Educating China’s Left-Behind Children

As the gaokao has come to pass, let’s talk about promoting the education of all children in China. The National Higher Education Entrance Exam, or the gaokao, is a prerequisite for almost all higher education undergraduate institutions. Students take the gaokao to access the next step of their educational careers. However, one group of students is systematically prevented from taking the exam that can greatly increase their chances for a better future.

Image source: REUTERS/China Daily

Left-behind children often have few educational prospects past the compulsory nine years and even less motivation. Under the current system, schools that perform well (i.e. meet university acceptance quotas by having students that score high on the gaokao) receive funding bonuses from the government. This widens the disparity in the quality of schools, with worse schools having fewer resources and losing better teachers and students to higher-performing schools.

The Rural Left-Behind

Rural left-behind children often have no role models to look up to, since their parents are migrants working far away in the city. Relatively well-off rural families can afford to send their children to county-level schools, but poor families can only send their children to the closest rural school. Because their families do not expect them to continue their education, many rural children lack the motivation to work hard in school. Many drop out of school by their senior year, since they do not need a gaokao score to work a blue-collar job. Therefore, the difference in quality between rural schools and their urban counterparts persists.

The Urban Left-Behind

Urban migrant children, face a somewhat different but equally problematic situation as they do not hold the local hukou and can generally attend public school in Shanghai, Beijing, or Guangzhou if they can present five documents proving their parents’ employment and residence, social insurance, and other conditions. However, as most migrant workers lack these documents due to unstable working and living situations, many children must attend private migrant schools, where the resources and facilities are of much lower quality than those at public schools. Even if migrant children can attend urban schools, Chinese education policies require migrant children to take the gaokao in the province where they hold hukou.

Megatrends for Change

While the challenges the current generation of left-behind and urban migrant children face are real, there are a couple of megatrends that are beginning to take shape that we see having a macro-level improvement

  1. Reverse migration is seeing families either move back to their hometowns or, with the economic growth of the 2nd and 3rd tier cities, take up jobs in these areas. What this means is that although still further away proximity to family is greater and as a result, there is greater opportunity to develop relationships, teach and interact with children. In some cases this allows children to be within their registered school districts and develop and be educated in their “gaokao region.”
  2. Policy reform is now moving to allow better access to the educational systems. Last year, Guangdong, the largest receiving province of migrants, instituted a gaokao reform pilot which allowed 9,500 migrant children to take the exam in the province. This marked the first time that a province has allowed students without its hukou to take the exam. However, the families of these students had to meet the five requirements that affirmed their work and residence status. The reform did not impact the students in private migrant schools who are unable to access public schools in the first place because they lack these documents.
Migrant Labor Shortage - Collective Responsibility

Looking to Innovate

With an estimated 100 million children of migrant workers, many of whom will enter the labor force, China needs to create innovative solutions to ensure that the country’s education system is supporting its own economic growth targets.

With the best education opportunities are still largely reserved for urban students, and many migrants moving towards those cities with the specific goal of getting their kids into these schools, stakeholders have an incentive to improve the quality of both rural and migrant education since this concerns the innovative ability and skill of the future workforce.

As mentioned, the government is already at various levels engaging in policy reform and investing vast sums of money into the education system, but more needs to be done. Which is where we see the role of the private sector, where the potential to deliver an improved quality of education can, and is a profitable business.

Here are some examples of private sector innovation:

  • Chinese online education company Hujiang EdTech launched its Hu+ (Hujia) Project in 2015 to collaborate with rural schools that often lack the resources to teach a range of curricula. Using online education, students can learn subjects like English, music, science, and art from teachers around the world that they would otherwise be unable to access. The Hu+ Project also helps local teachers learn how to incorporate technology when teaching their own classes.
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  • In 2016, non-profit Stepping Stones started its Stepping Up program to teach digital literacy to migrant children. The program aims to help students gain the skills necessary for a workplace that is becoming more technologically advanced every day. Volunteers teach at migrant schools in Zhejiang Province during the school year and at community centers in Shanghai during the summer, mentoring students to become more creative and confident in their critical thinking skills.
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These companies are just two examples of how Shanghai-based organizations are taking steps toward equalizing educational opportunities for all students in China. By scaling up the innovation that Stepping Stones and Hujiang EdTech have done, China can nurture a population that is more creative and knowledgeable about technology and reduce the disparities in the quality of education around the country. Stakeholders have an incentive to improve the quality of both rural and migrant education since this concerns the innovativeness and skill of the future workforce. Engaging in this problem will create better policy and institutions that can help meet the needs of an ever-growing urban population.

To learn more about China’s migration and labor trends, check out our Hope and Opportunity Report and Labor Report, along with our recent articles on migration and labor in China. Follow Collective on social media to receive the latest updates on articles, videos, and events.

This article was written by Julia Wang, a research analyst in Collective Responsibility. 

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