TCS Daily

Invisible Schoolteachers

By Qiang Liu - July 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Few people believe that private schools exist in the impoverished, rural areas of China. Private schools are normally assumed to be only for the rich, situated in the developed cities. Moreover, most education in China is administrated and funded by the central government, which leads people to believe that there was little or no private education -- especially for the poor. And development experts have largely ignored private schools for the poor as an irrelevancy, so no outside statistics on the subject have been available.

Until recently, that is.

An Official from the DfID (Department for International Development, UK), who was working closely with local government in Gansu Province, one of the poorest provinces in China, told Professor James Tooley (Director of the E.G. West Centre) that there were definitely no private schools in the poor areas where they were working. Furthermore, officials in the Education Bureau of Gansu Province in Lan Zhou city told him that the existence of private schools for the poor was "logically" impossible -- because China has universal public education, and the poor wouldn't waste their limited resources on education. However, he wanted to see for himself.

Prof. Tooley and I conducted the research in Gansu province to find out whether private schools existed there or not. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, we carried out our work in the whole of the province in September 2004. The area is equivalent in size to the State of Texas, so this was a great effort. We employed 380 researchers and 40 supervisors who visited every village, county, and city.

In total, we found 689 private schools in the whole Gansu province. Among them, 586 private schools serve the poor, even in the remote villages. By contrast, the official statistics reported only 44 private schools in the whole province, all located in the big cities -- for the privileged. Evidently, the role played by private schools has been ignored and neglected by the government for some time.

What kind of parents and students are using the rural private schools?

Our findings showed that it is the poorest of the poor who are sending their children to the private schools, with the very poorest families usually preferring private schools run by businessmen. The mean family income in private schools managed by proprietors is RMB 2692.26 ($332) per year. In private schools managed by villagers, it was RMB 2,715 ($335) per year. Families that sent their children to public schools had a median income of RMB 3,354 ($414) per year.

How about teaching quality in different types of schools? We tested 2,640 students in a stratified random sample of 110 private and 110 public rural schools, in Chinese and Mathematics. The results illustrate that, in both mathematics and Chinese, student academic achievement was higher in the for-profit private schools than in public schools. We also found that students in the proprietor-managed private schools had significantly lower IQ scores going in than students in public schools, which makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

Our research clearly indicates that private schools in rural Gansu province are providing parents and children with more choices and higher quality than the public schools. The market for proprietor-managed private schools seems large. And research conducted in Beijing during a December 2005 study reached similar conclusions.

Obviously, there is huge demand for private schools in China, because people see investments in their children as one that will pay off in the future. Chains of for-profit private schools are appearing to satisfy the desires of parents and students, such as Beijing New Oriental Education Group and Guang Dong Ying Hao Education Group. In fact, the Beijing New Oriental Education Group successfully obtained $1 billion from overseas for its further development.

Private education, like so many other sectors of the Chinese economy, is booming, as people's demand for quality education outstrips what the government is willing to provide.

Qiang Liu is Head of Research in the E.G. West Centre, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.


1 Comment

Other reasons for Private Schools
I live and teach conversational English in central China, and I can think of another and probably more important reason why some poorer people prefer to send their children to private schools. Discipline!

To put it another way, many parents justifiably believe that teachers don't care about the students, and in all fairness, this is so because of the impossible situations in which they teach.

With class sizes of 70 to 120 students, and within a system in which students have power over teachers, and in which IMPORTANT townspeople are able to interfer in both the school and careers of teachers, many parents know that their children are being exposed to less than desireable environments.

I was once 'forced' to give an interview for local television, and so I told my co-ordinator that if he did not exactly translate my meaning, I would simply leave the school and head home. To his credit he translated precisely my meaning. (Confirmed by trusted witnesses).

Afterward I had complete strangers coming up to me in the streets shaking my hand and slapping me on the back. It turns out that my honest evaluation of student behaviour not only met with the approval of the ordinary citizen, but additionally provided them with some measure of assurance otherwise being denied them. As one parent put it (via an interpreter) you said publically what we have been privately complaining about for years.

For me, the quickest way to identify students from really poor families, is to note who are the hardest workers and the most well behaved.

This is not to say that the points raised in relation to the rigid educational system in place in public schools are wrong. I know of many students who endured high school, detesting every minute of it, because they were forced by their parents or the school to do science subjects in which they had no interest.

Furthermore, as many students (and teachers) complain, classes are about learning to pass exams. They are uninteresting, non stimulating, and totally boring; and it is often impossible to pay full attention to the teacher, because of all the misbehaviour going on in the classroom.

As for teachers - as one said: If you let yourself care too much, you would go insane. Teachers don't have it easy either!

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