The death of 19 young children in a school bus crash in Gansu this week left many wondering how such an accident could happen.
But many dismayed educators say it was a tragedy waiting to happen because of a lack of safety checks on school bus operations, poor funding for rural preschools and a flawed rural schools policy that left parents and schools with little option but to use unsafe vehicles to transport pupils.
The nine-seater school bus belonging to the Yulinzi Township Xiaoboshi (Little PhD) Kindergarten in impoverished Zhengning county was crammed with 62 preschool pupils plus a driver and a teacher when it rammed head-on into a coal truck at high speed on Wednesday morning. The two adults also died.
Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said there had been a shocking number of safety breaches and accidents involving school buses in recent years.
'But the heart-wrenching reality is that everyone knows it's going to happen, but no one seems to care enough to prevent it,' Xiong said.
An eight-seater van refitted as a school bus for a kindergarten in Tangshan , Hebei , was found to be carrying 66 pupils when it was stopped for a random police inspection in September, but such violations are not limited to preschool buses.
Fourteen of the 20 primary pupils travelling to school on a three-wheeled truck died after it plunged into a river along a road in Dongtang village in Hunan's Hengnan county in December.
Xiong said the reason there were so many safety violations involving school buses was that regulators had failed to put in place an oversight mechanism at schools and police failed to enforce traffic rules.
'If traffic authorities had made school bus safety their priority, both the schools and school bus operators wouldn't be able to get away with it,' he said.
The four school buses operated by the Xiaoboshi Kindergarten had been seriously overloaded for at least three years before this week's accident, mainland media reported.
Lu Huadong , director of the education bureau in Qingyang prefecture, which administers Zhengning county, said the kindergarten had been ordered to stop the practice after its school buses were found to be overloaded during an inspection just days before the fatal accident but it had simply ignored the order.
The Ministry of Education even issued two directives, one in September 2007 and another one jointly with the Ministry of Public Security a year later, ordering a crackdown on unsafe school buses.
But overloaded school buses are commonplace, particularly for schools in rural areas and suburban slums on the outskirts of major cities with large migrant populations, underscoring the gaping urban-rural divide despite three decades of runaway economic development.
Public funding for preschools has remained steady at 10.2 billion yuan (HK$12.50 billion) a year - a meagre 1.3 per cent of government spending on education - and Gao Xia , director of Sunglory Education Research Institute, said about 70 per cent of that went to a few showpiece public kindergartens in major cities that were largely reserved for the children of the rich and powerful.
Professor Yuan Guilin , a rural education specialist at Beijing Normal University, said that concerns about the safety of school buses gained prominence following drastic moves launched by the Ministry of Education nine years ago to close village schools, forcing pupils to travel long distances to faraway township and county schools.
He said the number of rural schools on the mainland had almost halved, to 263,821, between 2000 and 2009.
The authorities sought to justify the closures by saying that many grass-roots rural schools had seen enrolments dwindle amid rapid urbanisation, but it has made school buses much more of a daily necessity for rural pupils, with the lack of transport options available to them largely overlooked by regulators.
Schools and parents turned to whatever vehicles they could get their hands on to transport pupils to school. Yuan said vehicles such as tractors, three-wheeled farm trucks and even cars rescued from junk yards could all be seen transporting children to school in rural areas - with often dire consequences for the children's safety.
'So the more rural schools are forced to close, the more school bus accidents there will be.'
Yuan said anecdotal evidence collected by his team showed that at least 41 pupils had been killed in school bus accidents between October last year and September this year, with more than 130 hurt.
Professor Chu Zhaohui , from the National Institute for Educational Research, said that no school should be closed without a safety guarantee for all its pupils.
But he said that overloaded school buses and tragedies like the one in Gansu also reflected a general lack of care for children, particularly in cash-strapped areas, because policymakers do not make their well-being a priority.
'Have we ever heard of a vehicle for a government official being overcrowded?' he asked.
'If the welfare of our children is not given due respect by schools and governments, something else will happen to our children even if they're not hurt or killed in school bus accidents.'