Why is this school for children of migrant workers being shut down?

Why is this school for children of migrant workers being shut down?


(Picture: A school for children of migrant workers. On Saturday at lunch time, a resident of school hurries through the corridor between the principal’s office and the classrooms. Source: 欧阳方子)

The sun is burning the wide cemented area in the outskirts of Beijing. On both sides of the road there are trees, their small shadows extending eastward.

“I know all about schools for children of migrant workers.” Grandpa Pan is sitting under a mat shelter, next to a private kindergarten. His dark skin is soaked in with sweat; his legs are wrapped in black-dyed rubber trousers.

Grandpa Pan pauses, he pulls out a cigarette and lights it, and a cloud of smoke slowly drifts away from the new paintings on the wall.

“Yuxing Garden” is soon to disappear

“There is a school called Yuxing Garden; its director is Fan Baocheng, you can go talk to him.” Grandpa Pan has painted walls for many schools. Because he has been to almost every school for children of migrant workers, he has had private conversations with many school directors. He can thus explain a lot about these schools’ establishing process, relocations, and even the experience of running the school.

Mr Fan Baocheng arrived in Beijing from his native Hebei “on that year when Hong-Kong was returned”. He graduated from his undergraduate studies in history and was a high-school teacher before founding his primary school.

“Throughout the thousands years of history of the Chinese nation, there has been no dynasty that has closed down places of education!”

Chaoyang district’s authorities issued a diplomatic note in January 2013. Based on the “the different degrees of security risks” and “low levels of education”, Chaoyang district will shut down all schools for children of migrant workers by 2014[1]. Mr Fan has the list of schools to be shut down. There are eighteen in total, and Yuxing Garden is one of them.

Fan Baocheng recalls than when he arrived in Beijing, some of his relatives’ children had no one to look after them and no school to go to. He thus vouched for it saying: “Alright, I will teach them.” Fan Baocheng enrolled several students before starting his school. The initial school location was in Taiyanggong. By 2002, it had reached about one thousand students. In 2003 as SARS happened, the school was shut down. Fan Baocheng brought five or six students with him to Yuxing Garden’s present location. “When we arrived here it was very desolate! Very desolate!”

Yuxing Garden has two transverse vertical teaching buildings. In the narrow space between them stands a boiler house. On the two other sides are offices and the teachers’ dormitories – Fan Baocheng’s wife and sons also live here. The children often play in the courtyard; and next to the broken steps dust is accumulating on the playground equipment. According to city children, they probably would just be considered abandoned plastic equipment.

According to a rough estimation of their financial assets, the school actually does not lack money to improve the surroundings. There are about 500 students, school fees for each of them are 800RMB a term. With a few in arrears and reduced payments, the average is 700RMB. This covers textbooks and other tuition fees. The school’s income over one school year is seven hundred thousand RMB. Before signing the rental contract, the annual income was only of sixty thousand RMB a year. Teachers’ salary is in average 2000RMB per person a month, there are now 18 teachers. In a school year of 8 months, the school spends about three hundred fifty thousand yuan. However the school has not published its financial audit to explain how its profit of three hundred thousand yuan is used. When we mention the income of the school Mr Fan is quite embarrassed. He only says: “I do make a profit. If I didn’t, I could not keep on living.” He also has two sons in secondary and high school at home.

In reality these numbers have to be multiplied by the inflation level. As a result they roughly correspond to the 2001 “Survey Report on the General State of Education Obligation among Children of Migrant Workers in Beijing”[2]: the larger the scale of the school for children of migrant workers, the more considerable is their income. The school fees that Yuxing Garden requires are considered cheap. The survey report states not all of the income of these schools is used in improving education; but parts of it are used to ease the authorities’ attitude. Indeed, because their status is not legal, schools for children of migrant workers often face demolition, relocation, suppression. People running such schools have to have a way out for themselves.

