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Educational Challenges - Education for Migrant Children


  1. Identify importance of migrant education in China today
  2. Describe the nature of migrant education (fees, facilities, curriculum, student and teacher quality) in migrant and urban schools
  3. Identify issues that require research, experimentation and policy discussion

A Major Educational Gap

Although rural schools in China are still lagging behind urban schools in the quality of education provided, the government has made considerable efforts in improving rural education. In March of 2006, the central government announced that over the next five years it would provide the funding needed to finally implement the Compulsory Education Law of 1986, which mandated free and compulsory nine-year education (Xinhua, 2006). In the past few years, officials have also taken measures to bolster investment in teacher salaries, buildings and facilities and curriculum reform (Hannum et al., 2008). While there is still much effort needed to continue to improve rural schools, considerable progress has been made in the quality of teachers, facilities and curriculum and making education free in rural as well as urban schools.

However, there is a growing segment of the population that does not fit neatly into the rural-urban dichotomy traditionally characterizing the economy and the school system. The children of the rural-to-urban migrants that are flooding China's cities have fallen into a conspicuous gap in the provision of public education.

Why are migrant children not covered by the formal education system? The source of the problem most likely is that migration itself has not always been fully sanctioned by the government. In fact, early in the life of the People's Republic of China, migration was effectively restricted by the hukou household registration system (Naughton, 2007). Implemented in 1958, the hukou household registration system created a clear (and continuing) rural-urban divide. Although the government has rarely enforced the rules against migration since the 1980s, one of the legacies of the hukou system is that the education system (at least initially—during the 1980s and 1990s) did not evolve with the changing dynamics of the labor force. Because of the absence of a decisive response in the area of migrant education, until at least recently there has not been any institutionalized, government-mandated support to provide education to the growing numbers of migrants in urban areas. Without an urban hukou, migrants and their families have had limited access to housing, healthcare, social security, legal advice … and education.

In recent years, however, the government has gradually begun to pass laws and design policies to protect the rights of migrants (Nielson et al, 2006). Migrant children are now allegedly entitled to attend urban schools in their local school districts. Schooling in urban areas is supposed to be free. There are indications that municipal governments are beginning to address the migrant schooling issue.

Despite the change in the official line, access to schooling is still not routine; there are considerable barriers remaining (Sa, 2004). Difficulties for migrant children to enroll in urban public schools have led to the emergence of privately-run migrant schools, which struggle to fill the educational gap. These migrant schools—unlike urban and rural schools (which are relatively good or at least improving)—are still generally plagued by poor teaching, poor facilities, undeveloped curriculum, and relatively high tuition (Table 1).

Table 1. Comparisons of major educational components among urban, rural and migrant schools in China.

Education components
(for successful education)

Urban Schools

Rural Schools

Schools for Rural Migrants in Urban Areas


Good, improving




Good, improving




Good, under reform



Tuition and Mandatory Fees

(for in-district students)



Quality of students

Very high (nutrition; parents' care and interest; access to equipment/tutoring)

Still poor (in poor areas, especially)


The Growing Importance of Migration—Harbinger of Future Demand for Migrant Schooling

So why should we be concerned about schooling for migrant children? Examination of the pure numbers shows that migrant students are going to become increasingly important. The number of children in traditional urban and rural schools (that is, urban children going to urban schools and rural children going to rural schools) is falling. The number of urban elementary school children in 1995 was 17 million; in 2006 it was 16 million (Figure 1). This fall in the number of elementary school students in urban cities has occurred despite the fact that urbanization rates are soaring, rising from 26.4% to 43.0% between 1990 and 2005 (CNBS, 1991, 2006). During this same period, the number of rural students fell even more sharply. Figure 2 shows the drop from 93 million in 1995 to less than 67 million in 2006 (MOE, 2007). Declining birthrates have reduced the number of children in each successive cohort, a trend that is expected to continue into the future.

The rate of migration, on the other hand, is high, growing and accelerating. There are currently more than 150 million laborers working and living away from home as migrants in urban areas (Zhang et al, 2008). More than 90 percent of 16 to 20 year olds (who are not in school) and more than 80 percent of 20 to 30 year olds in the rural labor force now work in the off farm sector. Increasingly, rural residents who are finding work off the farm—especially those in the younger cohorts—are entering into migrant work. Indeed, labor economists are beginning to conclude that for the prime labor age cohorts of China's labor force, the labor transition from the agricultural sector to the non-agricultural sector for key segments of China's rural labor force is nearly complete.

