Bridging rural-urban gap in education from start

Updated: 2015-06-01 17:48


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BEIJING - Kindergarten teacher Shi Yulan has seen her classroom - and the children - transformed.

In the classroom in a mountain village in China's southwestern Chongqing province, the kids enjoy drawing, building blocks and playing with other toys. But, says Shi, just a year ago, the class had no toys, and the desks and chairs were castoffs from a primary school.

Worst of all, "it used to be so dull," says Shi, 46, recalling how the children once sat in orderly rows, listening to her reading textbooks.

In remote Zhongxian county, Chongqing municipality, Jinsheng Kindergarten sits atop a 650-meter hill. It is the only kindergarten for three nearby villages. Some kids travel 8 kilometers along a twisting mountain road to get there.

In 2013, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and China's Ministry of Education initiated an early childhood development (ECD) project in five remote counties across five western provincial areas, aiming to promote quality education for the most vulnerable children in China by providing training and supervision to their teachers.

Jinsheng Kindergarten was in the pilot scheme. In May and July 2014, Shi and the other two teachers attended training programs.

They are the only teachers in the kindergarten, says headmaster Liu Yuan. As young people move to big cities, it becomes harder to recruit professional teachers in the village. Shi and her colleagues, who used to work in a silk factory in the county, have no teaching certificates.

"Despite that, they are dedicated to their work," Liu says.

The six-day training program broadened Shi's horizons. She learned how important early childhood is in child development, and how her work is "not all about learning knowledge, but about fostering children's physical, cognitive, language, social and emotional abilities."

The teachers set about transforming the kindergarten under the guidance of their training experts.

They divided the classroom into books, music, art, and building corners. They displayed children's artwork on the wall below the 1.2-meter height. "It's where the children can see it," Shi explains. Slides and swings were set up in the playground.

They made toys out of waste materials. They strapped ring-pull cans together as stilts for the kids to practice balancing skills. They put sand in empty cans and sealed them: "Kids can shake them while singing."

They also abandoned old ways of teaching. "Now I make up stories and demonstrate with pictures. Kids love it, and they are much more active than before," Shi says.

The timetable changed too. Most of the time, kids are free to choose a corner and learn by themselves. The class is no longer dominated by teachers.

The county, with a population of a million, has 14 other pilot kindergartens and they are leading the way for the other 155 kindergartens, says Liang Wenzheng, an education official of Zhongxian County.

"The idea of learning corners has been widely accepted," Liang says. But to him, the change in education ideas is the most important.

"In the past, the kids learned from books and teachers, but now, they learn from games and by themselves," he says.

In some pre-schools and kindergartens in Chinese rural areas, investment is marginal and costs are cut where possible. They rarely have equipment or furniture suitable for preschoolers. The curriculum is often with an emphasis on rote learning.

This situation is aggravated by poorly trained teachers and a lack of professional development opportunities, says UNICEF project official Lou Chunfang. They work with oversized class rolls with little assistance and face pressure to implement an academic curriculum, while most are untrained in ECD.

But ECD training for teachers is only part of the solution. Problems in the classroom require regular on-site training, says Zhang Yinna, a pre-school education researcher and one of the training experts in Zhongxian County. She says they had 35 on-site sessions last year.

However, some parents and guardians have been skeptical.

Like other counties in western China, Zhongxian has seen young parents migrate to cities to work, leaving their children in the care of aging grandparents with more traditional ideas.

Helping them understand education is another aim of the ECD project, which promotes open days so parents and guardians can visit kindergartens and talk to the ECD experts.

Li Shulan, 59, admits she often phoned the teacher in the past to ask her to assign more homework to her 5-year-old granddaughter. But after talking to experts, she realized that "children should develop in all aspects."

Under the new methods, she says, her granddaughter talks more: "She tells me what happens in school every day."

A recent survey released by UNICEF showed that two-thirds of China's 90 million children aged six and under still live in rural areas and get insufficient early childhood education.

The central government has endeavored to improve pre-school education in rural areas. In 2010, the State Council issued its landmark "Guiding Opinions on Pre-School Education", and pledged an investment of 50 billion yuan to improve access to early childhood education in remote areas.

But a major gap in teaching quality persists between rural and urban areas and is at risk of growing, says UNICEF China education specialist Chen Xuefeng.

A recent survey of the five proposed rural pilot sites, led by the National Institute of Education Sciences, Peking University and UNICEF, found that 38 percent of teachers had no teaching license and 75 percent of caregivers had no caregiver license.

The government needs to improve the ECD teacher training system at county level, Chen argues, and it must roll out policies to encourage professional urban teachers into rural early education.

Shi Yulan is now working hard to become a better teacher. She hopes that her students too can broaden their horizons and walk out of the mountain one day.