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Down and out in rural China


Like many rural teenagers,Yan Jingtao, the lanky son of a
watermelon farmer, did not havequite the stuff for a standard
upper-secondary school. Last September,encouraged by his teacher, he and
three classmates enrolled instead at avocational school on the edge of
the central city of Kaifeng to study computer animation. ByNovember, he
had quit; one of 23 dropouts in less than two months from a classthat
had started with 57. The students had often got into brawls and
skippedschool in order to play games at an internet café.


Now 18, Mr Yan has landed a decentshort-term job as a guard at a
local military airport. “My job is better thanwhat my friends have,” he
says. But he yearns to learn a skill and get a propercareer.


In the past three decades China has madeimpressive gains in sending
rural children to school. This has helped fuel itsrise as a low-end
manufacturing power. But the easy gains have been achieved.If the
country is to create the “knowledge economy” it says it wants,
thegovernment will have to change the way rural teenagers are educated
and schoolsin the countryside are funded.


Completion of junior middle-school has beencompulsory since 1986.
In big cities it is already the norm to finish theremaining three years,
known as senior middle-school. In the countrysidegrowing numbers are
entering senior middle-school too, but it is far lesscommon. In 1990
just 7% of rural students did so. Today the figure may be justover
one-third. Even at the junior level (despite government figures
suggestingfull attendance), dropout rates are high.


Some quit school because of the cost; incontrast to many other
countries, the upper years charge for tuition. Seniormiddle-schools are
often far away from villages, so students have to board.Including the
cost of books, the bill for three years can easily amount tothousands of
dollars—more than a year’s income for poorer rural families. Abouthalf
fail the test to get into senior middle-school. Others leave because
theycan get what they consider a decent job. Wages for low-skilled work
haveincreased greatly in recent years. Mr Yan earns 3,000 yuan ($490)
for tenshifts a month, considerably more than the government-set minimum


Tens of millions of rural workers havemoved to urban areas since
the 1990s. But China’s system of householdregistration, or hukou, makes
it difficult for them to send their childrento better-resourced and
better-run middle-schools in the cities. Migrants oftenhave no choice
but to leave their children behind to be educated. A lack ofparental
supervision compounds many students’ difficulties. 


In middle-school attendance, China lagsbehind the attainments of
some newly developed economies when they were atsimilar levels of
development. In South Korea virtually everyone wasgetting a full
secondary education by the late 1980s.


The government encourages teachers to steeracademic underachievers
to vocational schools. But vocational schools in ruralareas are blighted
by scant funding and poor-quality staff. Many experts arguethat
providing more opportunity for students to stay in standard
secondaryschools would prepare them better for the workplace. But that
would land thegovernment with a huge new bill.



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