Until recently, however, migration was temporary and working in the city did not mean that one was living there. This is changing quickly, as the process of urbanization is accelerating (World Bank, 2008). According to official population data, the share of China's population living in urban areas has risen from 26.4% to 43.0% between 1990 and 2005 (CNBS, 1991, 2006). Not only have there been huge increases in rural-to-urban migration in China, but younger migrants are also choosing to remain in the cities, and more children are migrating with their families (Sa, 2004). There are countless (literally tens of millions) migrants uncounted in census statistics that currently live in the city and have no plans on returning to village life.

More and more migrants—especially young adults, means that there is an ever rising number of migrant children who will need schooling in China's cities. While families often have an option of leaving their child with relatives or friends in the countryside and sending them to rural schools, there are many reasons that many parents would rather not do so. Some researchers believe that grades fall when children are left behind by parents (Chen et al., forthcoming). While some families have already lost most of their ties to their original rural communities; others simply prefer to have their children with them because they miss them or for any number of other non-educational reasons. But, it is not cheap to bring children to the city; and not all families do. In one study over half of migrant workers in Beijing stated that the main deterrent to bringing their children with them was their inability to afford schooling in Beijing (Sa, 2004).

While it is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of educational institutions and migrant students, almost everyone agrees that the migrant student population is large and growing (while rural and urban student populations are decreasing). According to the Fifth National Census, in 2000 there were 19.8 million school-aged migrant children in China (Xinhua, 2008). Recent estimates generally cite around 300 migrant schools in Beijing (Nielson et al, 2006) and more than 400 migrant schools in Shanghai (Kwong, 2004). They may be proliferating even more rapidly in relative terms in many other large and medium-sized cities.

In an effort to track changes and estimate the growth of the number of migrant schools and students, we tried to collect papers from all major parts of the literature. We then charted our findings from different years on graphs in order to chart trends over time. Unfortunately, except for the case of Beijing—which is by far the most studied of all China's urban districts—there are not enough observations to create any useful trendline data. Therefore, we restrict our observations to Beijing.

Figure 3 shows estimates by different researchers of the number of migrant schools, students in migrant schools, and school-aged migrant children (in migrant schools and urban schools) in Beijing. All of these numbers are rising rapidly. According to our review of the literature, Beijing now has more than 300 migrant schools and over 90,000 thousand migrant children in the age range corresponding to the compulsory grades 1 through 9.

One other thing to note from the graphs: there is a lot of uncertainty about the exact number of migrant schools and migrant students. Part of the reason for this variability is that different scholars rely on different sources of data. In other words, no one really knows. However, another factor may be that, in fact, there is a lot of true variability. Migrant schools are constantly springing up, moving locations and being shut down. The fact that so little is known about migrant schools demonstrates that migrant schooling has been a relatively low priority on the list of policy issues of many leaders.


Migrant Schooling—Policy and Background

There is a lot of confusion about China's policy towards migrant students in urban areas. In part, the confusion is a function of the rapid rate of change. There are also different rules, regulations and policies in different cities—as schooling in many ways is still a locally provided public service. Some of the confusion may also be intentional – the result of a continuing debate among China's highest leaders about the desirability of migration in the first place and the permissible pace of migration for those that accept it.

Prior to the mid-1990s, migrant children were not allowed to enroll in state schools. As part of the hukou household registration system, there was an attempt to keep rural children from using the public services in urban areas. Some researchers even alleged that such policies were kept in place in order to discourage migration (Solinger, 1999).

As migration became more and more a fait acompli and policy makers began to understand the importance of the contribution of migration to economic growth and the rise of productivity, the regulations against migrant students gradually began to be relaxed. The biggest policy shift came in the late 1990s. In part a response to the easily observable gaps between rural and urban incomes and standards of living, and in part due to concern about the dropout rate among children of migrants, widespread media exposure within China helped produce changes in education laws in the late 1990s (Nielson et al, 2006). On March 2, 1998, the Ministry of Education and the Public Security Bureau issued the "Provisional Regulations on Schooling for Migrant Children," which acknowledged that children should attend schools in their place of domicile.

Despite these changes, today there are many different reasons why migrant families are unable to take advantage of these rulings and send their children to public schools. First, there are often many rules that are set up by urban governments to "establish local domicile." Migrants are often asked to apply for and process five or more certificates (e.g., temporary residence permits, work permits, proof of residence, certificates from the place of origin, and household registration booklets). However, in some cases up to 90 percent of migrant families are unable to obtain all "five certificates" (Human Rights Watch, 2006).

