Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Beijing's Education Gap

There's a lot of income gaps in China: There is the one between urban and rural areas, then the one between coastal and inland areas.

I had always assumed that those who live in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou pretty much have access to good services and infrastructure.

However, there is another income gap -- the further you are from the city centre, the worse basic services are.

This is understandable, as major cities in North America have inner cities that seem left behind in development and infrastructure services like schools and hospitals that are barely surviving, but they somehow manage to maintain some kind of minimum standard.

However, it is shocking to discover primary or elementary schools in the outskirts of Beijing lag way behind their counterparts in everything -- it's almost as if these schools could be found in the rural areas.

My colleagues told me of a primary school in Beijing, but at the northern edge of the capital where the classrooms barely have enough florescent light bulbs to make the room bright enough for the students to read; as a result, many are near-sighted.

In the summer there's no air conditioning but a fan, which only works when there isn't a blackout. In the winter, there's a crude humidifier where water is boiled and the steam is somehow supposed to warm the air even though the children, most of whom aren't wearing enough clothes due to their financial situation, are shivering.

What I find most bizarre is that there is no clean drinking water for these children. Some cave in a drink tap water, but there are others who don't drink a drop of water when they are in class for several hours, but make up for it when they get home.

None of these students have access to plastic bottles to even bring water to school which is also strange.

Doesn't the school think providing adequate water resources is a basic necessity for the students, especially when you can't drink tap water here?

Apparently not. Their argument is probably that water costs money and they'd rather spend it on more important things, even though there is a whole laundry of list of things they could use the money on.

The conditions are so bad that no qualified teachers want to teach in these kinds of schools.

So what does the municipal government do? It hires fresh university graduates who have no teaching experience or a degree in education or in the subjects they're teaching, gives them a monthly "salary" or less than 2,000RMB ($292.73) and expects them to teach these children something.

Some "volunteer teachers" do it for the experience; others for hukou, or the highly-coveted residence permit; or because they can't find any other jobs.

While I sympathize with this generation's young people who have invested money and time in getting a university degree and in some cases have little choice but to do this kind of work, it's the students I worry about most.

Unlike some inner city schools in North America that may be lucky to have a dedicated, qualified teacher willing to sacrifice a lot, these kids on the outskirts of Beijing have few role models to look to. While some of these "volunteer teachers" may really care about the kids, they don't necessarily have the experience or the knowledge to meet the educational needs of these students.

This just puts them at a further disadvantage in education and later, career prospects.

Is this the kind of situation the government is proud of?

China is constantly warning the United States not to squander its $801.5 billion investment in US treasuries; it spends billions on building massive Olympic venues to impress the world.

And yet children on the edges of the city can't get proper drinking water at school or even a qualified teacher at that.

Is it me, or is there something wrong with this picture?


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