In China, one of the main challenges to achieving the international pledge to provide education for all is meeting the education needs of children whose families live in vast, sparsely populated regions. Because of changes in China's demography, enrollment in village schools fell sharply in the 1990s (the One Child Policy was largely responsible for reducing the number of school-aged children). By the early 2000s, it was becoming clear that it would be unrealistic to invest in bringing facilities and teaching staff in each of China's village schools up to a high level of quality.
In response, the government proposed merging schools as a more practical and effective means of improving education. Consider some of the facts about primary school mergers:
However, progress that has been made in upgrading the quality of new schools has been at least in part overshadowed by the problems that mergers created. For many rural children, the distance from home to school increased significantly. Parents did not like their children commuting long distances, often over difficult terrain, to school. Guest students' (students whose schools were closed and were forced to commute to a central school outside of the village) grades fell relative to host students. During field work studies in 2004 and 2005, at the height of the school merger program, the REAP team found that many parents were against school mergers.
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 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 adjacent figure, which shows boarding school coverage in Shanxi province, demonstrates how this program has expanded.
Field work in rural Shaanxi province has found that 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 concern about the safety, supervision, and basic care of young children who reside in boarding schools. The Associate Director of the boarding schools program told the REAP team, "so far, boarding schools cannot satisfy the demands of Western rural students." Many academics in China have raised cautionary flags about the problems associated with the boarding school building project.
The absence of personal care and attention to the emotional needs of children has raised concerns about the boarders' psychological health. Ye Jingzhong, a professor at China Agriculture University, expressed his opinion about boarding schools, saying "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 short of psychological nurture. Many students even play hooky because boarding school life is boring."
In addition to psychological state, the physical condition of boarding school students is also a concern. According to The Nutrition and Health Status of the Chinese People report, 49.6 percent of rural children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. In many poor rural areas, more than half of students also suffer from iron deficiency and other micro-nutrient problems. Many students who live in dormitories do not have access to adequate health care and hygiene. High rates of communicable diseases are also reported.
Unfortunately, although there is a lot of rhetoric surrounding these issues, little hard evidence has been collected about the nature of the new boarding school facilities and the services they supply to rural students. The REAP team gathered the first empirical evidence on boarding schools in rural China in one of REAP's earliest studies, a 2006 survey of 36 primary schools in 12 towns in northwestern China. 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 percent of primary boarding schools provided three meals everyday, leaving most young children responsible for at least some of their own meals. Those that did provide meals typically supplied an inadequate diet.
While the nature of boarding school programs and their inadequacies became evident in the 2006 survey, little was revealed about the impact of boarding on students' physical health, psycho-social development or educational achievement, particularly among young, primary school-aged children. There was also 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.
Given this lack of information, in 2007 a REAP team, headed by Yaojiang Shi of Northwest University and funded by the Ford Foundation, carried out a canvass survey in Shaanxi province. The goal of the survey was to investigate the extent of the spread of boarding schools as wells as document the characteristics of primary boarding schools.
REAP administered the survey to 400 principals in 10 randomly selected counties in Shaanxi Province to collect baseline data. The survey covered five aspects of boarding: facilities, management, provision of diet and nutrition, student behavior, and communication between schools and parents.
The survey generated a number of new findings useful for increasing general understanding of the state of boarding school investment and quality of facilities and management in China's boarding schools. Mergers have occurred in about 38 percent of schools. In response to issues surrounding long school commutes, 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 primary school children live in boarding schools.
However, the quality of boarding school facilities and the nature of boarding school management are so low that they may be harmful to students. Safety, hygiene, supervision, diet and nutrition are all serious problems in China's rural primary boarding schools. To view more dorm facilities, the children who use them and the contrast between rural and urban schools, please see the slideshow "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly".
Read more about the educational challenges children in rural China face here.