In many places local governments set up rules that have kept rural migrants out of the best urban schools and forced them into schools in far removed suburban areas or into migrant schools. For example, in some urban areas the children of rural migrant families that have established residency can attend local schools—if there is room. However, the demand for the better schools is still high from urban parents. Since good schools fill up quickly, rural migrants often are not allowed to enroll in the local school because there is no space available (Ma et al, 2008). When they try to move to

another school, school officials will frequently ask for out-of-district fees. Transportation to other urban schools can be expensive, time-consuming or dangerous. All of these barriers will often induce migrants to opt for migrant schools, which, while not free, are often more convenient.

Finally, the national examination system and associated rules remain as barriers to migrant children being educated in urban public schools. According to the Ministry of Education, all students must take their high school entrance exam in the county to which their original hukou belongs. The high school exam, however, is based on the curriculum that is in use in the local school system. According to interviews with parents and educators that are part of Beijing's migrant schools system, if a student were to attend elementary and middle school in an urban school system that had adopted a curriculum different from the one on which the student's high school entrance exam was to be based, the student may not be competitive. In many cases this might induce a family to not bring their child to the city. In other cases, since many rural counties have a school system that use the standard "national curriculum," many migrant schools teach material from the national curriculum to better prepare students to take the high school examination back in their county.

Regulations about migrant schools

With restricted access to public urban schools and concerns about curriculum compatibility, many parents that decide to school their children in urban areas have no choice but to turn to migrant schools. Migrant schools were first started in the early to mid-1990s by retired teachers and other concerned individuals because there was a need for a viable alternative for the children of migrant workers (Han, 2004). In the early years, they were quite informal. Migrant schools were all private and funded themselves by collecting tuition (which public schools at that time did as well). As the number of migrants rose, the potential profitability of meeting the growing demand for migrant schools attracted all kinds of entrepreneurs—even some without any background in teaching. Because migrant schools were privately run and mostly unregulated, there were no standards. Success in providing education and the general quality of individual schools varied tremendously.

Because of problems in providing education to migrant children (both problems of their own doing and problems inherent to educating a high turnover, often marginal group of students), local officials initially adopted quite ambiguous policies to manage migrant schools. In part these actions were forced on education officials to execute other policies that were attempting to limit migration or better control local communities. It was common for officials to declare schools to be illegal (Liu, 2002). In response, schools often changed their names and/or moved to other locations to avoid being shut down.

When it became apparent in the late 1990s that migrant students were here to stay, a new direction in policy began to emerge. The new motto (Han, 2004) was "do not ban, do not recognize, let it run its course." This attitude emerged to allow schools to survive or perish on their own. In the March 2008 "Provisional Regulations on Schooling for Migrant Children," the central government offered four suggestions to local governments and school districts (Kwong, 2004). They could admit migrant children into public schools (and collect extra fees), use investment funds to build new public schools, help enterprises build migrant schools, or promote private schools. Without further action by the central government, local governments could choose to adopt any of these approaches or simply do nothing.

Individual cities have varied in their pace of reaction and approach to implementing these suggestions. While some cities like Shanghai and Wuhan took immediate action, Beijing was slow to act. In Beijing, each of its 10 municipal districts and 8 counties has a different policy. Approaches across Beijing have ranged from sympathetic support to hostile attempts to shut down the schools; however, today shutting down schools is no longer done for illegally offering education, but for violations of health and fire regulations (Kwong, 2004). In the late 1990s and early 2000s some Beijing districts began to accredit migrant schools and issue permits, distinguishing and in some cases even offering aid to the better quality schools while the poorer schools that are denied approval must continue to struggle without government support (Saich, 2003).

The Nature of Migrant Education

So after 20 years of start and stop policies, differing rates of implementation and varying approaches, what does the education system for migrant students look like today? In this section we will first briefly look at the case of migrant schools. We will then examine the case of migrant children attending public schools.

Migrant Schools

Fees. Although the fees in migrant schools are much more feasible than those charged by public schools for out-of-district migrants, they are still high for the average migrant worker family. Schools generally charge 300RMB to 450RMB per semester, and some schools charge separately for lunch, books, and miscellaneous fees (Han, 2004; Ding, 2004). It is important to note that fees for in-district students in both rural and urban areas are zero.

Teacher quality. Teachers in migrant schools are generally second market, those who did not have adequate credentials or experience to obtain jobs in public schools. Many teachers only accept positions at migrant schools to gain experience and resign as soon as they find better work, which can create disruptions for their classes when teachers leave before the end of the school year. Migrant schools desperate for teachers rarely have credential requirements and can only offer very low wages (around 500RMB/month), harsh conditions, very basic food, crude living quarters, and heavy teaching burdens (Han, 2004).

