The long uphill struggle for migrant schools in Beijing continues

10 July 2012

During his concert tour of Hong Kong last week, “New Worker” Sun Heng once again called the public’s attention to the threatened closure of the Tongxin Primary School for the children of migrant workers, which he helped set up on a deserted factory site on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005.

The Tongxin (“same heart”) Primary School is one of the 20 unlicensed migrant schools in Beijing’s Chaoyang district slated for closure by the local education department because of alleged “serious hidden dangers in its location, fire prevention, electricity, healthcare, etc.”

Last week, the Chaoyang Education Committee announced that it planned to close all the unlicensed migrant schools in the district by the end of 2014. It has already cut the number of unlicensed schools from 150 at the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to just 20 now.

Tongxin Primary School is located in Picun, a village in suburban Beijing where the majority of residents are migrants from all over China. While many go to work downtown in the morning, some run their own food or fruit stalls, clinics, drug stores, barber’s shops and grocery stores in the village.

At the gate of the Tongxin school, a wall of copper plaques tells visitors that this school has diverse partnerships with Beijing universities, such as Peking University and the Communication University of China.

But during a brief tour of the school, CLB noticed the poor lighting and shabby teaching equipment in the classrooms. Five or six teachers were squeezed into a ten square meter office, busy writing or preparing class materials. The restrooms were unsanitary and malodorous. When school is almost over, kids of all different ages play chase with each other in the narrow playground.

The school is at the end of a narrow alley, crammed with grocery stores and small restaurants on both sides. After school hours, CLB saw police arrest a youngster who ran a gambling store on one side of the alley. A Picun villager told CLB that police came to the village almost every day. And at around 7 pm, street would be full of sex workers looking for business.

The struggle for survival

According to statistics from Beijing Municipal Education Commission, out of the 478,000 migrant children that have reached the age of compulsory education in Beijing, 70 percent now study in public schools. The others receive education either in licensed or unlicensed private schools like Sun Heng’s Tongxin.

In spite of concerns about safety and the poor quality of education, unlicensed schools are still popular in suburban areas like Picun. None of students and graduates from Tongxin that CLB talked to complained about their school but the best they could say about it was that it was “okay.”

Apart from affordable tuition fees and proximity to home, private migrant schools don’t ask parents for the extensive documentation required by public schools. Neither do they charge migrant parents a “boarding fee.” Such fees were prohibited by Beijing way back in 2004, but still exist under the name of “school donations.” Several Beijing residents told CLB that “boarding fees” ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 yuan, more than a migrant worker’s total income for a year.

Beijing has over 1,000 public schools that claim to accept migrant students, and out of the 200 private migrant schools across the entire city, only a quarter are licensed, according to statistics from CNTV last year.

Sun Liming, principal of the Limin Hope School in Haidian district, told a seminar in Beijing late June that the rapid development of Beijing’s suburbs had led to his school being demolished seven times since it was founded in 1999. In trying to keep the school afloat over the years he had accumulated a debt of over 500,000 yuan, he said. Primary school students at the Limin Hope School pay around 1,000 yuan for tuition per semester plus text book fees.

Growing demand

Statistics from the Beijing Municipal Education Commission show that the number of migrant children in Beijing who have attained the age of compulsory education is growing by around 40,000 each year on average since 2000. It is doubtful if public schools and licensed private schools alone can accommodate this growing number of migrant children in Beijing. Chaoyang Education Committee claims that it is encouraging the development of quality education resources in the suburban areas most commonly inhabited by migrant workers. It has, for instance, set up junior secondary schools in the district associated with such well-known institutions as Renmin University and Northeast Normal University.

But China Academy of Social Sciences Professor Wang Chunguang stressed at the Beijing seminar in June that concerted efforts from media, central government and civil society organizations are needed in order to safeguard the rights of migrant children to education.

“Under media pressure, the central government needs to roll out relevant policies to incorporate the compulsory education of migrant children into the evaluation system of local officials,” Professor Wang said. “Meanwhile, civil society groups have an increasingly important role to play in helping migrant children access education resources.”

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