If you find making profit out of running a school questionable, the incomes of privately-run schools that receive public help are just as opaque and need explanations. Since 2010 the government implemented new policies concerning the problem of migrant workers’ children’s education. Among these policies the Chaoyang district Board of Education took the “Education Commission” as a model: when the authorities shut down a partially unlicensed school for children of migrant workers, they establish and orient them to a privately-run school that accept children of migrant workers and commission a director to run the school.

What people might not understand about Fan Baocheng and such school directors who lose their school is that these “Education Commission” schools receive financial compensations but some of them still charge high education fees. Besides, because school directors’ power of appointment and power of approval are all in the hands of the District Board of Education, they suspect that some of them might have the power to improperly collaborate with money.

“Why should students from schools that are being shut down go to school in a very far place and in almost similar conditions?” says Fan Baocheng. He once went with Zou Shucheng, the director of Shaziying School (another of Chaoyang District school for children of migrant workers), to see the District Countryside Working Committee and try to reason things out, hoping that they would not shut down their schools. They pointed at Beijing map, desperately gesticulated about children having to walk a long way. The relevant head of the commission looked at the two school directors at pain and said: “Go home, I give you an extra year.”

Right now the end of that one-year period is approaching; Fan Baocheng is anticipating 2014 and the imminent crisis. Fan Baocheng believes that he cannot leave the education industry now. If the school is closed down, he would lose his job. “Even if the Board of Education allow me to teach in a Commission Education school, I wouldn’t go”, he says. “How can people live without aspirations? If they close what’s yours and you have to go somewhere else, what feeling does that leave you with?”

In Beijing’s cold winter, Mr Fan always gets up at five in the morning to go open the school doors to students that arrive early. “No one can take care of these children at home. Even if they are living in good conditions and they can watch TV, they are still very lonely”, Fan Baocheng sighs, shaking his head. Will Yuxing Primary School students be able to wait until next winter?

“Thorn”, the director of Xiangyang School

“Last year in the countryside they sent people to the doors of the school to not let him enter.” When Fan Baocheng mentions Mr Luo, the director of Xiangyang School, he is smiling and shaking his head. “I think he is the one who had most of the experience.” Grandpa Fan says that Mr Luo has only half of his left arm left. When he was school-director in Cuigezhuang, he was faced with the possibility of demolition; he then took a gas tank in his arms and rushed to the rooftop of the building. He is now still a school director but in Daxing.

The very famous Director Luo is now an investor in Xiangyang Hope School in Daxing. He enters limply into the office – the wound in his leg was left from that time on the roof.

Mr Luo established his school in Cuigezhuang in 2004. “We rented 6 acres of land, we demolished the buildings in the middle and paved the lawn. All buildings were single-storey houses. We painted all the walls and worked on such supporting things, then added an extra floor. We used all of our investment; we had started with eight or nine hundred thousand yuan, the money we earned after that all went into this project. It snowballed and reached over one million yuan.” In 2009 the school had received a notice before the day it was demolished. On April 29th, Director Luo who was not in the school at the time they received the call informing them that the Housing Demolition Office had already negotiated the relocation payment with their landlord. Parts of this payment would go to Mr Luo and other investors and it had been temporarily handed over to the landlord. The following day the gatekeeper called Mr Luo in the morning: “Bulldozers and sledgehammers just arrived.” The landlord was unfortunately not picking up the phone at that time. Mr Luo drove hurriedly over. Neither the Village Committee nor the Housing Demolition Bureau picked up their phone.

Thereupon Mr Luo grabbed a gas tank and climbed up the stairs. “From that moment on, my relatives kept calling me on my phone, until at least noon.” Mr Luo smiles. Local authorities officers then arrived and the media with them. The authorities said they wanted to “discuss”, Mr Luo consented. What he was not expecting is that as he was walking down, he stumbled and fell from the building roof to the top of the first floor.

His legs were broken and he was sent to hospital. The village chief advanced the 4000 yuan hospital fees. When Mr Luo was released from hospital, the Housing Demolition Bureau, the landlord, and the investors immediately carried out tripartite negotiations. The investors received one million eighty thousand yuan. “Another school in Cuigezhuang was demolished; the director was called Peng. It was demolished three years ago and he still hasn’t been compensated,” Mr Luo recalls.