Student quality. As children of migrant workers, students in migrant schools are highly mobile, resulting in a problematic lack of uniformity in ages and scholastic standings. Few schools require entrance exams, and many students do not bring school transfer certificates. Age differences can be as much as 3 to 5 years within a class, and many students are over age. A joint report by UNICEF and the National Working Committee for Children and Women in 2004 showed that 47 percent of 6-year-old migrant children had not yet started school (Nielson et al, 2006). In addition, some 11 to 14 year olds were still in the 1st or 2nd grade. The lack of standards across migrant schools creates problems when new students arrive cannot catch up on material not covered in their previous school and must repeat studies. Moreover, regional differences can also make learning difficult when different accents inhibit communication among students and teachers (Han, 2004).

Many students in migrant schools also struggle with malnourishment problems, which can have serious implications for their ability to learn and study effectively (Ma et al., 2008). Most migrant schools cannot afford to provide well-balanced school lunches and nutrition education, and parents are too busy and often uninformed to ensure adequate nutrition for the students at home.

Facilities. The quality of facilities in migrant schools varies widely but are mostly poor, especially compared to urban public schools. Migrant schools are often overcrowded and use second-hand desks, chairs, and even buildings bought cheaply from public schools. Many have poor lighting, heating, ventilation and sanitation, which are often cited as grounds for shutting down the schools. A number of schools do not even provide drinking water, restrooms, and student grounds. Principals and entrepreneurs running migrant schools usually avoid long-term investments in facilities – though much-needed – because they fear being closed down or simply because such hefty investments are not profitable. While there are few papers that have documented this, our photo journal (link to "in the field" section of the website) illustrates this compellingly.

Curriculum. The problem of discrepancies in curriculum across schools in China is exacerbated in migrant schools, where there is no standard. Individual schools can choose among the different systems: the national curriculum, the Beijing curriculum used in Beijing public schools, or the various other curricula used in migrants' provinces of origins. However, students must return to their rural hometowns to take the high school and college entrance exams, which will be based on the curriculum used in that province and not necessarily the one in their place of actual residence and schooling.

Many migrant schools lack the funding, teachers and teaching equipment for classes beyond basic language and math. This puts migrant school students at a disadvantage compared to students in urban schools, which can afford to offer additional courses in computer, music, art, nutrition, physical education, and science labs (Han, 2004).

Migrant children in public schools

A survey conducted in Beijing in 2000 showed that 25 percent of children whose families have lived in Beijing for at least 6 years attend public schools, compared to only 5 percent for families who had lived in Beijing for only 1 to 3 years (Sa, 2004). Of the parents who leave their children at home in rural schools, 55 percent said that the primary reason was that they could not afford public schools in Beijing (Sa, 2004). Until very recently, public schools charged migrant students high fees. Good schools could charge RMB500 per term in addition to a RMB1000 "school selection fee" and RMB1000-30,000 "sponsorship fee." This is an exorbitant amount for migrant households, whose average monthly income is around 1000RMB (and when 20 of migrants earn less than RMB500 per month; and 43 percent of migrants earn between RMB500-1000 per month—People's Daily, 2002).

In addition to financial constraints, migrants also face other barriers to enrolling their children in urban public schools. Since migrants tend to live on the outskirts of the city where rent is cheaper, transportation to public schools located in the urban centers can pose a major problem. The high demand for enrollment in good public schools also creates serious capacity constraints. Even if migrant children are able to attend public schools, according to our interviews, it is clear that they often face discrimination and are very conscious of unfair treatment as "second-class citizens." As mentioned above, curriculum differences also inhibit students' ability to prepare for the version of the national high school entrance exam that they are required to take in their county of origin.

Conclusions and Policy Issues

Policy makers can no longer ignore this growing problem of huge disparities. These issues require an integrated approach.

Why should China's national leaders address the challenge of providing education for the migrant children population? The answer is simple: The needs of the economy demand it. The needs of civil society demand it. The needs of the people demand it.

Fortunately, recent discussions in the media and on blogs show that these issues are moving onto the radar screens of national leader. See, for example, the link to a recent article which appeared in China Daily.

REAP's goal is to better document this problem—with representative data to improve the basis for decision making. We also want to work with the government, NGOs, foundations and volunteer groups to improve teaching, facilities, and curriculum; reduce tuition; and improve the quality of students in migrant schools. At this time, efforts are also needed to improve access of to public schools for migrant children and make them better places of education for this increasingly important segment of China's next generation.

Educating Beijing Migrants ( 589.7 KB )


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