The mainland authorities will supply free selected textbooks to children for the first nine years of compulsory education, the Ministry of Education said yesterday, easing the financial burden on the country's 150 million rural primary and middle-school pupils. Rural children were already exempted from tuition fees up to high school but families have still had to pay for their textbooks and study guides. The ministry has spent 13 billion yuan since the autumn semester funding a programme to supply free textbooks nominated by the national education authorities but books issued by lower-level authorities were not covered. The ministry said on its website that all the textbooks compiled or adopted by lower-level authorities should be free for pupils during the compulsory education period and neither local departments nor schools should charge for textbooks or study guides. The ministry also said yesterday that the central government would earmark about 16.7 billion yuan this year to pay for the national textbook programme. Annual textbook subsidies for rural primary schools will rise from 70 yuan to 90 yuan per pupil and from 140 yuan to 180 yuan for rural middle-school pupils. Mainland media have criticised the slow increase in money set aside for education. A report by the ministries of education and finance said spending on education as a proportion of gross domestic product was 3.01 per cent in 2006, still short of the 4 per cent target set by Beijing in 2000. Some developing countries such as India and Brazil have reached an average level of 4 per cent, while the figure for developed countries is more than 6 per cent.