Learning in rural China: The challenges for students

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

The first thing I notice is that, in this neighbourhood of simple houses and farmlands, it is the school, not a shopping centre, that is the cleanest and most impressive building in the area. The Qiao Tou Lian He primary school can afford only 29 staff to look after the 714 children who attend. Most of the children stay for the full school-week as they have to walk for several hours to reach their homes. So the school has become their family, albeit one where the children have to assume an incredible amount of individual and social responsibility, with very limited support from adults.

Roughly 3,000 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, a city that harbours the world’s leading education system, the Qiao Tou Lian He primary school is one of the fruits of China’s efforts to educate its citizens who live in sparsely populated rural areas like this. While the economic and social development of these areas has been remarkable by any standard, China’s coastal areas are racing ahead at an even faster pace, thus widening disparities. That, in turn, fuels an endless stream of people moving to the cities: students looking for a better education, parents looking for work, and teachers who excel in their jobs and are looking for more fulfilling careers. Shanghai, alone, registers 1,000 additional cars each day by those who have made it upwards in the social ladder.

Short of options to bring high quality education to the children up in the mountains, China has begun to consolidate rural schools to form viable hubs which bring together the infrastructure and critical mass of teachers that are needed to build strong instructional systems. That’s never easy. Over generations, schools have become the heart of communities; when the children leave, communities see their future endangered. But there have also been serious implementation problems in China, most notably involving transportation, that have bogged down progress and, in some areas, brought the consolidation process to a halt. But Qiao Tou Lian He school is an example that is well on its way to turn the challenges into opportunities. It offers the children from four former remote schools educational opportunities – and a future – that neither they themselves nor their parents could have ever imagined in their villages.

The children at Qiao Tou Lian He school live in a dormitory composed of tiny rooms that each holds 12 beds and 18 children (you can do the math). But room after room is in impeccable order, with the belongings of each child tidily arranged. A cheerful squad of 5th and 6th graders walks from room to room, with notebooks in their hands in which they record notes about hygiene and discipline; and they help the smaller children as best as they can. Only one already over-burdened teacher is appointed to respond to the needs of these hundreds of small children on any given day.

Every education system seeks to make children resilient so that their can find their way in a world in constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving. Resilience assumes that we don’t know exactly how things will unfold; that we’ll be surprised; that we are open to learning from the extraordinary; that we’ll make mistakes along the way, but that we persist and invest ourselves. Few children will be better prepared for this than the students of Qiao Tou Lian He school, even if the price for this is so high. Those who return to their communities after their education will be able to help those communities adapt to China’s rapid economic and social changes. In the meantime, though, when the students go home, they often have no one to talk to: their parents may be working far away; but even if they are at home, they may not understand the world that is opening up to these children.

Min, a 5th grader, explains that his greatest joy is to read books in a bookstore—even though the bookstore is not around the corner, but a good two-hour walk from his home. In many countries, we see learning outcomes severely impeded if a quarter or more of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. At this rural school, every child does. So how do the teachers at Qiao Tou Lian He school cope, let alone teach? I’ll discuss the challenges – and successes – for teachers in rural China in my next blog.

Video series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education – Shanghai, China
Related blog posts by Andreas Schleicher
China – what will remain when the dust around economic expansion has settled?
Implementing educational reform in China
Chinese lessons
Photo credit: @ Schleicher OECD

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