"Not One Less" -- China offers free compulsory education to rural children
2006-03-07 00:00

www.chinaview.cn 2006-03-07 21:01:50

    NANCHANG, March 7 (Xinhuanet) -- Wu Bingbing, a poor rural middle school student in east China's Jiangxi Province, was overjoyed at the good news that he wouldn't need to worry about tuition any more.

    He heard the news from the principal of his school, as he is ill-informed about events at the ongoing annual parliamentary session in Beijing.

    The central government has decided to scrap charges for rural students during their nine-year compulsory education by the end of 2007. The decision makes it possible for Wu's poverty-stricken family to save 250 yuan (31 U.S. dollars), equivalent to 10 percent of its annual income.

    The 14-year-old is one of the 160 million rural students to benefit from the new policy. They make up 80 percent of the country's 200 million primary and junior high school students.

    "After 20 years of teaching in the countryside, I am sure that this will put an end to our bitterness," said Zhang Zhou'ai, principal of the village-run Chengmen Junior High School in Jiujiang County of Jiangxi Province.

    Chengmen Village is one of the poorest in Jiangxi Province, with the locals' per capita annual income averaging less than 2,000 yuan (250 U.S. dollars).

    Zhang's school has 450 students. They sit at shabby desks in ramshackle classrooms that do little to protect them from the wind and rain, read coarsely printed textbooks that are beyond the imagination of their urban peers, and play at the small playground that is often too muddy for exercise.

    Even such a school is not affordable for every family.

    "We've got only 91 third-year students left this spring semester," said Zhang. "More than 10 students dropped out to find temporary jobs. Their parents are often too poor to finance any further schooling."

    The Ministry of Education said the dropout rate was zero among primary and junior middle school students in Chinese cities in 2004. In the countryside, however, the ratios were 2.45 percent among primary school pupils and 3.91 percent among junior middle school students.

    In the more impoverished regions in central and western China, the percentage topped 5 percent.

    "Our ultimate goal is help all school-age children finish at least nine years of education, but it's a tough job," said Zhang.

    In the award-winning film "Not One Less" in 1999, Chinese director Zhang Yimou portrayed a temporary school teacher who exerted her utmost to keep each of her students at school. "Not One Less" has since been China's long-term goal in providing rural children equal access to education.

    But the task has proved arduous in China's vast countryside, which has traditionally been in a disadvantaged position in terms of education facilities, spending and other resources available to its rural population of 900 million.

    Education Minister Zhou Ji said the irrational distribution of educational resources has widened the gap between the rural and urban areas in recent years.

    Government spending on the educational sector in Shanghai, China's largest metropolitan, was 50 times as much as what was reported in the central agricultural province of Henan last year, according to the Ministry of Education.

    In 1998, however, the gap was 10 times, it said.

    "Lack of spending is a major hindrance to the development of rural education," said Zhang Zhou'ai, the junior high school principle in Jiangxi.

    "The central government's commitment to providing free compulsory education to rural kids and increasing education spending in rural areas is undoubtedly a boon," said Zhang. "We plan to build a new campus this year with spacious, brightly-lit classrooms."

    The draft amendment to China's Law on Compulsory Education, aiming to ensure a stable investment system for rural education, has been tabled to lawmakers at the ongoing annual parliament session.

    The draft amendment, which outlines the responsibilities of central and local governments in financing rural schools, is expected to lift the educational burden of poverty-stricken rural families and to give rural children equal opportunities as their peers in cities.

    China enacted the law on compulsory education in 1986, freeing students from tuition fees in six-year primary school and three-year junior high school studies.

    But families in some rural areas were burdened with heavy "educational expenses," including the costs of textbooks, heating and transportation, as local governments could not set aside enough budget for education.

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