Rural education a lesson in success

Updated: Jun 21, 2022 China Daily Print
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Children playing at a kindergarten in Tongren, Guizhou province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Rao Si is the only teacher in a kindergarten for 18 children in a mountainous village of Tongren, Guizhou province.

The 31-year-old finds her work rewarding, because every day she sees the wonder in her students-sometimes a flower picked at the roadside, sometimes a picture with a dose of imagination.

"Most pupils in my class are 'left-behind' children, who are cared for by their grandparents. They are like my family. We care about each other and grow up together," Rao says.

Preschool education was something unheard of by most people in Tongren, a poverty-stricken area in the Wuling Mountains, when Rao was born there in 1991.

Tongren has a diverse terrain with mountains accounting for 67.8 percent of its total area. Before entering primary school, Rao spent her days running around in the fields alongside her parents or grandparents as they farmed the land.

"Things have changed dramatically over the past decade with every village having a kindergarten," she says.

Pupils learn the basics of handicrafts at the No 24 Kindergarten in Tongren. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Tangbian Village Kindergarten is among the 100 rural kindergartens of a project jointly launched by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF in 2016 to improve the quality of preschool education in mountainous areas of Guizhou. The project aims to benefit nearly 10,000 children, from ages 3 to 6, in Guiyang, Zunyi and Tongren, as well as Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture.

Under the project, Rao and other teachers underwent training and have visited urban kindergartens to observe classes and share teaching experiences two days every month.

"Although we don't have all the materials like in urban schools, we have our own advantage-close to nature, which is the best teacher," Rao says.

Teachers plan their lessons at the No 24 Kindergarten in Tongren. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Walking out of the kindergarten's door, you can see terraced fields in the clouds. Inside the school, a small garden has various plants, which enhances the pupils' ability to observe and think and helps them gain an understanding of natural systems through firsthand experience, according to the teacher.

Art lessons, though, face some obstacles. There is a lack of musical instruments and painting materials but Rao has managed to find help from the internet.

"I always feel that I am not their teacher, but someone who grows up with my pupils and the kindergarten," Rao says.

Lu Xiaoqin, a teacher at Huaihuaping Village Kindergarten, echoes the view that the quality of preschool education has been enhanced in the recent years.

"Our curriculum setting is diversified, making learning interesting for children," says Lu, 36, adding that at her class, she prefers to let pupils decide what they want to play, whom they want to play with and how.

A view of the well-stocked kindergarten. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Children's artworks are displayed on the walls. There is a reading corner, and space for art creation and handicrafts.

After school, Lu still has to do a lot of tasks, such as lesson planning, evaluations and room preparation for the next day.

Including Tangbian and Huaihuaping village kindergartens, Tongren has 1,822 preschools built or renovated, enrolling about 143,300 children. Last year, the enrollment rate for three-year preschool education in the city increased to more than 96 percent from about 45 percent in 2010, according to statistics from the local education commission.

Behind the numbers are the painstaking efforts taken by local policymakers and educators. In 2014, Tongren government launched a two-year preschool program, which invested nearly 150 million yuan ($22.34 million) in kindergarten building, making preschool education accessible to all the children in villages and empowering them with knowledge through playful learning.

With an increasing number of kindergartens, children have a new world of opportunity. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In 2012, the China Development Research Foundation and Songtao Miao autonomous county in Tongren initiated the Mountain Village Kindergarten project to transform 100 unused classrooms of primary and high schools for rural preschoolers in five pilot towns.

Lu Mai, former vice-president of the China Development Research Foundation, says children in the less-developed rural areas should have equal access to preschool education, which is the first step for poverty alleviation and upward social mobility.

Behind Tongren's actions is the background that central authorities have placed greater importance on the development of preschool education over the past decade. The country's education spending accounted for 5.9 percent of GDP in 2020, up from 2.2 percent in 2011. In 2020, the government invested 253.2 billion yuan in preschool education, a five-fold increase on 2010, official data shows.

According to the Ministry of Education, China had 295,000 kindergartens last year, up from 128,000 in 2011. The number of kindergarten pupils grew by 13.8 million in the past decade to 48 million last year.

Among the new kindergartens, about 80 percent are in central and western regions, with around 60 percent in rural areas. According to the ministry, these areas are less developed than their eastern counterparts and in greater need of educational resources.

"The gap between rural and urban preschool education has been narrowed," Lyu Yugang, of the Ministry of Education's Department of Basic Education, said at a news conference in April. Further enhancing the quality of preschool education will be the future priority, he added.

Dong Xianwu contributed to this story.

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