By Wenjin Long, December 3, 2012
“Half of rural primary schools have disappeared between 2000 and 2010 and such a trend is still an ongoing process”, says Twenty-first Century Education Research Institution [resource link here], a NGO based in Beijing. The rapid decline of primary schools in rural China draws our attention to the reasons behind the decline and its consequences for rural students.
The decline of rural primary schools is closely related to demographic changes—a low birth rate along with more and more rural-urban migrants. This has led to a reduction in enrollments in primary schools. Some local governments started to shut down schools in remote villages and merge them into ‘‘central’’ schools at town or county level in the late 1990s. This action was extended into a national policy in 2001.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the number of rural primary schools nationwide has fallen by 52.1% between 2000 and 2010. By contrast, the number of total enrolments in rural primary schools has declined by 37.1% in the same period.
This policy was expected to improve the quality of teaching through the more effective utilisation of scarce educational resources. Many researchers show that students could benefit from this merging process in terms of better facilities and higher quality of teachers. They argue that at least, this policy does not harm the academic performance of students. But these studies find the educational level of the merging schools does matter—younger students are more vulnerable than older students.
Moreover, given the longer distance from home to school resulting from merging schools, those students from remote villages have to take more time and face more safety risks on the way to their school. Parents have become more concerned about the safety of children on the road. Local governments face increasing pressure to provide “safe school buses” but this means local authorities finding extra money in already tightened financial restrictions, the very reason driving the school merger policy.
Boarding schools may offer an alternative to address this problem. However, boarding students face poor quality food and little daily care. Boys tend to find transition to boarding school life tougher than girls as traditional values often mean boys receive preferential treatment in the home which is not replicated in schools.
Dropping out of school might be the only choice for students who cannot afford to board in school or are unwilling to take longer time and risks on the road. Girls may be more likely to drop out than boys in poor areas. Han Qinglin, a Chinese expert in rural education, suggests the dropout rate has risen to 8.8% in 2011— as high as the level a decade ago. He believes the main cause for the rising dropout rate is the school merger policy. This, however, has been denied by the Chinese government.
As more negative effects of the merging school program are recognised, the central government moved to mitigate some of the effects. In 2004 they started to subsidize boarding students. In September 2012 they took the drastic step temporarily stopping the merging school policy. Such a policy change may be too late to reverse the trend of decline of rural primary schools, partly because of the continuing demographic changes in countryside, and partly because of the legacy from an uneven distribution of local financial and education resources over the last two decades.