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Countryside Gives Lesson in Education

Every morning for the past 22 years, Wang Yue'e, a primary school teacher in Yangxin County, Hubei Province, paddles her boat from one isle to another, picking up students on her way to school.

She heads for Fuzhuang, one of more than a thousand isles that dot the reservoir region.

So it was only fitting that at a press conference on Friday morning, Minister of Education Zhou Ji turned to the newly elected member of the National People's Congress, sitting next to him, for the answer to the question of how rural education has improved over recent years.

"When I first became a teacher in 1986, the school was housed in a deserted temple," Wang said.

"I remember we had four students scattered among three grades.

"Now, the number of students is 400. We have not only a brand-new building for classes, but also a dormitory and a canteen.

"Most of the changes have taken place in the past three years."

Wang spoke not just for herself, but also for all the teachers and students who have witnessed such change since the government enforced free compulsory education in rural areas in 2006.

The first group of beneficiaries was mainly rural students in the country's vast, economically underdeveloped west. In 2006, school tuition and various other "incidental" fees were exempted for them. Last year, free education was completely extended to all students in the country's rural area.

Also present at Friday's press conference was Bai Xiuhua, a secondary school headmistress from Qinghai province, one of the country's poorest regions.

In the past 30 years, she has visited numerous primary and secondary schools in bigger cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou, on tours organized by the Ministry of Education.

"Before, the contrast was so sharp that I couldn't help but feel upset at the end of each tour," Bai said.

"But now they are no longer the objects of my envy - our school also has computers and multimedia facilities."

While the words of the two delegates presented an encouraging situation of rural education, officials said serious challenges to give rural students access to quality schooling still remain.

Flanked by the teachers, Zhou admitted that one of the major challenges was a severe shortage of teachers.

"As far as I'm concerned, the biggest difference between urban and rural education lies not in the infrastructure, but in the fact that the former has a much larger number of excellent teachers than the latter," the minister said.

"When we talk about equal access to education, we mean equal access to quality education. And that goal can only be realized when excellent teachers are willing to stay in the countryside," he said.

Despite a number of measures taken by the central government to plug the shortage, including the funding of teachers' benefits from its own coffers, schools in rural areas still find it extremely hard to retain teachers who have been offered teaching posts in the cities.

Wang's own husband, also a teacher, had left his school for the city to earn more money for the family and their newborn.

Although things have improved considerably since then, teachers in rural areas are still looking for incentives to stay.

The government requires salaries of rural teachers to be no less than that received by civil servants in the same area.

But in many cases, that is far from enough to compensate the educators for the sacrifices they have to make to stay in impoverished regions or secluded mountain areas.

Another policy designed to tackle the problem is the "free normal school students scheme".

The authorities pay for rural students who have excellent results but cannot afford to go to university.

Beneficiaries are required to attend normal universities and, after graduation, return to their hometown to teach, for at least 10 years.

While the measures are said to offer hope, some say the options are still limited.

However, Zhou, who was a university teacher for 14 years before becoming a minister, said the profession demands lifelong devotion.

"Being a good teacher requires a lot of on-the-job training. Ten years is the minimum amount of time one needs for that," he said.

"But I understand that everybody has his or her own aspirations. It is my job as the education minister to work for the benefit of those who choose to be teachers, and to help them stay where they are most needed."

(China Daily March 15, 2008)

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