Domestic Affairs

Equalizing educational opportunities

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-07-20 09:41
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A recent newspaper story describes the Gaojin No. 3 Middle School, a typical public school in Shanghai. The story contained the following quote from the Yu Haizhou, head of the school: "We know this could be seen as prejudice but the fact is, on average, the migrant children are at a lower level in their studies and are a lot more difficult to teach due to their poor living conditions. They move from place to place, change schools often and most of their parents do not pay enough attention to their education."

Here are a few more salient facts about the school. The migrant children Yu described use lower-level textbooks than their mainstreamed counterparts. The students eat and leave school at different times during the day than the other children. They attend classes in a separate school building.

Yu explained why his school placed the children in separate classrooms at the school. He enumerated pressures he felt from parents of the mainstream students to not water down the curriculum.

The newspaper story also included quotes from one of the children at the school who was a member of the targeted migrant group, an advocate for those children, and a sociology professor. The student described a "distinct discrimination against us." The advocate warned that the segregation psychologically impacts both groups of students negatively, but the sociologist professed that under the current conditions the separation of students was rational.

Education in China is compulsory for nine years, but many migrant children are denied services at public schools or asked to pay exorbitant fees in cities like Beijing and Shanghai because their parents do not have residency permits. Laws in those cities now require that the children be allowed to go to school regardless of their family's residency status. The sad reality is that many migrant children are not enrolled in public school, many public schools do not welcome them and many children do not complete nine years of education.

Clearly, even at a school like Gaojin Middle School, which is attempting to educate both the migrant children and Shanghai's resident children, there is a long way to go before those groups have the same chance to succeed.

If China does not wish to become two societies, one for people of means and another for poor people, the country must strive to equalize educational opportunities for everyone.

China's leaders recognize that and have identified education as a national priority.

Last Wednesday, at a national education conference in Beijing, President Hu Jintao said that the whole society should be mobilized to support the country's education development.

At the same conference, Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that schools must promote equal access to education as the first of several educational priorities he listed.

A society's success is judged not by how well it provides for its richest citizens but by how well it can provide for all its citizens. In that regard, the challenge is to try and provide all students a similarly rich set of academic opportunities.

The author is an adjunct professor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing and a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.