Supports for Pre-Primary Children and Families
In China, early childhood education serving students ages 0 to 6 has not been a priority until recently. Traditionally children ages 0-2 are served in nursery program or cared for at home. Kindergarten is offered at both public and private institutions and serves students between ages 3-6. In 2014, 70 percent of children ages 3-5 were enrolled in kindergarten, with urban students having greater access than their rural counterparts. This early schooling gives some kids an academic head start.
In the mid-1990s, over 90 percent of kindergartens in China were publicly run and either fully funded or partially sponsored by the government. Parents would pay a nominal tuition fee. But in 1994, under a policy of “government retreats and private sector advances,” the government withdrew early childhood education funding, forcing many public kindergartens to close down between 1994 and 2009. Private kindergarten providers responded by expanding. As a result, by 2011, only 30 percent of slots were provided by public kindergartens and 70 percent by private kindergartens. Because private kindergartens receive no funding support from the government and charge higher tuition fees, there was a serious problem of affordability for many families. Private kindergartens were also more likely to be understaffed and to underpay their teachers, compromising the quality of education offered.
Since 2010, China has been making efforts to rectify these problems and to expand access to early childhood education for children ages 0 to 6 by increasing government supports. The latest national 10-year plan set clear goals for 2020, aiming to enroll 95 percent of children ages 3-6 in at least one year of kindergarten, 80 percent in a two-year program, and 70 percent in a three-year program. Even though kindergarten is non-compulsory, the plan also established that the government would establish more public kindergartens and prepare more kindergarten teachers to meet growing demand, particularly in rural middle and western China where there are fewer early childhood education options. To ensure quality, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has issued regulations and professional standards for kindergarten teachers.
Local governments are responsible for funding and monitoring early childhood education. Shanghai is an example of a province that has made it a policy priority to allocate funding and develop an early childhood education system. In 2009, the governmental input of early childhood education accounted for almost 8 percent of Shanghai’s annual educational budget. In Shanghai, 72 percent of kindergartens are public ones. And it has one of the highest kindergarten enrollment rates of any province at 98 percent. This is not typical of the rest of China where provincial funding is not always allocated for early childhood education. Shanghai developed a provincial curriculum for kindergarten that all public kindergartents must follow.
The challenges of expanding access to high-quality programs become even more critical with China’s 2016 decision to allow all married couples to have two children, replacing the country’s controversial 35-year-old one-child policy. The country is bracing for a greater number of newborns in the years to come.
Supports for At-Risk Student Populations
One of China’s largest educational challenges is providing an equitable education to migrant students. The national migrant worker population in China numbers an estimated 260 million people, approximately 20 percent of the total population. Migrant workers are typically Chinese who move to the eastern and southern cities where jobs are more plentiful. This shift obviously impacts families with children. Twenty-eight percent of children between 6 and 11 years old and 13 percent of children between 12 and 14 years old are migrants. As families move from rural areas into urban areas, they are constrained by China’s hukou system, which designates residents as entitled to either rural or urban public services based on their birthplace. Migrants coming from rural areas cannot register their children in urban public schools. Their only option becomes enrollment in private schools for migrant students that often charge higher tuition while offering a lower-quality educational experience.
And while there have been efforts at reform, the hukou system still limits student access to senior secondary school. Some migrant students who pass selection exams and agree to pay higher fees may be able to enroll in senior secondary schools in cities. But for most migrant students, after compulsory school ends at grade 9, they must return to their place of household registration to attend senior secondary school. And until 2014, students were permitted to sit for the college entrance examination only at their place of hukou registration. Beginning in 2014, some local governments began to make an exception for longer term-migrants. But gaining hukou status in the largest and most desirable cities such as Beijing and Shanghai has become even harder recently.
Shanghai has a large proportion of migrant people living and working in the city, which has contributed to its economic expansion. The Shanghai government, recognizing the contribution that migrant workers have made to the city, has been working to find ways to provide not only places, but a quality education for the migrants in their education system. Shanghai has adopted a policy of integration, allowing migrant children to attend public schools alongside the children of Shanghai citizens. The province has also established a system of evaluating the physical condition of its schools to ensure that students have equitable access to modern facilities.
Improving the quality of education in rural areas is a major objective for the MOE, both in terms of teaching resources and physical facilities. The government uses school inspections to promote equitable development and close the gap between urban and rural schools. In 2011, MOE signed an agreement, the Compulsory Education Development Memorandum, that provided a roadmap for ensuring high quality compulsory education in all schools by 2020. The agreement established a special inspection program to evaluate the equitable delivery of compulsory education in every province.
Some of the provinces make efforts to supplement funding for at-risk students. Shanghai, for example, distributes supplemental funds directly to students. Students in compulsory school who are low-income receive an annual living allowance of approximately US$200. Students in academic and vocational high schools are eligible for grants if their family is low-income or have special financial difficulties. The grants cover costs such as tuition, living expenses, transpiration, texts, and school fees. All low-income students are provided lunch.
The 1986 law that created the compulsory education system in China created a legal mandate to educate all students with disabilities as well. However, the provision of services for students with disabilities is inconsistent across the country. Many provinces have created separate schools for students with disabilities, but in the 1990s, a Learning in the Regular Classroom movement gained momentum, and students with disabilities were increasingly mainstreamed in regular classrooms. In 2003, by one estimate, 67 percent of students with disabilities were educated in regular classrooms.
The Chinese government plans to have 95 percent of children with disabilities enrolled in mainstream schools by 2020. The government is giving schools US$902 a year for each disabled student to cover the cost of accessible facilities and specialist teachers.
Some provinces have provided additional resources for students with disabilities. In Shanghai, for example, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission (SMEC) is working to develop formal special education pathways in mainstream and special schools, including the development of separate curricula and teaching materials for students with special needs. They have also formulated formal certificates of special education teacher training, and exempted special education schools from paying education fees or from paying for textbooks. In 2014, SMEC announced plans to offer personalized education to children with disabilities who receive medical care. In this program, teachers and doctors work together to design a unique curriculum for each child based on their needs. Schools in this program are also assigned a community doctor who pays regular visits and offers help to the teachers and children who receive hospital check-ups, which are more comprehensive than those usually done in schools.