“Closing down and demolition are two crises that schools for children of migrant workers often encounter.” A social activist who knows well the education environment commented. “Closing down means closing a school, but demolition is actually often targeted at a whole village; this is all because of the government’s planning.”

Following the increase in number of students and the expansion, renovation, and demolition of Beijing, migrant workers have progressively moved to areas outside the 4th ring road. Schools for children of migrant workers are also shut down and relocated outside one after the other [2]. Because they try to be close to the students and pay low rent, schools for children of migrant workers are usually built in villages, in suburbs, next to the airport or the subway tracks, and such lands that have yet to be developed. Urban construction and land use has become the invariable reason why schools for children of migrant workers are taken away. State schools are hard to get in and old schools are being shut down. From then on some of these children deprived of education might live removed from society while others leave their parents and go back to their far-away hometown to go to school – thus becoming “Children Left Behind”.

“In fact the objective behind all this is the control of the population. We can say it has found a safe place to conceal itself. This is in large Beijing’s current policy orientation”, said Professor Yuan Liansheng from the Beijing Normal University’s School of Economics and Business Administration. Besides, Ren Xinghui, researcher at the Social and Economic Research Institute, believes that such injustice and discrimination based on housing registration will surely lay down long-lasting social tensions [5].

In 2008, a dozen of directors from schools for children of migrant workers went separately to appeal to the Township authorities, the District authorities, and the City authorities to report on the situation of schools being shut down. Mr Luo still remembers when they went to Beijing City Government reception, on the right side of Tiananmen Street, the 2nd receptionist told them: “We will report this case to the government. If it is illegal and you have been in this place for so long, then it is the government’s negligence and fault. If it is legal, then there is no reason to close them down now.” Mr Luo replied to this: “We have been doing this for ten years, who can call it illegal?”

Daxing Peixin School Director Liu Liping remembers that the government started to supervise and control schools for children of migrant workers in 2003. After SARS a few schools for children of migrant workers were shut down, relocated, and incorporated to others. Liu Liping was running a school in Chaoyang District at the time. She realised that the Management Office, set up by the District Board of Education’s “Regulations on the Running of Schools by Non-Governmental Institutions” started carried out its functions. Last year in early spring, the Xinhua School in Chaoyang District was forced to cease its activities. Its director Tan Xianfeng remembers clearly: “On November 13th, 2004 Chen Gang, Chaoyang District’s new Secretary who had just taken office and the Township Secretary came to the school to investigate. They encouraged us.” In 2006 Chaoyang District approved of 14 schools for children of migrant workers [3], and Mr Luo’s school was listed as pending, the important point was that it was a target for assistance. According to him, “at the time the village committee expressed its view to the landlord, no other proof was given.” After 2006 schools for children of migrant workers had once again trouble obtaining approvals. In 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympic Games, large scale renovations and constructions develop, attracted investments and numerous projects. The following year the wave of school closing was unstoppable [2]. In 2010, as Chaoyang district closing wave reappeared, the “Education Commission” model was put into effect.

Mr Luo left home at 17 to go find work in Jiangsu. He found his lifetime’s new career when he was over thirty. “At the time when people came to work in Beijing, there were schools for children of migrant workers, it started like this. There were over one hundred schools run by people from my hometown in Henan.”

Grandpa Fan recalls that it was people from Hebei who started to run schools for children of migrant workers. People from Henan were doing business in waste products; then they realised Hebei people were making money and started to run schools as well. Han Jialing researcher at Beijing Society Institute investigated. She realised that under the current circumstances the school structure cannot solve nor satisfy the problem of Beijing migrant workers’ children’s education. At the end of the 20th century, the official “no proscription, no recognition” laissez-faire attitude led schools for children of migrant workers to appear and assume “self-relief” in 1993, and to “blossom everywhere” in 1997 [2].

