Schools must register so-called "left-behind" children and must pay special attention to their basic needs, the mainland's education ministry said yesterday, after several tragedies involving rural children whose parents live and work elsewhere.
In a directive issued by five bodies, including the Ministry of Education, grass-roots education authorities have been told to step up the overall management of "left-behind" children, who generally stay in rural areas while their parents work in cities.
The children's information must be recorded at the start of a school term and regularly updated, it said. Teachers were also instructed to help improve the care of "left-behind" children.
The country's rapid development has been made possible in part by millions of farmers leaving their home towns and villages to work in cities. Often a mother and father will leave for work while the child stays behind for education or to be raised by grandparents.
The most recent figures by the ministry show that as many as 220 million children of primary or middle-school age are left at home, away from their parents.
The absence of parents looks to be behind several tragedies that have shaken the nation, such as on Monday, when four primary school pupils in Guangshan county, Henan drowned on their way to school. In November, five boys aged nine to 13, left behind by their migrant parents and forced to live on a street in Bijie, Guizhou, were found dead in a large rubbish bin, killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a fire they lit to keep warm.
The directive said: "The recent tragedies have sent warnings to all of society, especially the government, to solve the various problems involving 'left-behind' children that have shown up or might show up."
It added that priority should be given to the construction of boarding schools for rural "left-behind" children.
Professor Yuan Guilin of Beijing Normal University, who specialises in rural education, said the registration mandate was a good first step, but it failed to help children who did not attend school.
He said some of the measures, such as building schools closer to children's homes and establishing boarding schools, required co-ordination by various government agencies, and the directive failed to address this.
"The ultimate goal is to ensure fairness and to eliminate the phenomenon of 'left-behind' children," Yuan said. "There wouldn't be any problems involving 'left-behind' children if migrant workers could bring their children along and they are given equal educational opportunities."