To Stay or To Leave?
Xie is from a rural village in Guangxi, China. In search of better job opportunities, he migrated to the coastal city of Shenzhen and became a bus driver at a public school (SW) in 2009. With a meager income, he found it virtually impossible to settle down in this metropolis.
The clock fast-forwarded to 2017 when his daughter was of an age to attend primary school. Xie was faced with two choices: to stay in or to leave Shenzhen. If he stayed, he would need to take his family to Shenzhen and send his child to a local school. Otherwise, he would have to quit his job and return to Guangxi.
Shenzhen had launched a point-based system, stating that the family who does not have permanent residency still has a chance of sending their child to receive education here. Though seeming an open policy, it was difficult for migrant workers like Xie who only had a high school diploma and a rural hukou. This system is sophisticated, taking into consideration factors such as real estate in Shenzhen, lease, education background, employment, income, monthly social security contribution, patent, age, family planning, criminal record, etc. The higher points one gets, the likelier that he could send his kid to school.
Xie scored 270 out of 600 points, just reaching the threshold. To stay or to leave? That’s a question.
Fortunately, the principal of SW intervened. In China, the principal of a public school is appointed by the government. Since Xie had worked hard for eight years, the principal had arranged a place for his daughter at a newly-opened local public school (YH) and a job for his wife as a superintendent at SW. Xie’s eight-year migration came to an end.
However, not all people are as fortunate as Xie. Take YH for example. YH recruited 300 first-year-graders in 2017, while there were 600 families were applying for a place. A friend of his got higher points but had to send his kid to a private school, which costs more than 20,000 yuan per year.
No Country for the Migrant Children
Doing banana wholesale business, Li has three children with her in Foshan, Guangdong Province. To better look after them, she took all of her children to Foshan when the youngest daughter was just two months old.
Currently, her two older children study at a private school. Despite the high costs (10,000+ yuan/semester), they face higher mobility of their teachers, who usually stay for less than three years.
Sometimes, Li doesn’t finish her work at 11 p.m., so she has little time for her children. Having completed a 9-year compulsory education, she found tutoring their studies was beyond her capacity, so she signed up for some additional classes as other parents do. Still, her children’s performances are average.
“It is too expensive to afford three children’s education. To make it worse, the chance is slim for them to continue their studies here. In a class of 40 students, only 8 could make it to quality junior high schools, not to mention to the university.” Li said. She plans to return to her hometown for their education.
Such cases are numerous, in every part of the developed cities. Migrant children are marginalized in the cities that their parents work.
Hui used to be a migrant child in Shanghai. In her class at the migrant school, many students dropped out of school before completing compulsory education. Alone, she returned to Bengbu, Anhui Province, for middle school, without the company of her parents. Finally, she enrolled at a key university. She said that out of 40 students, only about 10 managed to attend associate colleges and universities.
Root of the Problem: Urbanization and Hukou System
Why is it so difficult for the rural migrant children to attend the public schools in the city where their parents work? Why do they face unequal education opportunities? The problem lies in urbanization and the hukou system.
The urbanization process in China is so fast in speed and large in scale that is unlike any other country in the world. In 1978, 17.92% of people in China lived in cities. As of 2020, the urban share of the total population has grown to 60.6% (ca. 848 million people). Many might marvel at the new appearances of modern cities and effective service, but ignore the fact that it is rural migrant workers who have created the city landscapes and provide this service.
Rural migrant workers (also known as 农民工) are workers with a rural household registration but work in cities and live in an urban area. In 2020, there were an estimated 286 million rural migrant workers in China, comprising more than one-third of the entire working population. From 1986 to 2006, migrant workers contributed to 16% of the growth of GDP in China.
The vast majority of rural migrant workers only receive an education below a bachelor’s degree and are employed in low-paid jobs in manufacturing, construction, and service industries in urban cities. Their average monthly wage in 2020 is 4,072 yuan (about $626).
Migrant workers and their families have little access to the urban public service resources. In particular, without a permanent residency, their children have limited opportunities to receive education in the cities they work.
Unequal educational opportunities are resulted from the hukou household registration in China. Introduced in 1958, the hukou book (domestic passport) was assigned to each household to classify the resident’s hukou by their place of origin. It has three main functions: government welfare and resource distribution, internal migration control, and criminal surveillance.
The hukou is inherited. For example, if you hold a hukou in Panyu District, Guangzhou, your children are automatically Panyu District natives, and couldn’t attend public primary and middle schools in other districts.
Here is a picture indicating various types of urban dwellers in China.
The hukou system has created a rural-urban divide since then. Though the government loosened this policy and encouraged rural people to migrate to cities after the 1980s, the education system didn’t evolve with the migrants.
Status Quo of Migrant Children’s Education
Migrant children are treated as a burden to the local government, to a place where they can accomplish meaningful contributions.
The total number of migrant children is around 103 million (about 38 percent of the total number of children) in China. If migrant workers don’t have their hukou in cities but want to send their children to urban schools, normally they have three choices: public schools, private schools, or migrant schools.
In China, public schools enjoy the best education resources and opportunities. Despite many cities have introduced a point-based system as Shenzhen did, public schools have the highest thresholds, and this threshold continues to rise. Private schools are costly, some reaching a price as high as 20,000 yuan a year. Migrant schools are privately run, requiring licenses from the government and a lot of resources such as teachers, facilities, space, and money.
The student outcomes vary greatly, too. In Beijing, only 40% of migrant middle school students succeed in passing the Zhongkao exam and enrolling at senior high schools, while urban permanent residents have a proportion of 80%. In Guangzhou, less than half of migrant middle school students end up in senior high schools, while the ratio for urban permanent residents reaches 70%.
