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Bringing Equal Education to the West

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Despite great progress in China's education system over the past six decades, the country still faces a huge challenge ensuring equal access to quality education for every citizen, a senior Chinese education official said.

"The biggest challenge in Chinese education reform and development now is how to achieve education equity," Vice Minister of Education Hao Ping told China Daily on the sidelines of the inaugural International Education Roundtable in Singapore recently.

Education ministers and senior government officials from seven top-performing school systems in Australia, Canada, the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Sweden and the United States attended the roundtable to discuss ways to nurture educated citizens and to develop mobile education systems through innovative technologies.

"First, we must ensure equal allocation of education resources, such as public investment, teachers and school facilities, especially between the eastern and western parts of the country," he said.

"Secondly, to offer the equal right to attend school, especially for the children of rural migrant workers who now live in cities.

"And then to provide equal education quality to every child."

Almost all school-age students have attended primary and junior high schools and the literacy rate among Chinese youth is above 96.4 percent.

Rural students also enjoy free education and textbooks, while those from poor families can get subsidies.

"The greatest achievement we have made is that every child can now go to school," Hao said.

About 260 million students attended school last year, including 160 million receiving free nine-year compulsory education.

Since the expansion of the higher education system in 1999, the number of colleges and universities has jumped from 206 in 1949 to more than 2,300, and current university enrollment is six times that of 1989.

This year, about 10 million high school students took part in the national entrance exam and nearly two thirds are eligible to enter a university.

But the country has always been troubled by historic underdevelopment of the rural education system and the great disparity of education resources between the wealthy eastern region and the underdeveloped western region.

Two thirds of the country's 1.3 billion people live in rural areas and the middle and western regions of China are home to nearly 30 percent of the population. Those areas are also home to most of the country's ethnic minorities, including Tibetans, Inner Mongolians and Uygurs.

"The gap between the urban and rural areas in the country will probably make it more difficult to achieve education equity for all Chinese students," Hao said.

Chinese rural schools, especially in the western region, face a big shortage of quality teachers and dissatisfactory working conditions.

In the less developed western region, the average ratio is one teacher per class of students, well below the national average of nearly two teachers per class, according to the ministry's 2008 Chinese Compulsory Education Report.

And most schools in the west are desperately need teachers for English, music, physical education, arts and information technology.

But the heavy workload, low salary and poor social welfare in the countryside cannot attract enough qualified teachers. In China, more than 300,000 teachers have not achieved qualified degrees and most of them work in the rural areas, official figures show.

Chinese leaders such as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao last year urged more effective measures to boost the rural teaching force, such as through more government investment, better pay and more attractive working conditions.

"The key factor to improve the quality of education in rural areas is the teacher," Hao said.

All participants at the roundtable reaffirmed the need to invest in educators and educational leaders. Emphasis should be placed on continuous professional development and fostering a culture of learning and collaboration among educators.

Hao said China is seeking ways to help rural teachers get access to ongoing professional training through new technologies and welcomed more international exchanges in this field.

(China Daily July 22, 2009)

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