China / Society

China's rural education strides, but challenges remain

By Cecily Liu in Dubai ( Updated: 2014-03-19 21:54

China's rural education provision has experienced tremendous improvement but the lack of good quality teachers remains a big challenge, experts said on Monday at the second annual Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.

They said that while it is difficult for rural schools to compete with urban schools on teaching resources, more vocational and part-time learning schools could be provided to make sure practical skills are acquired by rural students.

"It is not practical to have rural schools achieving the same teaching quality as urban schools, so having realistic expectations is important," said Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School.

Jiang said vocational education is a good way to help rural students develop skills that match the needs of the job market, while part-time learning schools allow students to work part time and study at the same time to reduce school drop out rates.

He said it is important for the Chinese government's funding structure to cater towards education providers such as vocational or part-time learning schools.

Jiang's comments are echoed by Wang Li, deputy director of a research center under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The center, known as International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education (INRULED), has been supporting China and other emerging countries' rural education reforms for the past two decades.

"Rural education is not just about training some very bright kids who then leave rural areas to go to urban schools, as they will not contribute to rural development," said Wang.

"Instead, rural education should contribute towards rural development, hence a wide range of education including basic education, vocation education and adult education should all be developed," Wang said.

Wang said China's rural education reform started in 1984, and experienced a milestone in 2006 when the Chinese government made primary school and the first three years of secondary school free for all rural children and started to support their living costs.

Wang said China's primary school education provision has today already reached more than 99 percent of all children, but the biggest challenge going forward is the provision of good quality education in some rural areas, because good teachers tend to go to urban schools.

"In theory, policy measures like rotating teachers between rural and urban schools should help the issue, but in practice it is difficult because urban school teachers may have family in urban cities, and do not wish to go to rural schools," Wang said.

He added that the inequality of good teachers between poorer and richer regions is one even existing in developed countries, proving how hard it is for China to achieve such reform.

"In developed countries also, some poorer public schools have worse quality teachers. And this not only affects teaching quality, but also factors like the general behavior and ethics of children," Wang said.

Despite those challenges, China's progress in improving rural education access is praised by Irina Bokova, director-general UNESCO, who feels confident about further reform in China's rural education.

"I'm sure if the right targets are there, it will be successful. It's a huge challenge, in terms of training teachers, devising curriculum, and giving access," Bokova said.

She added that China's example in rural reform could provide inspirations for other developing economies that are still working towards universal education provision in rural areas.

She said the Chinese government's "political priority" on improving rural education and its ability to draw up a national plan on education are key driving forces behind China's success in increasing education access, and this can be learnt by other emerging countries.

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