Nowadays, school directors receive every year before March 5th the order “not to contact the media”. In 2011 half a month before the two sessions (the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) Cuigezhuang kept sending people to Mr Luo’s doorstep. “A village headman followed me for 18 days” says Mr Luo leaning back on his chair.

A multi-face game in transition

In reality, the laissez-faire attitude is making up for the education disparities, and it is the best choice to solve the problem of migrant children. Because schools for children of migrant workers are lacking in terms of education cenvironment and quality, Professor Yuan Liansheng and Researcher Ren Xinghui both find that the subsistence of this kind of schools should only belong to this specific historical stage. Education is intended to be a public service and it should be taken over by the government. What will this takeover be like is worth further investigating.

In Shanghai official policies towards schools for children of migrant workers have always been generous: both levels of the city finances jointly subsidise privately-run schools for children of migrant workers, providing help to improve the schools’ equipment and increasing the level of education. In 2011 the whole city had already made it possible for all of the schools for children of migrant workers to receive free compulsory education [6]. In comparison, instead of transferring this large education market to the public sector, the way Chaoyang district is taking over resembles more a rough intervention and battle for the market.

The Management Office for “Closely Supervised Education” was established by the Management Section of Chaoyang District Board of Education. Clear comprehensive information and school directors all recall that the Management Office for “Closely Supervised Schools” started to manage Chaoyang schools for children of migrant workers in 2003. It has a dozen officers among which some are external to the department. Its area of responsibility is quite surprising: it examines and approves privately-run schools, private education and training institutions; it sets up “Closely Supervised Education” Management Office training school (public data show that this school’s legal person is Zhang Lianhai, the current director of the “Closely Supervised Education” Management Office, its registered capital is about one hundred thousand yuan for a personnel of 5 to 10 people [7]); it trains for free directors and managers running schools for children of migrant workers; it is responsible for daily health and safety inspections, epidemic notifications, vaccination notifications, every two or three schools has a coordinator; it provides a unified channel for textbooks orders through which licensed schools are reimbursed for textbook fees. “Right now the finance section allocates money to the Management Office which in turn allocates money to the schools’ accounts. The finance section used to reimburse schools directly”, an informed source told us. Chaoyang Private Education Association works in the same place; the Director of the association holds his post owing to the Zhang Lianhai [8]. According to public information, the association has a registered capital of 30 thousand yuan and seven employees for the association’s main regulations publications, theoretical researches, information and economic exchanges, business training, and contractors’ trust [9]. Wang Xu (a pseudonym) was once hired as legal consultant by the association and used to refer to himself as a “Closely Supervised Education” Management Office officer. He provided legal advice to school directors and helped the Management Office calculate textbooks orders statistics. The association often had conferences, its member (until the end of 2012) included 24 work units such as private training centres, bilingual schools, kindergartens, schools for children of migrant workers, et cetera [10]. In 2009-2011 and 2013 (2012 records could not be found) ordinary members’ subscription was 500RMB a year, permanent council members’ subscription was 2000RMB [11].

The District Board of Education evidently has even more power. As for Commission Education, the setting up of schools, the appointment of school directors or managers, external contacts with the media and charitable events, schools financial audits, they all depend on the Board of Education. A report has revealed in the past that Anmin School, Boya School, and Xinghe Bilingual School have been made official “Commission Education” trustees, without throwing any punch or going through any inner struggles. Besides, “it is who the government designates and that’s it” [15]. When it comes to schools for children of migrant workers, the decision to regularise them or when to shut them down ultimately lays in the hands of the Board of Education.

For them to run smoothly, many managers of schools for children of migrant workers have sought leadership from above. When Grandpa Fan chats with school directors he always hears them complain about hidden expenses. “They are ostensibly offering eggs, tea leaves, that kind of local products. Some handle their expenses and buy them dinner; overall it can get up to a few hundred thousand yuan. Some give presents when they meet; some secretly go visit them in their home. Some accept this, others don’t. There is all kind of situations.”

