Educational Challenges - Education for Migrant Children

A Major Education Gap

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

However, there is a growing segment of the population that does not fit neatly into the rural-urban dichotomy that has traditionally characterized China's education system. As China's economic development and urbanization spurs the largest human migration on the planet, millions of laborers are leaving rural areas to find jobs in the cities. The children of these migrant workers 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 is most likely that migration itself has not always been fully sanctioned by the government. In fact, shortly after the People's Republic of China was founded, migration was effectively restricted by the hukou household registration system (Naughton, 2007). Implemented in 1958, the hukou 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 hukou household registration is that the education system did not evolve with the changing dynamics of the labor force (at least throughout the 1980s and 90s). In the absence of a decisive response to migration, until recently there has been no institutionalized, government-mandated support to provide education to the growing numbers of migrant children in urban areas. Without an urban hukou, migrants and their families have had limited access to housing, healthcare, social security, legal advice, and education.

Recent news article about rural school drop outs in China.

Recent news article about left-behind migrant children.

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.

However, despite the change in the official line, migrant children's access to education is still far from routine, and considerable barriers remain (Sa, 2004). The difficulties migrant children face enrolling 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 high quality or at least improving)—are generally plagued by poor teaching, poor facilities, undeveloped curriculum, and high tuition (Table 1).

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

Educational components

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)


Relatively Expensive

Quality of students

Very high (nutrition; parental care and attention; access to equipment/tutoring)

Still poor (in poor areas, especially)



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

Why should we be concerned about schooling for migrant children? A numerical analysis shows that migrant students are becoming increasingly important. The number of traditional urban and rural students (that is, urban children attending urban schools and rural children attending rural schools) is falling. From 1995 to 2006, the number of urban elementary school children dropped from 17 million to 16 million (Figure 1). This drop 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: from 93 million in 1995 to fewer than 67 million in 2006 (Figure 2; 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 non-agricultural sector. Increasingly, rural residents—especially those in the younger cohorts—are leaving their family farms and entering into migrant work. Indeed, some labor economists have concluded that for the prime working-age cohorts of China's rural labor force, the transition from the agricultural sector to the non-agricultural sector is nearly complete.

Until recently, however, migration was temporary and working in the city did not mean living there. This is changing quickly, as the process of urbanization accelerates (World Bank, 2008). 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). Tens of millions of migrants uncounted in census statistics are currently living in China's cities and have no plans of returning to village life.

Thus, there is an ever rising number of migrant children who need schooling in China's cities. While families sometimes 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 parents may prefer not to do so. Some research indicates that children's grades may fall when they are left behind by their parents (Chen et al., forthcoming). Some families have already lost most of their ties to their original rural communities; others simply prefer to have their children with them. However, it is expensive to bring children to the city, and not all families do. In a study of migrant workers in Beijing, over half of participants 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 obtain an accurate count of the number of educational institutions and migrant students, most scholars and policymakers agree that the migrant student population is large and growing as 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). These schools 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 migrant schools and students, we collected papers from across the literature, then charted our survey findings over time. Unfortunately, except for 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 from 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 migrant children in the age range corresponding to the compulsory grades one through nine.

Another important point from this data is that 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, there may also be a substantial amount of 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 for most policymakers.


Migrant Schooling—Policy and Background

There is a lot of confusion surrounding China's policy towards migrant students in urban areas. In part, this 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 and permissible pace of migration in the first place.

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

However, there are still many reasons why migrant families cannot take advantage of these changes and send their children to public schools today. First, urban governments often set up complicated rules to "establish local domicile." Migrants are frequently asked to apply for and process five or more certificates (e.g., temporary residence permits, work permits, proof of residence, certificates from place of origin, and household registration booklets). 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 have also set up rules that keep rural migrants out of the best urban schools and force them into schools in far removed suburban areas or into migrant schools. For example, in some cities the children of rural migrant families that have established residency can attend local schools—if there is space. However, urban parents' demand for better schools is very high. Since good schools fill up quickly, rural migrants are often 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 and dangerous. All of these barriers will often cause migrants to opt for migrant schools, which, while not free, are often more convenient.

