A teacher and his 10 students in class at a rural school in Ruicheng, Shanxi Province.
Starting this fall semester, primary and middle school students in Beijing can take classes given by the city’s best teachers, all without having to leave their homes. By registering their student ID numbers on the website www.bdschool.cn or on the BGCTV digital cable TV network, students can select from an array of online courses recorded by roughly 2,000 teachers working in schools where cutthroat competition for admission is the norm.
This significant step in digital learning is sponsored by the government and aims to ensure equal access to educational resources for all students – a daunting task for a large, populous country where economic development has been uneven.
From the founding of the PRC in 1949 through to the 1970s, China had a public education system based on social welfare ideals that greatly raised the education level of the populace.
Beginning with opening-up and reform, and in particular since the early 1990s, funding for public education began to diversify. Though government outlays have remained the chief source of schools’ funding, parents are paying at least some tuition fees, public donations are solicited, and schools are encouraged to open for-profit side organizations to bolster their cash reserves.
The concept that a child’s education is a key family investment is widely accepted by the Chinese people. But the belief that a public education system is an essential part of the social safety net is still strong, as is the notion that equality must be the goal of this system. Therefore, responsible citizens from all walks of life are doing their part to build an excellent learning environment for youth, in which equality is championed above all else. Beijing’s new digital initiative is a cogent example of this new drive.
Schools of Hope
China’s “Schools of Hope” project is another great example. When the first School of Hope – schools in poorer rural areas built with donations – opened in Jinzhai County, Anhui Province in May 1990, it consisted of only a few dilapidated rooms. Today that first campus has expanded to 14,000 square meters and accommodates more than 1,600 students in 27 classes at both preschool and elementary school levels. From 1990 to 2011 Jinzhai County alone erected 110 Schools of Hope, significantly boosting the enrollment rate of local school-age children.
China Youth Development Foundation initiated the Hope Project in 1989, and the scheme has been lauded as the most influential and well-participated public charity program of the 1990s in the country. Over the past 23 years the project has raised over RMB 5.3 billion and established 15,444 Schools of Hope in which 3.38 million rural students have attended lessons.
In addition to building classrooms, the Hope Project provides classroom equipment and trains teachers. The goal is to help children from underdeveloped regions gain access to the same educational resources, tangible and intangible, as their better-off peers.
In 1985 the Chinese government announced the goals of making nine-year compulsory education universal and ultimately eradicating illiteracy among young and middle-aged people. The country is now very close to realizing these goals – today, approximately 95 percent of children finish junior middle school, having stayed in school for nine years.
Despite the improvement, there are still some three million children, mostly in central and western provinces, that don’t complete nine years of schooling due to financial or health reasons. Many leave the classroom to help their cash-strapped families with farm work. It is the mission of both the government and general public to bring these children back to school and prevent further dropouts.
During the decade 1996 to 2005 China carried out a special campaign to boost public education in its poorer regions. RMB 20.548 billion was plowed into these areas, with 85.7 percent of funds coming from central and local governments. The money went to the construction of 5,380 primary schools and 2,466 junior middle schools; rebuilding and expanding 27,197 primary schools and 8,035 junior middle schools; the purchase of teaching materials; free textbooks for students, and faculty training. “It was the best funded and most extensive education aid program in the history of the PRC,” said Song Ziming, a Ministry of Finance official who formerly headed the experts panel on the project. To complement the initiative, the central government forked out another RMB 6 billion in 2003 to renovate rundown school buildings in 22 provinces/autonomous regions in central and western China.