Rural fears come home to roost

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2011, 12:00am


The horrifying school bus crash, which claimed the lives of 19 young children in Gansu last week, is a tragedy that should never have happened. The danger of cramming far too many pupils into small buses has been apparent in rural areas for years, but has been allowed to continue. We should not have had to wait for a terrible accident before action was taken. Hopefully, public outrage over the crash will bring about a change of mindset. Pupils must no longer be forced to travel long distances to school without due regard for safety. Children aged between 2 1/2 and six died when their bus collided with a coal truck. It is a wonder the toll was not higher, given that the nine-seater bus was packed with 62 children - not an unusual example of overloading.

Cash-strapped rural officials have been closing village schools and kindergartens to save money and put land to other uses as the great urban migration depletes enrolments and erodes their revenue base. They cannot be blamed for doing that. But if they are to bus pupils long distances to alternative schools it is surely incumbent upon them to ensure that the transport is as safe as can be. If many educators are to be believed, there has been widespread failure to do so. They say the accident was a tragedy waiting to happen because of a lack of safety checks on school buses and poor funding for rural pre-schools, which means parents and schools had to resort to using unsafe vehicles.

Xiong Bingqi, of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, says school buses have figured in a shocking number of safety breaches and accidents in recent years. Incredibly, a member of the Chinese Society of Education's academic committee, Yuan Guilin, compared the number of fatalities over the past year with the reported death toll from China's notoriously dangerous mines.

The authorities responded to public anger at last week's tragedy with sackings, arrests and a quick offer of compensation to families of the dead. The Ministry of Education ordered a nationwide inspection of buses for kindergarten and primary pupils. We trust that this is the beginning of a regular, transparent inspection regime.

However, a lasting solution is more likely to be found by tackling concerns raised by Premier Wen Jiabao about a rural brake on China's progress. Lack of education, poverty and under-privilege go hand in hand, as do education and progress. Officials who have been closing village schools have forced students to travel up to 40 kilometres to get a basic education at other schools that are not funded to handle the influx. Rural teachers complain of inadequate pay and ill-equipped schools. Wen's call for a boost to funding in rural areas therefore makes good sense. If, as a result, officials are no longer tempted to cut corners on school transport it could save many lives.