Millions of people in China have been migrating from the countryside to the cities in search of work and a better life. But most children of migrant workers get the short end of the stick in education.
Qi Cai School is located in the southeast of Beijing. Twenty third-graders are practice reading out of their tattered school books. Their desks and chairs wobble on the raw concrete floor. The building is in an area of town that is currently being torn down. It is light years away from the elite schools China is so proud of - the ones that rank so high in international tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). "Study hard" is written on a red banner above the chalkboard. It is the only color in the classroom.
Not all children get a shot at education in China
Qi Cai (in english "seven color") is one of around 180 schools in Beijing for children of migrant workers. The school is small and does not have a license nor is it recognized by the state as a school. Nonetheless, hundreds of children have been learning to read and write here for years. Wang Peipei, a confident 12-year-old from the central Chinese province of Henan is one such student.
"We have been here for three years. My father works as a driver and my mother as a cleaning lady. I want to become a doctor so I can help people get better."
Unfortunately, her chances of becoming a doctor are extremely slim. She will hardly manage to get into a university. Children at Qi Cai are only taught in three subjects: reading and writing, math and elementary English. To save money, the school employs teachers who don't have teaching credentials. The school receives funding through tuition fees and donations.
Over ten years ago, Wang Jinyu, a migrant worker from Sichuan province, founded the school. Despite the difficulties he has experienced so far, he is proud of how far the school has come.
"The conditions here are probably much better than in many schools in rural areas. Our tables and chairs are in better condition. My teachers show up for class every day on time. In the country, many teachers don't even show up for class during harvest season."
The children play outside during the break. Peipei likes her school. She says life in the city is much better than in the country: "It is much cleaner here than in our village. It is better than home. And the buildings here in Beijing are all so beautiful."
Migrant workers find it difficult to fit in in Beijing
What Peipei doesn't know, or what she won't admit, is that her chances - along with those of tens of thousands of other children - at being part of the capital city's prosperity are minimal. Her parents are from the countryside and don't have a permanent residency permit (hukou) for Beijing. They are only permitted to live there as temporary workers - even if they have lived and worked in Beijing for years.
Without a Beijing hukou, it is almost impossible for children to get into public schools.
"The hurdles for migrant worker families are far too high," explains Zhang Zhiqiang, the founder of an aid organization for migrant workers. He says that public schools - despite a law that was implemented a few years ago - bar the entry of migrant worker children by charging high prices.
"They used to refer to it as a 'donation' or a 'help fee.' Today it is called a 'construction fee.' But it is the same thing. The migrant workers cannot pay the money so they don't have a chance at sending their children to public schools."
The few schools that exist for migrant children don't have it easy either. They are constantly being threatened by the authorities that they will be shut down. Qi Cai has had to move four times already, explains headmaster Wang.
"It was torn down each time. The government took the land and sold it to construction companies. We don't matter to them. It is always tough. It is like we die a little each time we move."
Room for growth
Land for development in Beijing is in high demand. The metropolis of 20 million people is continually growing. The city can earn a lot of money selling land for construction. That's why more and more poor areas on the edge of the city are being torn down. And so are the schools for migrant workers.
In their place, new villa complexes are built, new shopping centers. Zhang says the government is only concerned about growth and not about education. He says the nine-year compulsory school attendance is thus a contradiction.
"These nine years are supposed to be paid for by the government and are supposed to guarantee that every child gets a quality education. Closing these schools is not the right thing to do," says Wang.
But there doesn't seem to be any room for migrant workers in Beijing. The authorities would rather the children went to school in their home villages - another (unofficial) reason authorities are closing down their schools.
At Qi Cai, the bell rings and calls the children back into their rundown classrooms. They seem unaware of the fact that they are receiving a second-class education.
"As long as I study hard, I will be better than the other kids. I will work very hard," says Peipei, full of hope.
But her school probably won't be around for very long. The buildings surrounding it have already started being torn down. No one knows what will be built here. But one thing is clear: there is no room for Peipei and her schoolmates.
Author: Ruth Kirchner / sb
Editor: Arun Chowdhury