Educating migrant children: challenges remain

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China has experienced rapid urbanization and large-scale internal migration. In 2020, the number of migrant workers nationwide was around 376 million. Based on this estimate, the number of migrant workers’ children now exceeds 130 million — more than 40 percent of the total number of children in China. For migrant families, it’s always a dilemma whether they should bring their kids to the cities or leave them behind.

The New Citizen Program, an NGO dedicated to supporting the development of migrant children’s education through research, records, communication and advocacy, recently reviewed some of the changes that have taken place in the education system.

Changes to the household registration system

On March 11, 2021, the Fourth Session of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress voted and passed the “14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China and Outline of Vision 2035”. The plan proposes deepening the reform of the household registration system, loosening restrictions on household registration (except for a few megacities), and on a trial basis, implementing the registration system based on the place of habitual residence.

It also proposes getting rid of restrictions on urban settlements of people with registered rural permanent residence in cities with a population of less than 3 million, ensuring an equal standard for migrants from other places — especially rural migrants. Meanwhile, the requirements for settling in large cities with a permanent urban population of 3 to 5 million will be relaxed and the points settlement policy for megacities with a permanent population of more than 5 million in urban areas will be improved.

School enrollment closer to home

In March 2021, Premier Li Keqiang said at a press conference for the Two Sessions, that the children of migrant workers who live in cities and hold a residence permit must have the opportunity to receive an education. It’s unacceptable that they should lose out at the starting line simply because of their family backgrounds, since the quality of education is essential toward offering equal opportunities.

The “Notice on Supervising and Urging the Schooling of Children of Migrant Workers Who Relocate to the City” issued last year, requires urban areas that are home to a large number of migrant workers — but have limited education resources — to build more schools to meet the needs of migrant children, and ensure that students get admitted to the nearest school.

It also notified 300 counties and districts where the proportion of migrant children in public schools was relatively low and asked them to come up with work plans to effectively boost the enrollment rate of migrant children in public schools.

Preschool education of migrant children

It’s estimated that by 2020, there were 24.4 million children of migrant workers at China’s preschool education stage (3-5 years old), accounting for 47.3 percent of all children in preschool education. Among them, around 11.5 million were migrant children who had moved with their parents, with around 4.8 million and 8.1 million left-behind children living in rural areas and small towns, respectively.

Since 2016, the National Bureau of Statistics has reported on the situation of migrant workers receiving preschool education in the “Monitoring and Investigation Report on Migrant Workers” released every year. From 2016 to 2020, slightly more than 25 percent of the children of migrant workers attended public kindergartens, and more than 70 percent of the children of migrant workers went to private kindergartens.

High school and college entrance examinations

To address the root of the problem, it is necessary to allow more migrant children to move to cities to live with their parents. In recent years, more and more children living with their parents in cities have been able to enter elementary schools, but many of them eventually need to leave due to restrictions on taking high school and college entrance examinations.

But things are slowly improving. Thanks to the new college entrance examination policy changes made by various provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities starting in 2013 — the number of children who live with their parents and were able to take the college entrance examination in their place of residence has been increasing year by year. In 2020, about 256,000 migrant children signed up for the college entrance examination in their place of residence (compared to only 4,400 in 2013), accounting for 2.39 percent of the number of applicants for the college entrance examination that year.

However, considering that the number of migrant workers accounted for more than a quarter of the total national population in 2020, the current number of children who have signed up for the college entrance examination in their place of residence is still far from meeting the demand.