Jack Ma has a solution for China’s ‘left-behind kids’: boarding school

Tech giant founder calls on entrepreneurs to back his plan to merge rural schools with low enrolments, build dormitories and provide bus services

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 10:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 11:31am

Jack Ma Yun has called on entrepreneurs to get behind a plan to give poor children like “Ice Boy” better access to education – by opening boarding schools in the countryside.

Eight-year-old “Ice Boy”, or Wang Fuman, became an internet sensation after his teacher posted a photo of him with his hair and eyebrows encrusted in ice after a freezing trek to school about a fortnight ago. 

At an event organised by his charitable foundation on Sunday, the billionaire founder of Alibaba Group said many children in rural China had too far to travel to get to school. The average primary school pupil walked 5.4 kilometres from home to school in the countryside, he said, citing the Ministry of Education. 

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One solution was to shut down smaller schools that lacked resources and create boarding schools that could offer the children better teaching and accommodation, Ma said at a gathering in Sanya, Hainan Island ahead of an awards ceremony for rural teachers. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

“Many pupils have to climb mountains or take a boat to go to school. In my opinion, these kids should not be commuting between home and school every day – they should go to a boarding school,” Ma said, calling on more than 80 Chinese entrepreneurs at the event to work with him to promote the development of boarding schools in rural areas.

Ma said the case of “Ice Boy” had reminded him of a girl, aged six or seven, he saw walking along a rural road with a big schoolbag and a lunchbox in Linan county, Zhejiang on a cold morning in 1992. 

“So many years have passed and the situation hasn’t changed,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that the authorities haven’t done anything about it, but that the resources can’t reach some remote places.”

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The plight of “Ice Boy”, as one of an estimated 60 million “left-behind children” from poor families, whose parents work in cities far from home, touched hearts across China. Many people expressed sympathy on social media for the hardships the boy, and children like him, endure to get to school.

The number of schools in rural China has dropped dramatically since the late 1990s, amid a government campaign to close small village schools and redirect pupils to study in towns.

According to the latest available figures from the ministry, there were 230,000 rural schools across China in 2010 – down from 510,000 in 2001.

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“I hope we entrepreneurs can push this plan to merge school resources. I encourage all of you to participate and make a contribution to your home provinces by building dormitories and donating school buses,” Ma said.

Among those at the event were Beijing property tycoon Feng Lun, Giant Interactive chairman Shi Yuzhu and Yu Feng, co-founder of private equity firm Yunfeng Capital. 

Later, 100 teachers were presented with awards from the Jack Ma Foundation for their contribution to education in rural China last year. The educators each received 100,000 yuan (US$15,500) for the award, which is part of the foundation’s efforts to attract more teachers to rural areas. 

Ma said rural education was an issue close to his heart since he had studied at a teachers’ college and taught English for six years at a university in Hangzhou.

“A country’s education is strong only as long as its rural education is developed, just as a country is rich only as long as its farmers are rich,” Ma said. “To measure a country’s education sector, you can’t look at its best universities, but look at its worst schools.”

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Many rural schools in China have very low enrolments – some have fewer than 10 students – and most of them are “left-behind children”.

Ma’s solution was to merge rural schools that had under 100 students and would struggle to hire and retain teachers and provide a quality education. He proposed boarding schools be created instead, with a bus service to collect children at their village entrance on a Monday morning and drop them off again on a Friday.

Local women could be hired as dormitory supervisors, he said, and they should also be given training so they could provide counselling for the children as needed.

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But Li Tao, an academic from the China Rural Development Institute at Northeast China Normal University, said merging schools in rural areas would be complicated and there were other factors at play, including the cultural background of children.

“It would need to follow a standard – for example, schools with kids from different ethnic minorities might be better off at different schools,” he said.