Below is a chart of comparison for three urban school types in China (Grade 1-9):
Until recently there has been no institutionalized support to provide education to migrant children in urban areas. The enrollment rate of migrant children in urban schools is very low. Among the 2.69 million migrant children in Shanghai, about 250,000 children (less than 10%) are registered in schools. Influenced by the government policy and COVID-19, many migrant schools have closed. There are only about 70-80 migrant schools are left in Beijing, and 50 in Shanghai by 2021. Migrant schools are so few that they cannot accommodate enough students.
NGOs Make Up the Situation and Blaze A Trail
Faced with such a predicament, some warm-hearted people help out. NGOs start to provide service to migrant children. Some offer additional tutoring sessions, some take care of children after school, and some provide career counseling.
Shanghai JiuQian Volunteer Center is one such NGO. For 15 years, they have been using extracurricular educational activities, such as chorus, musicals, arts, musical instruments, English studies to enrich migrant children’s lives develop their potential and even discover another way out. In recent years, they have also structured a three-year plan for these children to study liberal arts courses, attend skills workshops and lectures, carry out project-based learning, undertake social service activities such as volunteering teaching in remote areas. As of this year, 13 students at JiuQian have enrolled at United World College with full scholarships, fighting for their dreams in different parts of the world.
Hui belonged to the first cohort of JiuQian students. She often spent her after-school hours in JiuQian, learning art, English, attending summer camps, etc., which exposed her to a new world unlike that in the migrant school. Even when she returned to Anhui, she found it useful to relieve her loneliness by contacting her mentors in Shanghai. These experiences in turn shaped her sense of social responsibility. As a beneficiary of JiuQian, she committed herself to helping children like her once. By volunteering and working at JiuQian, she has witnessed the positive changes in hundreds of migrant children. She hoped that this center could offer more diverse resources and provide more opportunities for them.
Guangzhou Huangpu Bilin Public Service Center establishes 15 mini-libraries in the community for 7000 children. In addition to providing a room for kids to read and to lend books, Yazhou and his team often organize reading sessions, movie nights, painting competitions. To Yazhou, the director, the library is more than a place for reading, it is a safe haven where children can stay when no one’s watching them, a community where they can give full play to their artistic talents, as well as a public space where they can communicate with others.
Though offering an alternative space for children, Yazhou is fully aware that the goal is not for them to pursue further education. “It is difficult for migrant children to climb the social ladder. Based on this fact, I would like to cultivate their self-teaching skills, which could be gained through reading and exchanging ideas with others. In the future, they might not be able to receive a decent education, but they can change themselves through working hard. In this way, the group of migrant workers could inspire more changes.”
Inno Community Development Organization is keen on providing career support to the migrant youths to prevent them from repeating their parents’ paths. Since many youths only receive vocational training or associate college education, they are unconfident and ill-prepared. Inno steps in and helps job seekers and those who are unclear about job prospects match with experienced workers on the ground to establish a mentor-mentee relationship. Through one-on-one meetings, mentors could help migrant youths polish resumes, conduct mock interviews, and offer training sessions so as to prepare them for future challenges.
Before the pandemic, Inno organized trips to visit factories and companies. In the COVID-19 era, Inno developed a set of curricula and an online platform so that career counseling meetings and studies could operate virtually. In 2020, it has provided service to 100+ youths, who have become more confident about themselves and dare to try different types of work. A girl who used to think that she could only act as supporting roles at the backend succeeds in getting a frontend job as a clerk. This year, its goal is to train 200 youths.
Migrant children lack communications with their parents. A survey showed that migrant workers work on average 11 hours a day to maintain their livelihood. Consequently, their children spend a lot of time being unsupervised. Many teenagers have developed bad habits such as game addiction. Therefore, services that NGOs provide are valuable. They create safe, accompanied and educational space for migrant children in an adverse environment. It also helps to break the intergenerational cycles of poverty in low-income rural families.
However, NGOs have trouble in securing funding opportunities, especially in the pandemic. Under-staff and underpay are also common problems that they have faced.
Detrimental Effects of Ignoring Migrant Children
Migrant children continue to encounter obstacles to attend schools. It has become a tough problem for the government as to how to ensure them receive even compulsory education.
The effects of leaving migrant children behind are detrimental. From the perspective of a nation, displaced and unprotected, rural migrant workers are deemed to be second-class citizens. When more unfair opportunities pile up, an unjust society would be created, which would hinder the sound and lasting development of a country.
From the perspective of migrant children, they would have to return to their original hukou place for studies and separate from their parents. Then they would become left-behind children, lacking family support and care. Their personality and character would not be properly developed.
From the perspective of the workforce, if migrant children couldn't succeed in enrolling at public schools, there is a high chance that they will not be able to attain the level of education that will render them competitive in the labour market. If this problem still persists, the gap between the urban and rural areas would have widened, hundreds of millions of people’s abilities would be curbed to contribute to China’s economic ambitions.
To have a productive, aspiring workforce, it is time that the government planned to promote people-centered urbanization.
At the root, the urban-rural problem is the hukou system. Therefore, a new residency registration system should be implemented, and the distinction between urban residents and rural residents should no longer be created.
At public schools, more quotas are expected to open for migrants. At private and migrant schools, social security benefits should be increased to attract qualified teachers.
Before the government is able to solve this intricate problem, families, and communities are expected to use their initiatives. Communication between parents and children should strengthen. NGOs should have more support, especially financially, from society and the government.
All children, regardless of their hukou, should have equal access to education services. More equal opportunities should be available to provide for the underrepresented and unprivileged.