January 14, 2006

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China's education reforms

The SCMP often comes in for serious stick, the latest deserved example being the controversy over Peter Kovolsky, an anti-smoking campaigner who's interview was spiked due to pettiness. In a paper that often struggles for content (just try it's City section on any random day for an example) it seems bewildering. But to the SCMP's credit, they do have some good journalists filing good stories. Unfortunately again due to misguided policies, the SCMP hides its online articles and lets these stories miss a wider exposure, much to both their journalists' and own detriment.

Today's example is Josie Liu's story, headlined Equality finally gets a chance with revision of education standards. It's reproduced below the jump. China's "free" public schools are often anything but, with some of the elite ones in Beijing effectively turning themselves into high fee private schools. The abolition of the farmers' tax will, perversely, mean poor rural schools will lose their primary source of income. China's leadership continually frets about the widening gap between the rural poor and the urban rich, and the inequality of opportunities and education are a major structural barrier to closing that gap (so is the billions in unpaid wages to over a hundred million rural labourers working in cities, but that's for another time). Amazingly, especially for an allegedly socialist country, schools until now have not been funded by the central government. But reforms are underway and so long as they are properly funded, they will go much further in improving the lives of tens of millions than a bunch of pampered Korean farmers marching down Causeway Bay.

It through such steps that China's future remain optimstic and hopeful.

Beijing newspaper editor Zhang Xiujiang is not happy with his son's Grade Five English teacher. He says she is a bad teacher and those who are good have found jobs in "good" schools far from his home that charge tens of thousands of yuan a year. "There is huge disparity between public schools, even within one city," he said. "It's not fair."

Proposed revisions seek to reduce disparities in education standards between schools and regions. The State Council approved draft revisions last week, almost 10 months after 740 National People's Congress representatives filed the initiative at the last NPC session. The changes will be put to the NPC Standing Committee next month for review and final approval. If passed, China will have its first revised compulsory education law in 20 years.

A version released for feedback had more than 90 items covering issues from the way schools are run to management of teaching staff and legal responsibilities. In contrast, existing legislation has only 18 items in total. It came into effect 20 years ago, to guarantee basic education for every school-age child. By 2004, 94 per cent of populated areas met compulsory education standards, but the law has not kept up with problems that have emerged over the past two decades.

One of the biggest problems was the one-time drive to corporatise education, turning part of the public school system into a money-making machine.

In several instances, elite public secondary schools are allowed to operate like private schools, charging higher fees and adopting their own selection criteria. There are more than 40 such schools in Beijing alone, and pupils have to take many extra classes to acquire the skills needed to qualify for a place. Parents also have to "donate" thousands of yuan in admission fees.

Chu Zhaohui , from the China National Institute for Educational Research, said that in such cases, the few had access to the assets of the many. "Good public schools are funded by the government and the high-quality resource should belong to all taxpayers, but actually they are enjoyed by a small number of rich people," Dr Chu said. "It has been proved that compulsory education cannot continue this way, with the public paying for it. It doesn't work."

The draft revision bans public schools from being run along private lines and contains a consensus on the government's key role in providing free basic education. It says local governments should be prohibited from setting up so-called key schools in the compulsory system.

The government should not only provide sufficient funding for compulsory education but also strike a regional balance in the allocation of resources.

To narrow the chasm between rural underdeveloped regions and the country's east, the draft proposes that central finances pay for textbooks and upgrades to rural schools. Rural governments have had less money to spend on education because of reductions in the fees they can collect. The situation could worsen this year with the scrapping of the agriculture tax, a major source of income for local administrations over the past five decades.

Finances were so badly strapped in some Shaanxi village schools this winter that students turned purple because the school did not have money for fuel.

Peking University law professor Zhan Zhongle said it was widely agreed Beijing should shoulder more of the burden of funding rural education. Yang Dongping , director of the 21st Century Education Development Research Academy, said a State Council meeting last month had fostered hopes of allocating more money for needy rural schools. The council decided that by next year 15 billion yuan in annual fees would be waived for all rural students and Beijing would inject an extra 120 billion yuan into rural education over the next five years, the China Business News said.

Minister of Finance Jin Renqing , said in a speech last month that in the next five years, the central government will shoulder up to 80 per cent of the money needed for fee waivers and school budget improvements in the west and central regions.

posted by Simon on 01.14.06 at 05:29 PM in the China history, education & culture category.


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my regret is that i did not save the set of photographs of rural Chinese children whose cheeks were all purplish-red ... I mean, everybody in that classroom ... If I remember, I was too busy crying ...

posted by: eswn on 01.16.06 at 12:35 AM [permalink]

In what way is the Peter Kovolsky matter a controversy? According to the dictionary, "A controversy is a contentious dispute, a disagreement in opinions over which parties are actively arguing."
Just who is actively arguing on behalf of SCMP right now?

posted by: eswn on 01.16.06 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Point taken, although I implicitly assumed SCMP would stand up for themselves.

posted by: Simon on 01.16.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

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