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Educational Challenges - Boarding Schools

In China, one of the main challenges in achieving the international pledge to provide Education for All is ensuring the education of children whose families live vast, sparsely populated regions. Because of changes in China's demography (the one child policy has been very effective in reducing the number of school aged children in each village), the enrollment in village schools fell sharply in most villages in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, it started to become clear that it would be unrealistic to invest in the facilities and teaching staffs in the schools in each of China's villages and bring them up to a high level of quality.

Consider some of the many facts.

The Propensity of Primary School Mergers:

  • Facilities have improved in many of the central schools;
  • The quality of teachers has risen;
  • In 10 counties of Shanxi Province, mergers have occurred in about 38 percents of schools.
  • The grades of those students who were in the host school (the school that did not close, but accepted new students from other villages) rose in the wake of the merger program.

However, the progress that was made in upgrading the quality of the new schools was at least in part overshadowed by the problems that the program created. The distance from home to school increased significantly for many rural children. Parents did not like their children commuting long distances, often over difficult terrain, to school. Grades for the guest students (that is the students whose schools were closed and were forced to commute to a central school outside of the village) fell relative to the host students. During field work in 2004 and 2005, at the height of the school merger program, we found many parents were against school mergers.

In response to this new challenge, China has embraced publicly-established and publicly-financed primary boarding schools as a way to provide education for children living in these remote areas. The government launched a massive new Rural Boarding School Construction Program spreading across nearly a thousand counties in the central and western regions of China and aiming to enroll approximately 5 million primary school-aged children. The expansion of this program can be seen from the adjacent figure.


Field work in rural Shaanxi has found the boarding schools are becoming more and more common. This is especially true in the more remote, poorer parts of the province.

Despite this obvious progress in hardware construction, there are still many problems. Many educators have expressed concerns regarding the safety, supervision, and basic care of young children who reside in boarding schools. Associated Director of the boarding schools program said, "So far, boarding schools cannot satisfy the demands of western rural students." There are many academics in China who have raised cautionary flags about the problems associated with the boarding school building project. Ye Jingzhong, Professor of China Agriculture University, expressed his opinion about the boarding schools, "Deficiency of constant fiscal support leads these boarding schools into a vicious circle. Some schools do not have designated professional teachers in charge of the dormitory management. Even the designated teachers can hardly have deep communication with students, leaving students a short of psychological nurture. Many students even play hooky because the boring life in boarding school."

According to the results of The Nutrition and Health Status of the Chinese People, "49.6% rural children suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies". In many poor rural areas more than 50 percent of students suffer from iron deficiencies and other micro-nutrient problems. Many students who live in dormitories do not have access to adequate health care and hygiene. There are also reports of high rates of communicable diseases. The absence of personal care and attention to the emotional needs of children has raised concerns about the boarders' psychological health.

Unfortunately, although there is a lot of rhetoric, there has been little hard evidence about the nature of the new boarding school facilities and the services that they were supplying to rural students. In one of REAP's earliest studies, a 2006 survey of 36 primary schools in 12 towns in Northwest China, the first empirically-based evidence appeared. The survey data revealed a number of significant problems. Shockingly, boarding school managers had little knowledge about children's emotional and physical needs. Only 15% of primary board schools provided three meals everyday, leaving most young children responsible for their own meals. Those that did provide meals typically are supplying an inadequate diet.

While the nature of the programs and their inadequacies were evident from the early survey work, little was revealed about the impact of boarding on students' physical health, psycho-social development or educational achievement, particularly on young, primary school-aged children. There also was little information available regarding what types of institutional forms work best in terms of being able to provide good boarding services. Of perhaps most concern is the effect of taking young primary school students—six, seven and eight year olds—away from their families and home villages and putting them in the care of others—especially when the care and the facilities are sub-standard.

Because so little was known, REAP decided to undertake a canvas survey to try to "Get the Facts Right" about the state of boarding schools in China. With funding from the Ford Foundation, a REAP team, headed by Shi Yaojiang (Northwest University), undertook a canvas survey in Shanxi Province in October and November 2007. The goal of the survey is to investigate the extent of the spread of boarding schools as wells as document the characteristics of primary boarding schools.

REAP administered the canvas survey to 400 principals in 10 randomly selected counties in Shaanxi Province to collect a baseline data. The survey covered five aspects of boarding facilities, boarding management, provision of diet and nutrition, students' behaviors, and the communication between schools and parents.

The survey generated many findings about boarding schools. Some of the findings are useful for increasing the understanding of the "state of the boarding school investment" program. Some of the findings demonstrate the poor quality of China's boarding schools facilities and management.

In general, the story of boarding schools is clear: Mergers have occurred in about 38 percent of schools. Because of the long commuting distances, the government has invested heavily in boarding schools. In Shaanxi, 45 percent of schools in poor areas have boarding schools facilities. More than 15 percent of elementary school children live in boarding schools.

But, the quality of the facilities and the nature of the management might best be described as horrific. The safety, hygiene, supervision, diet and nutrition are all serious problems to these boarding schools.

If you want to view more dorm facilities, the kids that use them and the state of their management in boarding schools across the country – both those that are good and those that are not so good, take a look at "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", our slide show, which will try to let you experience China's dorm life as seen from the view point of China's rural students.

Professor Shi Yaojiang also has produced a full length power point presentation on the state of boarding schools and their management. The interested reader is invited to view it and download it. Download PPT


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