When the new school year starts in autumn, some 10,000 teachers will come out of retirement in China and return to the classroom, but in a new and mostly unfamiliar setting – underfunded rural schools. Beijing is sending “outstanding” retired or retiring educators aged 65 or under to the remote areas under its “Silver Age Lecture Plan”, a new programme that is part of the government’s campaign to alleviate poverty in the countryside, according to the Ministry of Education. The ministry said that those selected would spend at least one year working in schools in regions targeted by the poverty alleviation push, until the programme ends in 2020. It is the latest in a series of initiatives designed to boost education standards in poor rural areas, including ethnic minority-dominated regions and border provinces such as Xinjiang, home to the country’s Uygur Muslim population. Rural exodus leaves a shrinking Chinese village full of ageing poor, and only three children While some education experts welcome expanding the rural teaching pool, they say the new policy is unlikely to ease China’s greater educational problem – the widening urban-rural education gap. That is because the programme fails to address the staggering inequity in economic well-being that is at the heart of the rural teacher shortage, they say. “The living conditions in remote rural regions are improving,” said Wang Dan, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong. “But despite this, the urban-rural gap – not just in education but also living standards – is getting wider because the problem is not being checked at the root.” Ma Jun, who teaches at a village boarding school in Zizhou county, Shaanxi province, was pessimistic about the plan to use retired teachers, saying older teachers might not have the right mindset to teach rural children. “Their values and thinking are often outdated, and their teaching methods would be unlikely to be innovative or flexible,” said Ma, who acknowledged that she has no experience working with older teachers. “Rural children are already lagging behind children from the cities due to economic and geographical constraints. “This new move will definitely not benefit their development.” But Wang Fei, who teaches at a school in Huantai county, Shandong province, said the government’s poverty alleviation efforts had led to some improvements in rural teaching conditions, such as the introduction of live-streamed lessons. She welcomed the idea of “outstanding” retired teachers joining rural schools since it would expand the range of skill sets in the workforce, but was worried about the vague selection criteria. “If the retired teachers are like traditional schoolmasters, will they meaningfully contribute to children’s development? And in choosing these teachers, how does the government define ‘outstanding’? They will need to teach with warmth and feeling, but at the same time they need high-level skills,” she said. China’s rapid urbanisation drive has had a huge impact on rural schools. In recent decades, millions of rural residents have migrated to booming cities in the more affluent eastern provinces in search of work, in many cases taking their children with them. A day in the life of a teacher in one of China’s rural cliff-top schools As a result, enrolment rates at rural schools have plummeted and it has become increasingly tough for education authorities to find teachers for the remaining rural pupils – especially since they would have to handle a punishing workload and receive a meagre salary of 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (US$146 to US$293) per month. Stories about remote village schools that have only a handful of pupils, or that pupils can reach only by making a long and difficult journey, regularly make the headlines in China. “Rural conditions are falling behind and teachers have to take on huge responsibilities,” said Ma, whose school includes more than 300 “left-behind children” of migrant workers. “Most teachers at large establishments aren’t willing to come here, so in some places classes are taught by supply teachers who are poorly paid, unrecognised by the government and don’t have training opportunities,” she said. “This disadvantaged social group is truly left behind.” Three kids, one teacher: how a tiny Chinese school keeps the flame of learning alive From 2000 to 2010, as the government implemented a campaign to centralise rural schools in townships, nearly 100 village schools and education centres shut down each day, according to statistics from the 21st Century Education Research Institute of China. “After training, good rural teachers are sent to the towns, and then promoted to county-level, city-level and first-tier city positions,” Wang said. “So they have a tendency to move out of rural regions.” The number of low-paid rural teachers in China dropped from 4.73 million in 2010 to 3.3 million in 2013, the last period for which figures are available, according to China News Service. Wang Dan said that even 10,000 extra rural teachers was a minuscule number measured against the hundreds of thousands of rural classrooms that needed extra teaching support. “If these teachers are only focused on teaching their subject well, or improving the grades of their class, teaching conditions may well return to what they were previously once the teachers leave after a year or two,” the education professor said. “This isn’t very meaningful.” How can China convince teachers to move to the countryside? Instead, Wang wants policymakers to think of a way to keep the retired teachers’ specialist knowledge and values at the schools long after they have left, and to offer a clearer statement of the goals they would be expected to meet at their assigned schools. “I think the mindset of the policy should change, so that it doesn’t only put people in certain places, but also considers how people in these areas can effect systemic change,” Wang said.