No Child Left Behind: Deficiencies in the Education of China’s Migrant Children

KARA LIU examines the shortfalls in the education of China’s migrant children and offers suggestions for volunteers.

Children of migrant workers attend a class at a primary school in Shanghai
Aly Song | Reuters

Beneath China’s soaring skyscrapers, 288 million migrant workers toil in the factories, construction sites, and service jobs that have powered the Chinese economic miracle. Despite their invaluable contributions to China’s rise, migrant workers experience systemic marginalization that deprives them of access to healthcare, education, and legal protection. Children who remain in rural regions of China while their parents leave to work in urban areas, known as “left-behind children,”  have limited access to education and may suffer from anxiety and mental disorders due to long-term separation. Children who accompany their parents to the city, known as “migrant children,” are also frequently denied quality education. Together, these “children of migrants” comprised nearly 40% of all children in China in 2015. If China wants to realize Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream,” then it must improve these children’s educational opportunities.

In Beijing alone, there are over 250 migrant, or “black,” schools, all privately-owned and operated for-profit. Conditions in these migrant schools are generally poor, with even essential classroom supplies in short supply. Furthermore, these migrant schools are often not funded by the government, and in some cases are run by unqualified migrant workers. In many studies, migrant schools are described as unregulated, with under-qualified teachers, poor facilities, and limited resources. Many migrant school teachers have achieved an educational standard only slightly above that of their pupils and have received little or no training as teachers, so most of these schools cannot offer the full state curriculum. Because they do not have enough capable staff on hand, most of these schools only have one teacher on staff with even a superficial understanding of each subject. A 2013 study found that rural schools in Shaanxi had nearly twice the number of qualified teachers as migrant schools in Beijing.

On top of the inadequate resources and staff, these migrant schools do little to promote the health and fitness of the students. In state-run schools, children are given mandatory health checks, mental health counselling, vaccination programs, exercises, and other activities to benefit their well-being. However, in many of the migrant schools, no form of physical activity have been organized, and no school health assessments have been initiated.

Even with the obvious need for improvement, it is difficult for these migrant schools to make improvements to their teaching and facilities. This is due to not only their limited access to resources, but also their vulnerability to sudden closure by the government for reasons like improper licensing. There is little state consideration for the future of students at these schools, and the government has made no attempts to assimilate displaced children into local schools. The uncertainty about the sustainability of these migrant schools means that donors are often unwilling to invest more to improve the facilities and buildings. Since the schools are always at risk of closure, it is considered too costly and risky to improve simple things like fixing windows or installing new blackboards.

In the past several years, numerous NGOs have worked with the Chinese government to improve conditions for these migrant children. UNICEF has started a pilot program to improve migrant children’s access to education and healthcare in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Despite their efforts in providing aid for migrant schools, the support NGOs can offer is still severely limited. It is not enough to just provide financial support since well-trained teachers and a more inclusive learning environment are key features of a valuable education. Although the Chinese central government has made it mandatory for local authorities to provide basic education to migrant children, discrimination against migrants in schools is still prevalent among both teachers and peers. Teachers in Beijing and Shanghai are especially prone to ignore migrant students and focus solely on local students’ academic needs. The stereotypes associated with migrant children are ubiquitous in classrooms, with teachers believing that all migrant children are lazy and disruptive and that their families do not care about higher education.

In Beijing, migrant children have to provide five different certificates (in stark contrast with Beijing natives) to enroll in public schools, including a temporary resident permit, proof of Beijing employment, all family members’ hukou certificates, proof of Beijing residence, and attestation of the lack of a qualified guardian in their hometowns. Many schools also impose additional requirements for migrant children to enroll, making it much harder for these children to access quality education. Extra admission tests, segregation into lower-status classrooms, and vocational schools are just a few factors that inhibit migrant children from accessing the same public education as their peers with resident hukou in Beijing.

Many volunteers attempt to make a difference in the lives of these children, but their efforts aren’t as effective as you may think. Volunteers need to understand local conditions and make use of local resources to help the children support themselves. Volunteering should not be a one-time thing – instead, it should be cumulative, exposing students to new and practical opportunities. Programs can establish pathways to success by promoting critical thinking and teaching the use of technology in the workplace. These skills will be invaluable to migrant students as they move on to compete for jobs with their urban peers.

For most migrant children, the primary pathway to a financially-secure future is through college. Many of China’s top-tier universities, like Tsinghua and Peking University, are located in major cities and reserve a significant number of entrance slots for locally-born students, imposing more stringent academic requirements on students born in other provinces. Thus, unless migrant children achieve region-best grades, they are unlikely to matriculate at top-tier universities, closing off the most straightforward path to success. Thus, pivoting from traditional academic education and rote memorization to technological literacy and critical thinking may be the best way for volunteers to give migrant children a fighting chance.

In the future, in order to better prepare migrant children to compete with their urban counterparts, society will need to deliver quality education by improving or reforming migrant schools. Perhaps the best way the government can improve the educational performance of migrant students is to provide every student a public education regardless of hukou status, bypassing migrant schools altogether. Volunteers will play an important role in helping migrant children through the transition phase, and can help combat the stigma that migrant children will face even after they are granted public education. One thing is certain – without reform, China’s children will be left behind.

Kara Liu can be contacted at kara.liu@yale.edu.

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