Abandoned school highlights unpredictable demand for rural education

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From 2009 to 2020, Hong Kong artist Louis Koo (known as Gu Tianle in mainland China), donated money to build a total of 137 schools in rural China. But the celebrity was recently hit by claims on social media that the Hongguang Gu Tianle Primary School in Guizhou province, co-constructed and funded by Koo and the local government, has been abandoned after only five to six years of operation.

The school is located in the village of Lansheng, Zunyi City, which covers an area of 35 square kilometers and has a population of 8,000, making it the county’s largest natural village. A group of journalists from the China Philanthropist magazine recently visited the site and confirmed that it is indeed closed, reporting that overgrown weeds were everywhere and that the gate was loosely secured with a rusty chain. A sign in front of the campus buildings indicated that the school welcomed its first intake of students in 2010, immediately following the end of construction work –– paid for by Koo and the Zunyi County government.

According to some public sources, since 2016, when the jurisdiction of Zunyi County over the school was ended by the State Council, the question of who is responsible for the site has been mired in confusion. The principal of Lansheng Village told journalists from the China Philanthropist that Lansheng, where the school is located, ceased to be a provincial-level impoverished village in 2017.

After it opened in 2010, a total of 131 students were initially enrolled –– a number comparable to Lansheng Primary School, thought to be the best primary education provider in the village. But during the next few years, many children in Lansheng joined their parents working in the cities. The school had fewer and fewer students as a result, and the quality of its teaching deteriorated, further exacerbating the problem. Only 20 students were still attending the school by 2014.

“It’s not realistic to equip professional teachers for a school with only 20 students. It would be a waste of resources,” said the head of communications for Xinpu New District to journalists from the China Philanthropist.

Following its closure, the local government sent all staff and students to Lansheng Primary School. According to a local villager, unlike Hongguang, Lansheng Primary School has dormitories supervised by adults who look after students during the week, easing the pressure on families with migrant workers.

The school has lain abandoned ever since it closed six years ago, although there have been several plans for repurposing the site, such as building a village medical station or an activity center for senior citizens. But a lack of funding has meant that none of the plans have come to fruition.

Sadly, the case of Hongguang Primary School is not unprecedented, according to the China Philanthropist. The phenomenon can be attributed to the “dismiss and merge schools” policy implemented in 2001. In the 1990s, to ensure a certain enrollment rate and enforce mandatory education, many rural regions built at least one primary school. But the State Council published the Decisions on the Reform and Development of Basic Education in 2001. The document emphasized the need to centralize education resources within a region for primary and secondary schools. Government statistics reveal that since this policy was implemented, 371,470 primary schools in China have closed, with 302,099 of them located in rural regions, accounting for 81.3 percent of the reduction. As new problems from this policy started to emerge, the policy was halted in 2012. But many campus sites remain abandoned following the closures.

“There are currently no laws governing the management of these school sites,” said Kang Jian from Peking University’s Faculty of Education. Kang argued that to ensure the sustainable and continuous development of education, the law should ensure that no party has the right to change the status of land and buildings designated for educational purposes.

He said that upon building a rural school, issues such as the incorporation of the school into the local education system and its long-term stable development cannot simply be addressed with more money. Kang believes that a more professional approach to public welfare schooling is needed as basic education is no longer restricted by economic constraints.

According to Kang, the demand for schooling in rural regions is rather unpredictable. With the development and increasing prosperity of the countryside, some migrant workers might return home in the next few years. This, along with the three-child birth policy, means that is it advisable to maintain the current school sites.