000 to 10,000. Since they have to burden the rental, usually two to three children and sometimes they cannot get their salary in time, the education fee for their children is too high for them to pay. This reason renders migrant children to drop out of school. So it is crucial for governments to subsidize the cost of migrant children’s education.

Apart from social structural causes, there is one political factor accounting for the discrimination against migrant children - the under implementation of current education policies. Children are confused about where they can get education.

To tackle this problem, legalizing private migrant schools and liberalizing the licenses for privately-run migrant schools is an ideal choice. According to the Ford Foundation, in 2000 there were between 200 and 300 unlicensed schools operating in Beijing. In Shanghai, there were 519 private schools for migrant students in 2001, with 120,000 enrolled students. But these schools are so called “illegal” because Chinese education system only recognizes the public schools. The old method to control these migrant schools is to shut down. However, this is not a sustainable method since on the one hand migrant children have no access to public schools and on the other hand this will only hinders the progress of migrant schools. Government intervention should now turn to focus on legalizing these schools by providing them with licenses. In order to obtain license, migrant schools are measured by the quality of facilities, qualification of teachers and the principle. There is already precedence that encourages the high quality migrant schools to prove this method to be feasible. The measure outlined by the State Council and the Ministry of Education in 2003 to improve the education of migrant children contained important provisions of more good qualities’ migrant schools but there is no specific policy that aims at legalizing private migrant schools yet. Providing licenses to privately-run migrant schools will not only help the stable development of migrant schools but also help the quality of these schools to improve greatly.

Another crucial method to improve the educational conditions for migrant children can be leveraged by the non-government organizations. Due to the rigid control of central government, the non-government organizations (NGO) have been absent in the policy making process for more than 5 decades. With the rise of civil rights demand, which comes along with the economic growth, NGOs have been initiated in China. This situation offers a valuable chance to solve the migrant children’s education problem. In the meantime, more and more concerned citizens realized the contribution the rural-to-urban migrant workers make for the urban cities. Hence, they began to realize the necessity to accept migrant workers. NGO is a complementary factor for governmental actions. NGOs could bridge the needs of migrant children with the caring from citizens through an informal media. For example, the New Citizen Program in Narada Foundation is to provide funding for migrant schools by raising fund from citizens. In the short term, this plan entails to build up 100 migrant schools in 5 to 10 years since 2007. The cost of each school is between $250,000 and $350,000, and the Narada Foundation will raise fund from concerned citizens and corporations. The first migrant school - ZhiXin School was built in 2008 in Beijing. The Board of Directors of the migrant schools recruits the principals and teachers of the schools to ensure the qualification of the education quality. This has proved to be a success and now there are more than twenty ZhiXin Schools in Beijing and Shanghai.

In addition, due to the frequent movement and separation from their parents, migrant children are mentally more vulnerable than children from urban areas. To help them cope with these frequent situations of loneliness, psychological guidance and counseling programs should be initiated. This would help them avoid the distraction that would have been caused and put much more concentration in their studies.

Moreover, extra-curriculum activities can be used as a tool to help in the integration urban and migrant children. Extracurricular activities are essentially opportunities to engage in extensions of academic activities and/or non-academic academic activities under school auspices. Non-governmental organizations should also recruit professional social workers to initiate programs that to will help integrate migrant children with urban children. The children should be encouraged to engage in artistic activities such as music, dancing, painting, photography, creative writing etc. They should also be allowed to participate in governance by taking some leadership responsibilities. Most importantly is the participation in sport activities such as football, basketball and other various sporting activities. To facilitate this, migrant children should first be taught to be more fluent in the means of communication so as to enhance their communication skills with the rest of the children and teachers. “Many migrant children in my fieldwork schools believed that their regional accents would differentiate them from local Beijing pupils whose speech they perceived to be “accent-less” (Dong, 2009, 2010; Dong & Blommaert, 2009). In the practical sense, integration has proved to be very useful. In an interview carried out in a school, many children described an event organized by the migrant school they attended as an opportunity for migrant children and local children to know each other and to make friends.

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