Rural classroom gets new desks as Macheng government reacts to outcry

Local leaders are shamed into providing the youngsters with basic equipment after public anger over badly funded system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2012, 3:58am

Hubei teacher Zhong Fuhai was stunned recently when new desks and benches were delivered to his shabby, one-classroom school in Macheng's Shunhe township.

Zhong, the only teacher at the Nangang School, said its dozen or so pupils had been using desks and benches brought to the school by their parents for years because local schools were not given a budget for such things.

"It's always been a dream for parents to see their children sit behind suitable desks at school."

The local government's hasty delivery of new, adjustable desk sets to several rural schools in Shunhe came after mainland media reported that up to 3,000 pupils in the impoverished region began the new semester on September 1 with their own desks and benches.

A photo of one local grandmother escorting her grandson to school while carrying a roughly made desk on her shoulders, and another of a pupil sitting on a stool and using a TV stand as a desk, triggered a public outcry over the sorry state of rural education in a country that has long trumpeted its economic rise.

An initial sense of disbelief, shared by many, quickly developed into widespread anger targeting the local education authorities and Macheng's city government for their failure to provide basic school facilities.

Contrasting the state of the schools with the ultra-modern Macheng city government complex - nicknamed the White House of Macheng - The Beijing News rebuked the local government for failing to put money where it was most needed.

An online vigilante also targeted Macheng's party secretary, Yang Yao , posting photos of him wearing various luxury watches.

In a microblog entry written on Sunday, Yang only admitted owning a Longines quartz watch bought six years ago.

While arguing that Macheng is an underdeveloped area, he admitted that the shortage of desks was a long-running problem, with more than 40,000 pupils bringing their own to school.

The city government was quick to attribute the problem to a shortage of funds following the renovation of old schools.

But following the media backlash, it pledged to provide all rural students in Macheng with adequate desk sets in the next two months, finding an additional five million yuan (HK$6.1 million) on top of the four million yuan it earmarked for 32,800 desk sets last year.

Macheng's education bureau announced it had provided 3,000 desks for pupils in Shunhe by September 6.

Professor Chu Zhaohui , from the National Institute of Education Sciences, said the government had revealed its failure to live up to promises to make education a priority.

"The public deserves an answer on how the government could come up with five million yuan in such short period of time," Chu said. "What if the media hadn't reported the shortage of desk sets in Shunhe?"

Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that public anger towards the Macheng authorities was justified because it was no longer acceptable for pupils to have to bring their own desks to school.

But he said the root cause of the plight faced by rural students was a school-financing regime that primarily relied on local governments, particularly county-level ones, even though the central government had beefed up school funding for less developed regions in recent years.

"That largely leaves the level of school funding dependent on the financial soundness of each local government," he said. "So an overhaul of the school funding regime is imperative for a higher-level financial guarantee, preferably at the provincial level, if mainland governments are serious about tackling inequality."