U-turn surprises migrant schools

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am


For the first time in 13 years, Yuhong School in the town of Xihongmen in Beijing's Daxing district did not hold a welcoming ceremony for pupils on the first day of the school year, on Thursday.

Late into the morning, teachers were still scrambling to fix broken stools and look for extra desks to accommodate late enrolments.

Yuhong's principal, Li Yang, said the school did not know whether it would be able to reopen for the new term until late last month, when district education authorities reversed a July closure order for some of the schools that educated children from migrant families.

'We were caught a bit unprepared by the change of heart, but we hope to have a proper ceremony for pupils next week,' Li said.

Yuhong and 23 other schools had been marked for closure in a city-wide crackdown on privately run and mostly unlicensed community-based schools that offered children from migrant families basic and affordable schooling. Public schools are largely off-limits to such children.

The capital has been closing schools for migrant children since 2006. Some people criticise the latest crackdown, supposedly over safety and hygiene concerns, as yet another population-control tactic designed to get rid of the city's low-skilled migrants, because officials did not initially say what they planned to do with the 14,000 displaced children.

The large number of affected pupils this time triggered a particularly strong public outcry, prompting the authorities to rush to look for places at licensed schools and to promise not a single child would have to drop out of school. However, the official about-turn calls into question whether the regulators had acted in the pupils' interests in the first place.

Li said officials had not discussed with Yuhong what was going to happen to the schooling of its 700-plus pupils, and nor had they explained the reason behind the reversal of that order. 'You never know what the government will do next,' he said.

The initial closure order affected only four schools in Daxing, including Yuhong, Tianyuan School and Tuanhe Experimental School, because the other seven schools marked for closure shut down voluntarily at the end of last semester.

Tian Kun, a lawyer who offers free advice to the schools, said the about-turn belied the official justification for the closures because Yuhong and Tianyuan were as well built as licensed schools and Tianyuan's canteen even held a hygiene rating of B, the same as the McDonald's chain.

Both schools underwent expensive anti-earthquake fortification last year, which cost Yuhong 1.8 million yuan (HK$2.2 million) and Tianyuan 1.3 million yuan. On the other hand, Tuanhe, which operates from a cluster of ramshackle bungalows, did not comply with the fortification order.

'If it were out of hygiene concerns, Tianyuan should have been the last school to close, and if they were concerned about safety, how come Tuanhe was allowed to reopen as well?' Tian asked.

He said that even with the reversal, the schools still faced uncertainty because of licensing doubts. In Chaoyang district, 11 unlicensed schools for migrant children were told to close because of substandard buildings. The district government assigned the 4,500 pupils to more than a dozen licensed schools - most of which also cater to such children, but are well connected to regulators.

Dongba Experimental School principal Yang Qin said it was unlicensed because of a licensing freeze on schools for migrant children since 2006. 'We've been doing whatever the regulators require us to do to improve safety and hardware, the same as any licensed school, so we deserve to be treated equally.'

Yang said Dongba had been told to close by August 25; it was threatened with demolition after power and water supplies were cut off in the middle of last month. But 300 pupils returned for the new term when Dongba opened on August 15, he said, and it now had an enrolment of 420 because parents rejected the schools they had been assigned to.

Li Guangping, a fourth-grade pupil, said she and her friends were aware of the threat of closure hanging over Dongba. She said her father had checked out the school to which she had been posted, but found it was too far from their home. She said Dongba was a good school and pupils hoped it could stay open.

Tian said the return of so many pupils to Dongba was a slap in the face for the officials' policy, which neglected the pupils' welfare. 'The parents and their children cast their votes with their feet because they know what's in their best interests.'