Headline criticism of the mainland's education system tends to focus on stifling university bureaucracy, conformity, corruption and academic irregularities. This overlooks the case for reform from bottom to top, starting with kindergartens. Despite the mainland's urban transformation, about 80 per cent of preschool children languish in rural kindergartens starved of public funding and qualified teachers - a focal point of grass-roots discontent. Their plight has been compounded by a Ministry of Education decision to abolish many kindergarten teacher-training programmes at secondary schools and make a tertiary certificate the prerequisite. In response to growing public discontent, a recent State Council directive listed accelerated development of preschool education as a top priority among the main aims of an education reform pilot programme.
Now it seems rural kindergartens will actually see some money without having to wait for the results of the trial. The State Council last week pledged 50 billion yuan (HK$61 billion) over five years to develop preschools in rural areas of underdeveloped western regions and in some impoverished areas of central China.
This is overdue but welcome, as is the decision to fund children from migrant worker families in major cities who are excluded from public schools by the household registration system. Education needs sound foundations and the transition from home to school is crucial to childhood development.
It remains to be seen whether the money is put to effective use. School funding stretches governments in poor regions. As a result preschool funding has not been a priority. They will be tempted to use the money to expand control. But the public will get better value if it is prudently deployed in partnership with the private sector to develop kindergartens more efficiently. And Beijing would be encouraged to push more funds their way.