Finally, China's national examination rules remain as a barrier to migrant children attending 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 entrance 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 based, the student may struggle to compete. In many cases, this presses a family to not bring their child to the city. Additionally, since many rural school systems use the standard national curriculum, migrant schools generally teach material from the national curriculum to better prepare students to take the high school examination back in their home county.

Migrant School Regulations

With restricted access to urban public schools and concerns about curriculum compatibility, many parents that decide to educate their children in urban areas must turn to migrant schools. Migrant schools were first started in the early 1990s by retired teachers and other concerned individuals because of the need for a viable alternative for migrant children (Han, 2004). At first, 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—including some without any background in teaching. Because migrant schools were privately run and mostly unregulated, there were no standards, and education quality varied tremendously across individual schools. 

In response to problems providing education to migrant children, local officials initially adopted quite ambiguous policies to manage migrant schools. In part, education officials took action in response to pressure to execute other policies to limit migration or better control local communities. It was common for officials to declare schools illegal (Liu, 2002). In response, schools often changed their names and/or moved to other locations to avoid being shut down.

In the late 1990s, when it became apparent that migrant students were not a temporary phenomenon, a new policy direction began to emerge. The new motto was "do not ban, do not recognize, let it run its course" (Han, 2004). This attitude allowed 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 taken various approaches to implementing these suggestions. While some cities, such as Shanghai and Wuhan, took immediate action, Beijing moved slowly. In Beijing, each of 10 municipal districts and 8 counties has a different policy. Approaches across Beijing have ranged from sympathetic support to hostile attempts to shut down migrant schools (today migrant schools are no longer shut down for illegally offering education, but for violating health and fire regulations) (Kwong, 2004). In the late 1990s and early 2000s, some Beijing districts began to accredit migrant schools and issue permits. Higher quality schools were distinguished and in some cases even offered aid, while poorer quality schools were denied approval and continued to struggle without government support (Saich, 2003).

The Nature of Migrant Education

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 discuss migrant schools, then migrant children attending public schools.

Migrant Schools

Although migrant school fees are much lower than those charged by public schools for out-of-district students, they are still high for the average migrant 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 public schools 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, causing disruption in their classes when they 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 age and scholastic standing. Few schools require entrance exams, and many students do not bring school transfer certificates. Student age may vary by three to five years within a single class, and many students are older than the typical age for their grade. 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 first or second grade. The lack of standards across migrant schools creates problems when new students 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 between 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 often too busy and uninformed to ensure adequate nutrition for their children at home.

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 are afraid of being closed down or simply because hefty investments are not profitable. While there are few papers that have documented this, our photo journal illustrates this compellingly.

Although there are discrepancies in curriculum in schools across China, this problem is exacerbated in migrant schools, where there is no standard. Individual schools can choose to teach the national curriculum, the curriculum used in Beijing public schools, or the various other curricula used in migrants' home provinces. However, students must return to their rural hometowns to take high school and college entrance exams, which are based on the curriculum used in those provinces.

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 computers, 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 six years attend public schools, compared to only 5 percent for families who had lived in Beijing for one to three years (Sa, 2004). Of the parents who left 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 high fees for migrant students. Good schools could charge up to 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—with 20 percent of migrants earning less than RMB500 per month and 43 percent of migrants earning 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. High demand for enrollment in good public schools also creates serious capacity constraints. According to our interviews, even if migrant children are able to attend public schools, 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

Policymakers can no longer ignore the growing problem of huge disparities in migrant children's education. 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 popular blogs show that these issues are moving onto the radar of national leaders. See, for example, this recent article that 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 aim to work with the government, NGOs, foundations and volunteer groups to improve teaching, facilities, and curriculum; reduce tuition; and improve student quality in migrant schools. Efforts are also needed to improve access to public schools for migrant children and make them better places to learn for this increasingly important segment of China's next generation.

For more information, see this presentation on Educating Beijing Migrants.

Read more about the educational challenges children in rural China face here.


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