Navigating the challenges of schools offering education and accommodation in rural China
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2024-02-02  ·   Source: NO.6 FEBRUARY 8, 2024
Teachers and students pose for a group photo at the Mawuzhai Primary Boarding School in Lingchuan County, Shanxi Province, on September 21, 2023 (XINHUA)

In the last three years, Ma Huiming has visited some 100 primary boarding schools in rural China, bringing him closer to a significantly large yet often overlooked segment of the country's population—the roughly 9 million rural primary boarding school students.

A project manager for Crowing Home, a Beijing-based non-profit organization committed to supporting rural boarding schools, Ma has dedicated more than a decade to this cause. 

Ma shared insights into the nature of these institutions during an online forum about education on January 24.

The emergence of rural boarding schools can be traced back to a policy issued in 2001 to close and merge schools in rural China. The policy was introduced in response to demographic changes and to pool resources to improve merged schools. Since 2001, birthrates in China have become much lower than in the previous four decades.

Coupled with the country's rapid urbanization process, the trend has reduced the number of school-age children in rural areas.

This policy has drastically decreased the number of primary schools in these areas from 491,273 in 2001 to 162,601 by 2020, according to the Ministry of Education.

As a result, children from small villages now find themselves having to travel long distances to the nearest primary school. Boarding schools have become a solution to alleviate this problem and provide them with a home away from home.

Limited options 

"Given the limited alternatives out there, sending children to a boarding school often appears to be the only viable option for rural families," Ma said.

Dong Shihua, an education scholar who began studying these schools in 2012, has spent years investigating the living conditions and needs of boarding students in rural areas.

There were approximately 9.346 million boarding students in rural primary schools as of the end of 2017, accounting for 14.1 percent of all rural primary school students, according to the Ministry of Education.

Dong estimates this figure was closer to 9 million in 2022.

"All these children, despite being scattered across rural areas nationwide, are dealing with similar challenges," Dong told Shanghai-based news portal

Li Tao, the principal of a primary boarding school in the mountainous Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south China, told the same news portal that about 90 percent of his school's 370 students are boarders.

His school is the sole full-time educational facility within a 10-km radius, serving students from more than 20 surrounding communities.

"It's a common scenario for parents to leave their villages to go make a living in cities far from home," Li said.

The people left behind in the villages are mostly children and seniors. For many of these families, sending their children to boarding school is a better option than leaving them at home with their grandparents or taking them to the city where work takes up most of the parents' day. At least in local boarding schools, these children can be with peers.

With more than 30 years of experience in the field, Li has developed a deep understanding of the obstacles facing rural boarding schools, especially safety issues.

The primary school where Li works has nearly 20 dormitories, each housing more than a dozen children. To mitigate safety risks, these dorms do not feature electrical outlets, only having push button light switches. Plus, their doors remain unlocked at night to ensure that students can access the bathroom or seek help in case of emergency.

Ma also weighed in on the topic of safety.

"Safety is undoubtedly the No.1 concern for boarding schools," Ma mentioned.

However, he went on to highlight a dilemma in which security measures could compromise everyday convenience. 

Some schools choose not to provide electric fans to avoid potential mishaps associated with the use of electricity. This makes the summer months especially challenging for students.

Having witnessed significant improvements in the physical infrastructure of rural boarding schools over the years, Ma noted that many schools still struggle with issues related to (teacher) staffing.

Li's school uses a buddy system to support younger students who may not yet have developed adequate self-care skills.

"First graders, who are starting their educational journey, often have limited self-care skills. They may be afraid when waking up alone at night and have not yet established good hygiene habits," Li said.

To manage this issue, the school pairs first graders with fourth graders and fifth graders with second graders in the dormitories. However, a more effective solution, according to Li, would be "to employ life skills teachers."

Some education experts have recommended hiring local rural women to take up this role.

"While some schools have done just that, the shortage of women still residing in the rural areas means that, at best, only one or two can be found to care for over 100 children," Ma noted. "And since these women often have a low level of education, it still presents a challenge." 

Soft adjustments 

Ma emphasized the need for improvements in terms of "software" and attention to detail in boarding schools. For instance, girls with long hair lack access to hair dryers, therefore having to sleep with wet hair, and some schools do not provide enough mirrors. "Though these issues might seem minor, they do definitely impact daily life," he said.

But one critical area that requires attention is emotional management.

Ma shared that many students in boarding schools wake up at 7 a.m. and don't return to their dormitories until bedtime, which is normally around 9 p.m. However, the moments after "lights out" reveal the true emotional state of these children.

Some may whisper to each other in the dark, others may cry softly in bed. This is the time of the day when children freely express their feelings. "Young children, who typically rely on their parents for care and emotional support, have a greater need for emotional connection. This is an aspect on which boarding schools need to focus more, but which is currently not being adequately addressed," Ma said.

Wang Liwei, who has dedicated a decade to monitoring the progress of rural primary schools, has observed an increasing trend of these institutions experiencing declining student numbers. This decrease is attributed to several factors, including a general population decline and a shift of many children to schools in townships and at the county level.

"In remote areas, we have seen numerous rural primary boarding schools with fewer than 10 students," she said at the forum on January 24. "The development and support of these schools demand our attention."

The Mawuzhai Primary Boarding School, for example, located in the depths of the Taihang Mountains in Shanxi Province in north China, has only six students and four teachers. It is the sole educational institution within a 40-km radius.

"The number of such schools has been increasing," Wang said. From an educational standpoint, small-scale rural schools offer the benefits of reduced class sizes and the opportunity for personalized education. 

"Any adjustments to the structure of rural schools should be approached with caution, incorporating feedback from local communities and considering the long-term development needs of rural areas," Wang concluded.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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