A typical People’s Daily “warm China” (#温暖中国#) Weibo story recently featured a teacher from a village in the Chongqing region who multitasks at his school for the two students that are left in the mountainous area. The story was initially published by the Chongqing Morning Newspaper on January 13.
Yang Jinhua (杨进华), 54 years old, has been working at the village school in the Youyang county – southeastern Chongqing – for 35 years. As there are less and less children in the area, Yang is now working at the school all by himself; he fulfills the tasks of teacher, concierge, and cook for the two students that are left.
“I would do the same if there’s just one child left,” he told the Chongqing Morning Newspaper.
According to the Chongqing Newspaper, Yang’s teaching career has seen many ups and downs. There were times when there were over 100 students at the school and only three teachers. But all that has changed now.
The story received ample attention on Chinese social media recently, where many netizens praised the teacher for his good work.
The story about Yang and his two students, heartwarming as it is, represents a much bigger societal issue; that of China’s disappearing rural schools. The small schools in remote areas that are still around, also referred to “sparrow schools” (麻雀学校), are struggling to keep their doors open.
“63 rural primary schools, 30 learning centers and 3 middles schools closed on a daily basis.”
In 2001, the Chinese government launched a reform campaign for rural schools across the country as a result of the country’s rapid urbanization. It entailed the closing of remote village schools, shifting the focus to centralized county or town schools.
In 2013, China.org reported that rural schools were closing at an alarming rate in the decade following the reforms, when 63 rural primary schools, 30 learning centers and 3 middle schools were closed on a daily basis.
Due to the mass closing of village schools, some students from the more remote parts of China’s countryside had to walk for hours to reach the most nearby school, often making it unsafe or even impossible for village children to travel to and from school (Lam 2016, 82).
While many children dropped out of school, and when centralized schools were getting overcrowded, the government halted the plans to shut down small village schools in 2012 – but thousands of schools had already closed, while those that survived were struggling to stay open.
The lack of students is not the only problem for China’s ‘sparrow schools’; there is also a lack of good teachers, as those who are qualified often rather go to a central school than a remote village one.
As for Yang: he started working at the village school when he was just 18 years old. Throughout the years he has taught himself how to be a teacher by reaching out to experienced teachers from other schools, and by ordering books on education and preparing himself to be a good tutor. By now, with over three decades of educational background, he has become an experienced teacher himself.
“Amidst the giant rush to the city, many rural places in China are becoming more isolated and empty.”
Amidst the giant rush to the city, many rural places in China are becoming more isolated and empty. This process has started since the beginning of the post-Mao era, when agricultural production went up after farmland started to be partially privatized.
A surplus of rural labor and an increased labor demand in the cities caused a huge flow of peasants moving to the city to look for jobs there, leaving rural schools practically empty as children go with their parents who leave to work in other provinces. In 2015 alone, nearly 169 million rural workers migrated to cities.
But there are also those children who are left behind by their parents to go to school. China’s hukou or ‘household registration’ system – that is assigned at birth based on one’s community and family – makes it hard or even impossible for migrant children to be accepted at state schools in the cities where their parents work.
Here comes the catch: even if parents choose to leave their child behind under the care of family members for the sake of their education, their journey to school may be too long or dangerous to undertake. When families do not have the means to let their child attend boarding school in a nearby town, they soon become drop-outs.
“We simply cannot guarantee the quality of education here, but at least this is much better than letting these kids herd the sheep.”
The hyped story of Teacher Yang and his two children comes at an important time, as the Chinese Ministry of Education is expected to release guidelines this year on new standards to govern the levels of funding allocated to rural schools (Caixin 2016).
The problem of China’s disappearing rural schools has been going on for years, and has become a vicious cycle. Even if village schools stay open, the lack of students and teachers is negatively influencing all parties involved.
On Weibo, some criticize the existence of schools like that of Yang: “With only one teacher, although I applaud him, nobody can guarantee the quality of his teaching,” one netizen says.
Others see these school in a different perspective: “We simply cannot guarantee the quality of education here, but at least this is much better than letting these kids herd the sheep. At the very minimum, they can enjoy some sort of education and will not be illiterate.”
“The media is misleading,” another person says: “So many of these schools have already been torn down. The editor [of this article] would not even think of letting their child attend a small village school like this. These children are part of a society that is going through enormous changes, and the fact that they are educated like this is shameful (..) – instead of only praising the teacher, we should perhaps also advise him not to just place emphasis on himself.”
But many disagree with this view. One post-1990 netizen from Chongqing (@于杨鱼羊) writes: “My uncle also was a teacher for over a decade (..) and he put all of his energy into his students (..) Without having him, I would have since long dropped out of school to start working, and would have been lost in the waves of migrant workers. If it weren’t for him, I would not be where I am today.”
“There are many ways to take within education, but taking the way of education is always the best way,” another person writes.
Perhaps the students of Yang indeed are amongst the ‘lucky ones’, as bittersweet as it may be. Different from many children their age, they receive the full attention of their tutor and are able to attend school while still being close to their family.
Teacher Yang makes sure they get home safely; he personally walks them back to their house every day after school. It is one of the perks of attending a “sparrow school.”
Lam, Sara G. 2016. “From Rabun County to Yonji County: The Foxfire Approach and Community-Based Education in Rural China.” In Hilton Smith & J. Cynthia McDermott (eds), The Foxfire Approach Inspiration for Classrooms and Beyond, 73-83. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Sheng Menglu and Li Rongde. 2016. “Battered by Closures, Rural Schools Await New Guidelines.” Caixin Global, Dec 14 http://www.caixinglobal.com/2016-12-14/101026544.html [15.1.17].
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