A Big Crack In China's Education System


On Beijing’s southern fringe is a place called Gongyi Xiqiao, a cluster of highrise apartment blocks grouped around the last subway stop before the city peters out into dusty outlying villages. If you take a cab ride 20 minutes further south you reach a low-rise strip of shops along a pitted two-lane road. Only an incongruously colourful iron gate fronting a disused factory distinguishes the street from thousands of others skirting the capital. Welcome to "Dandelion", Beijing’s only officially recognised high school for the children of migrant workers.

These are not "migrants" in the sense that Australians use the term — they are all Chinese men and women who have gravitated from the countryside looking for work. But although they live and labour in the capital, they can never become official city dwellers. Their hukou, or residence permits, tie them to their place of birth in the country. Without a plum government job or vast sums of cash it’s virtually impossible to transfer your hukou from a rural to an urban area, preventing them from applying for certain city jobs, accessing medical insurance or sending their kids to urban public schools.

Dandelion’s headmistress Zheng Hong is a quietly spoken woman in her forties who helped launch the school in 2005. Zheng estimates there are around half-a-million migrant worker children in Beijing alone, though no one knows the exact number. What’s not in doubt is that very few receive a decent education.

Countless private schools have sprung up on Beijing’s periphery to serve this vast floating population, but they are run for profit and serve a marginalised, disempowered class of workers, providing a service that, in the words of Zheng Hong, is more daycare than real schooling. Teachers are rarely qualified and facilities are invariably woeful.

In contrast, Dandelion only employs qualified staff to teach a state-approved curriculum to around 650 students in Years 7–9. The school was able to gain official accreditation from local authorities soon after opening, making it the only recognised educational facility of its kind in the city. Students are charged around RMB 3,000 (just over AU$500) a year, which covers textbooks and tuition, a dorm bed, and three meals a day.

Even this small sum is beyond the means of many, and Zheng Hong says fees are waived for around 25 per cent of the students who come from particularly impoverished backgrounds. Local authorities also provide a miniscule annual subsidy of RMB 100 per student — less than AU$20 a year.

Unfortunately those fees don’t come close to covering the school’s annual running costs of around RMB 3.5 million per year (just under AU$600,000). The classrooms are basic but clean, and donations from local universities have allowed the creation of a well-stocked library and science lab. Some of the dorms, however, are dank and smell of damp, while the bathroom facilities are appalling. And with the coldest days in Beijing reaching top temperatures several degrees below zero, the former factory’s concrete floors and thinly-glazed windows offer scant protection from the winter chill.

The school’s teaching staff appear enthusiastic, but their average age is just 25, and Zheng Hong says the low wages offered by the school mean few stay for long. She claims they have gone through 150 teachers in their five years of operation.

Most seriously, limited funds mean the school is unable to provide classes beyond Year 9, although an arrangement brokered with a local vocational school (one that doesn’t require students to hold Beijing hukou) allows the most academically gifted students with the economic means to continue their studies or learn a trade.

It’s one of the ironies of contemporary China that this ostensibly "socialist" nation so conspicuously fails to provide even the most basic education for the children of its most exploited workers. "We need a non-profit model to solve this problem," Zheng states passionately, but she acknowledges the underlying cultural obstacles to the formation of more Dandelion-style schools. "People don’t think they can take on responsibilities without the Government. It’s a whole culture in China," Zheng says ruefully.

Nonetheless, people like Zheng, who gave up a 20-year career in academia to launch Dandelion, are quietly working to effect change and provide some balance in China’s highly elitist education system. She sees her work as having an impact on the nation’s future, as well as individual lives. "These children are marginalised by society," she says of her charges. "But I believe that since they have grown up with some difficulties, they have actually had a richer experience in real life than many other children their age … In the long run, I believe that many of them can be the backbone of this country, because of their experiences and character-building training during this stage of their lives."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.