Closures penalise children of migrant parents

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


If it were not for the order to close certain schools in Beijing, migrant worker Li Meihong would not even think of sending her nine-year-old son to her hometown of Zhuozhou in Hebei province - a painful decision for mother and child.

But they had no other option, Li said. The public school that her son, Lu Tong , was reassigned to attend under a township government arrangement is too far away. It would be unsafe for the young boy to commute without parental escort.

'Every time we talked about sending him away, he would burst into tears because he didn't want to leave and wanted to stay in his present school as long as it remained open,' said the 34-year old, who works as a mechanic in Beijing.

Tong's school, the Dongba Township Experimental School on the outskirts of Chaoyang district, faces imminent closure. It is one of 24 schools for migrant children that have been closed or are slated to shut for safety or hygiene reasons.

The boy is among 300-odd pupils, or a fourth of the enrolment at the experimental school, whose parents have snubbed government offers of places at public schools.

Their rejection calls into question government policies - or rather, a lack of them - for the education of millions of children from migrant families that have flooded major cities in the last three decades.

The reassignment to public schools was a hasty arrangement announced during a media briefing on Tuesday after the forced closures across Beijing prompted a public outcry. At the briefing, municipal education authorities promised not to let even one of the 14,000 displaced pupils drop out.

Dongba received its closure order on July 27, principal Yang Qin said. He said the school had never been singled out for any safety problems during the many government inspections, nor had it violated any hygiene regulations.

Yang said Dongba was set up with an initial 640,000 yuan (HK$780,500) in 2003 and it spent more than 3 million yuan on infrastructure, provided by private investors. In April, it installed five sets of security cameras.

Despite its efforts, Dongba could not obtain an operating licence because education authorities had, since 2006, refused to issue permits to schools for migrant children.

'We have been doing whatever we've been told to do to raise the level of teaching. How else could we have been trusted [by regulators] as an equal to public schools?'

Yang said Dongba began the new term two weeks earlier, last Monday, as requested by parents. It would remain open as long as it was wanted by pupils - although the power and water supplies have been cut off.

In Daxing district, 11 schools for migrant pupils are marked for closure as part of a clampdown on 'illegal business operations'.

For those who have followed the instructions to change schools, the move does not seem to be the end of their problems.

On Thursday, parents who took their children to enrol at the Affiliated School of the Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technology in Haidian district - one of the five public schools designated for the displaced pupils - found what they thought was the new location at a four-storey modern building displaying a new sign, 'The Affiliated Experimental School of BIPT'.

According to a Sina video, an old sign that read 'Affiliated School of BIPT' hung on the wall of a far less fancy juvenile centre across the road that comprised two rows of old bungalows.

Disappointed parents said they feared the public school arrangement was simply a perfunctory measure taken by the authorities.

Critics accuse the government of trying to get rid of unwanted low-skilled migrants to curb the city's ballooning population.

The municipal government did not promise education for the displaced pupils until three weeks after it issued the closure orders. And even with that arrangement, some townships required parents to provide five sets of documents, including a work permit, in order to enrol their children at one of the public schools. That is a near-impossible condition for many migrant parents who are self-employed as vegetable vendors, corner-shop owners or scrap dealers.

Professor Chu Zhaohui, of the China National Institute for Educational Research, said Beijing was justified in trying to manage its population but children from migrant families, particularly those that had settled in the city, should not be penalised.

Chu said other cities, such as Shanghai, bought out private schools or set up new schools in migrant communities to serve their needs.

Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said the sudden transfer arrangement was likely to be the result of a lack of initial planning or official consensus on what to do with the pupils before the closure orders were issued, which had led to confusion, including the five-permit requirement.

'This underscores how little say the public, parents, teachers and schools have in policymaking for the school system, which is single-handedly controlled by bureaucrats,' Xiong said.

Hu Kun , a fourth-grade pupil from the now demolished New Hope Primary School in Haidian, said his parents had declined a place at a public school, which was nearly an hour's walk from their home, and he would return to his hometown in Gushi county, Henan province.

Li said: 'If the government really cares about us, why doesn't it upgrade existing schools or set up schools within our communities? 'Why should they be concerned about whether a school is private or public, as long as our children can learn in a safe environment and parents can have peace of mind?'