The Uncertain Future of Beijing’s Migrant Schools

As the gap between China’s urban and rural economies continues to expand, the largest rural-urban migration in world history persists. When those from the countryside arrive in the city, the current hukou system blocks their access to the social services that urban residents take for granted. While many join the ranks of China’s “left-behind children” as their parents toil in the city, those who go along often rely on migrant schools for their primary education – while they could attend a public school, the typical fees required far exceed a migrant family’s income. An article from Deutsche-Welle describes the shabby existence and uncertain future of one unlicensed migrant school in Beijing:

Qi Cai School is located in the southeast of Beijing. Twenty third-graders are practice reading out of their tattered school books. Their desks and chairs wobble on the raw concrete floor. The building is in an area of town that is currently being torn down. It is light years away from the elite schools China is so proud of – the ones that rank so high in international tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). “Study hard” is written on a red banner above the chalkboard. It is the only color in the classroom.

Qi Cai (in english “seven color”) is one of around 180 schools in Beijing for children of migrant workers. The school is small and does not have a license nor is it recognized by the state as a school.[…]

[…]The few schools that exist for migrant children don’t have it easy either. They are constantly being threatened by the authorities that they will be shut down. Qi Cai has had to move four times already, explains headmaster Wang.

“It was torn down each time. The government took the land and sold it to construction companies. We don’t matter to them. It is always tough. It is like we die a little each time we move.”

China’s growing civil society is paying attention to the issues surrounding urban migration. Sun Heng represents this social movement, and has devoted his life to migrants and their children. Once a music teacher in Henan, Sun moved to Beijing in 1998 to pursue a music career. While in Beijing, he began volunteering at a migrant school, offering free concerts for laborers, and eventually created the “Migrant Art Society” (打工艺术团). His NGO activities have continued, as China Development Brief reports:

These activities continued until 2004. Sun and the art society recorded an album sung by the migrant workers themselves, called “The Workers of the World are All One Family.” It was a great success, selling over 100,000 copies and bringing in 75,000 RMB in royalties.

How was this money used? Sun agreed to spend it on the organization, but wanted to make sure the money was put to good use. Recognizing that migrant workers’ children lacked access to schooling, they decided to start their own school. It was to be situated in Chaoyang district’s Jingzhan township’s Pi village at the site of an abandoned arts and crafts plant, which they rented at 60,000 RMB per year. In the summer of 2005, Sun and more than a hundred volunteers from all over the country cleared the area and transformed it into the “One Heart Experimental” school (“同心实验”学校). This migrant worker school currently serves all children from preschool until the sixth grade. Sun recalls, “Looking back on it, I had no idea how hard it would be to run a school.”
A post from China Labor Bulletin has more info on the state of migrant schools in Beijing – how many are there; how many are licensed, or (like Sun’s school), unlicensed; how many children rely on their services, and what social pressures might help to ensure these services continue to be available. The post refers directly to Sun’s school, and the expected closure it faces:

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.

On June 19, the education and health department of Jinzhan township, Chaoyang district, informed Tongxin Experimental Primary School in Picun village, that it must close.
[…]The notice said that the school’s buildings have security, firefighting and electrical violations, and it is not certified to operate as a school according to education regulations.

Sun said Thursday that he is trying to keep the school going by negotiating with the local government.

“According to education regulations, only government departments at the county level or above have the power to close down a school, so the Jinzhan township government has no power to order a closure,” he said.

[…]”If our school closes, the children may have to go to public schools in nearby villages. But those schools are farther away, tuition fees are higher and there are very complicated procedures for parents to go through before sending their kids there,” he said.

Also visit the homepage for the Migrant Workers Culture and Art Museum (打工文化艺术博物馆) [zh], another of Sun’s projects.
For more on education, migrant workers, and their children, see prior CDT coverage.
July 11, 2012 1:21 PM
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Categories: Economy, Politics, Society