The schools that have survived the closing-down wave have their own rules of survival. Tongxin Experimental School in Chaoyang that had passed the annual security checks received on June 19th 2012 received a closing-down notification from the Township Department of Health and Education on the grounds of “subsisting serious security risks”. Officers told Director Shen: “Just look at the signature.” Another founder of the school Sun Heng was the founder of Workers’ House and a singer in the New Workers Artists Troup before donating money to build the school. He believes that if things are done wisely and their network of contacts widens, the controversy of closing-down of Tongxin School would not be so simple. According to him, before the closing-down notification was issued, Chaoyang District Board of Education invested 30 million yuan in nearby Ligezhuang to build a new school (which should be Anmin School’s Ligezhuang Branch [13]) but then realised they did not have the resources necessary. At the same time, the school location was in a district which land price value added did not move the authorities. That location was originally the authorities’ reserve land, up to now nearby Ligezhuang and Caogezhuang have all been razed to the ground and rebuilt. Director Shen stood firm and three hundred families wrote a joint letter to request the safeguard of the school.  When excavators arrived and the village and the school’s water and electricity were cut, Tongxin called the media. Families and volunteers assembled and protested, some celebrities showed support; Tongxin School thus got to stay and carry on its activity.

“Society is complex.” Grandpa Fan is smoking one cigarette after the other. School directors have told him that it is said the manager of a large schools for children of migrant workers that obtain license has to have relatives in higher level government. When this school’s investors entered the market of schools for children of migrant workers in 2004, they made a one-time investment worth over one million yuan.

I am afraid that children picking up trash in open areas and helping out on the markets cannot understand such complex competition and games.

In any case, among these directors who run their school smoothly, none are not on the government’s side. Many of them became “permanent members”, their fees are quite high but their teaching environment is also quite good or they have a good reputation among the families. Han Hai, the director of Ziqiang Experimental School thinks that when the government commissions a school, it always has its reasons. In terms of management, the government provides help and leadership. Among schools for children of migrant workers, the “noble” Jindi Experimental School obtained the Education License in 2005. The Development and Reform Commission approved their school fees of 2000RMB a term. The teaching facilities are perfect; it has a plastic runway, recreational facilities, and even a radio broadcast room. The government also often offers donated goods and two retired teachers from Chaoyang District Educators Association came to help as teacher assistants. Director Chen Liangmin thinks that schools receive government support due to their educational philosophy; she is truly concerned for the children. She still owes more than 4 million yuan for the construction of the school.

Such imbalance can be found not only in the allocation of resources to local and non-local children but it is also gradually shifting migrant children education market.

Former officer of the “Closely Supervised Education” Management Office Wang Xu hopes the media could not only look at the problem from the schools’ point of view. He says that when he encounters himself a school director that is not very educated, the school usually also has a lot of problems. What he understands is that the finances of the Commission Education schools are all “transparent to the Board of Education”. The two years he was in the Management Office, the leaders he came across gave him the impression to be “very genuine”.

The Commission Education Storm Center

Anmin School was established in 2003, it was the first privately-run school that allows migrant children to receive the approval from Chaoyang District Board of Education. Today it is the biggest of Chaoyang Education Commission schools. It has ten campuses and over five thousand students in total; the head campus is in Heping Road, Chaoyang District.

Under the closing-down wave that hit schools for children of migrant workers in 2011 the Board of Education announced the establishment of 6 new Anmin schools to receive dispatched students. Zhang Gezhen, Vice-President of the Private Education Association and President of Chaoyang District Schools for Children of Migrant Workers Association has questioned “whether it is appropriate for one person of the Board of Education to run five or six schools” [15], as they are caught between the school directors and the government. Zhang Gezhen was one of the first to open schools for children of migrant workers; his many schools have all been shut down.

Director Yang says that if a school does not lack anything, the Bureau of Education will allocate office funds, office supplies; but they will also ask volunteers to bring material benefits to the teachers.

