China's Migrant Children Fall through the Cracks

By Irwin, James | UNESCO Courier, September 2000 | Go to article overview

China's Migrant Children Fall through the Cracks


Irwin, James, UNESCO Courier


Despite China's educational achievement, migrant children in the country's big cities are struggling to find a place in school. For many, the unlicensed route is at best, the only option

I Every semester, Li Shumei and Yi Benyao turn away hundreds of applicants seeking to study at their school, located in a former paint factory in western Beijing. It's not because they're choosey: they know all too well that these children may not have another chance of stepping into a classroom. But there is simply not enough space to satisfy demand.

This unlicensed school caters to over 1,300 children from 28 Chinese provinces. "Many of the kids have to ride four different buses to get here in the mornings, it takes them up to two hours," says Li. "And they work hard knowing how difficult it is for their parents to afford it." What makes these children different from other city-dwellers is simply that they belong to China's "floating population," a label used to describe people who are not permanently registered in their current place of residence. Most are the children of peasants who have left the poverty-stricken countryside in search of work in big cities.

Employed in menial jobs with no security or healthcare, migrants are responsible for the lion's share of the tough physical labour that has transformed urban skylines in the past decade or so. While the government puts the "floating population" at 100 million, Western analysts estimate the figure closer to 150 million, making the phenomenon one of the largest rural-tourban migrations in history.

This migration began in 1979, when the commune system was dismantled. Agricultural productivity boomed, fewer hands were needed to work the land, so families headed to cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. In the mid-1980s, as rural incomes steadily fell, the trickle became a flood, prompting municipal authorities to tighten migration rules. Migrants would now be required to get temporary residence permits and letters of employment before coming to the city. In practice, tens of millions never obtain such permits. As such, they are not registered in the place where they are living, contrary to permanent migrants whose move is officially sanctioned. Their temporary status exposes them to widespread discrimination. When it comes to education, their only option, until recently, has been to enroll their children in an unlicensed school.

Li Shumei left Henan Province in 1993 to work in a clothing market in Beijing. At the time, she says, there were no schools for migrant children in the capital. Nor were they allowed to enroll in city schools. A former teacher, she started educating a few children in her home before starting up a school with her husband. "For our pupils in the lower grades, the level of Chinese and mathematics is about the same as in regular schools," said Li. Teachers have to make do with a lack of books and other materials, but Li explains that one of the greatest challenges is to help pupils overcome a sense of inferiority wrought by their second-class status. And because the school is unlicensed, they face difficulties re-entering the educational mainstream to continue in higher grades, though many, once they reach the age of 12, return to their home provinces to continue their schooling while living with relatives.

Some of school's teachers are recent graduates from the students' home provinces, others are retired instructors from Beijing. Their wages are less than half those paid in the mainstream, with no benefits. All expenses incurred in running the school, including salaries, are derived from paltry tuition fees--about $100 a year. Li was fortunate enough to receive a generous donation from a retired couple in Los Angeles who read about the school in an overseas Chinese newspaper. The funds were put towards relocating the school when police ordered its removal from an earlier site.

According to the Ford Foundation, there are between 200 and 300 unlicensed schools operating in the capital which struggle to provide schooling for an estimated 100,000 migrant children, many of whom receive no education at all.

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