In the director’s office, Ms Zhang walks from his impressive desk to the lacquered-wood cabinet to store some files. She is saying they are an “Education Group” in which the main school has the final say over (is responsible for the handling of) media communication and donation activities. She does not dare taking a decision without authorization. “The Executive Director considers executing the commands as his duty. The real director is sitting in Heping Road.” Director Zhang is quite impatient: “As for the donations, they are happy when they find a privately established school for children of migrant workers.” The dozen unlicensed schools for children of migrant workers in Chaoyang District are quickly submerged under the lights of “normal schools”. The heavily guarded Education Commission schools are the centre of the storm. Everything seems in perfect order but in reality it is only stirring up questions among the public opinion, one round after the other. For instance: if the government gives money to Education Commission schools, where should people go in the end?

According to a previous report, Chaoyang District Board of Education not only provides commission schools organisers with free buildings, but they also provide special support funds. It also takes charge of 50 per cent of teachers’ insurance expenses, provides necessary equipment to the schools et cetera. Each student is charged 1100RMB a year [15]. Outsiders can question: given such high school fees and low costs, why do students have to pay such high fees?

Ms Zhang, director of Anmin School replies: “We do not charge tuition fees!”

When the end of class arrives and the bell rings, students continuously cheerfully run out of the camp-like rows of houses. A mother waiting says that when her child started studying here she did not have the proper documents, she had to pay eight or nine hundred yuan. Two years later when she paid the same price as Beijing kids, it was four or five hundred yuan. Ms Wang who has just picked up her child, does not understand their method of calculation. All she knows is that when they enrolled, they paid 900 yuan, the following semester only 700 and the school said that they wouldn’t have to pay any more tuition fees after that, only for textbook and food expenses which are 580RMB a term. If you do the maths, five to six hundred yuan a term for food expenses is justified, but what about the money they paid at the beginning? How much is the government’s compensation, and how it is use, nobody knows.

Mr Li Yuying, the director of Boya School, another Commission Education school says that each term’s three hundred fifty yuan tuition fees are used to pay for teachers’ salaries. “There are no funds allocated to the teachers’ salaries. They also need full insurance.”

According to Yuan Liansheng, this mode of public help for the education industry easily creates corruption as it lacks transparency when it comes to allocated funds. “It was originally a great alternative mode but if the intermediate management rules are unfair and public funds are transferred to the hands of a few key people then there is a problem.” If like what Wang Xu, employee in the Management Office for “Closely Supervised Education” said, school finances are transparent to the Board of Education then such management of information, that is transparent to the inside and not to the outside, obviously cannot eliminate doubts and questions.

After Li Yuying retired from a state school, she volunteered in a school for children of migrant workers, she was the Director of Boya School up until 2010. She complains about the primitive state privately-run schools are in, she says even though these schools are useful, education nowadays needs “balance, high-quality, and internationalisation”. When the Board of Education shut down unlicensed schools, Boya School accepted all students that were dispatched, some were handicapped, some were undocumented; but now the situation is changing.

–Migrant parents dragging their child to Li Yuying’s office all hope to enrol their child in school as fast as possible.

“First they need a temporary residency permit, a work permit, a residency permit, an unsupervised certificate and the family’s hukou booklet. They have to take these five documents to obtain a certificate of temporary enrolment, once we see this certificate they can enrol. There are 600 cases every school term.” Ms Li says in a breath, there is no room left.

“Somebody told me they paid 300 yuan and didn’t have any permit.” A mother holding the hand of a girl in a yellow skirt, she is standing in the spacious and tidy office, the smile on her face slightly cramped.

“History is advancing. When the government started dispatching students, the rule was to ask for 300 yuan. Now if you’re enrolling on your own you need all of the five certificates.”

The parents that travel to Beijing don’t realise that such high threshold once only belonged to state schools but now the new “high-quality educational resources” that semi-official schools for children of migrant workers enjoy are closely guarded.

The father retracts his arms on the desk, stares at the Director; his face looks slightly ill-at-ease. On his side, his little girl is raising her head and looking at her mum, squeezing her hand from time to time, but she can’t get any response. The little girl can only silently hug her mum, her sight on the large plastic playground outside the door that she has never seen before ….

China Current News Department Head Zheng Cuiying from Beijing

Original Chinese edition

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