Ethnic counties promote 15-year free education

13:41, March 13, 2010      

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Four ethnic counties in northwest China's Gansu Province have are promoting 15 years of free education this year for youngsters aged from three to 18.

More than 300 preschoolers, aged from three to six, entered public kindergartens in the Mongolian Autonomous County of Subei this week.

"The county government pays for their tuition, about 700 yuan (103 U.S. dollars) a year," said Qi Ling, the county's education chief. "Their parents pay only for their meals."

Subei, a sparsely populated county with only 13,000 people, mostly Mongolians, is among the first in China to extend free compulsory education from nine years to 15, she said.

"This will enable all children to receive preschool education and help more students through high school," said Qi.

Before the new policy was enacted this year, many parents did not send their children to kindergarten, thinking preschool education was unimportant, she said.

"Now that kindergarten is free, no parent should insist their children stay home and idle about."

Subei is a major stockbreeding base that also boasts rich mineral resources.

Last year, its farmers and herders reported 7,600 yuan of per capita disposable annual income, two and a half times more than the provincial average, said county chief Ao Qi.

Three other ethnic counties in Gansu Province are promoting 15 years of free education, including the Kazak Autonomous County of Aksay, the Yugur Autonomous County of Sunan and the Bonan, Dongxiang and Salar Autonomous County of Jishishan, an official with the provincial education department said Friday.

"Like Subei, they are all sparsely populated, with fewer than 200,000 people, and are better off than most other counties," said Li Jing, who is in charge of basic education in Gansu Province.

Though it was impossible for all other counties to follow suit, Li said their efforts were exemplary. "It's a big step forward and promotes equality in preschool education."

In the four counties, almost 100 percent of preschoolers were in kindergarten, compared with the national average 50.9 percent for 3 to 6- year-olds last year.

While some parents in China's underdeveloped areas think preschool education is expensive and unimportant, many of their city peers are also troubled by the high cost and a lack of resources as babyboomers born in the late 1970s and early 1980s have brought about yet another baby boom.

"We've visited all three kindergartens near my home and been interviewed. But we still don't know if any one of them will accept my son," said Ma Xiaolin, who works for a state firm in Beijing.

Her son, almost 3, is one of the babyboomers born in 2007, the year of the "golden pig".

One of the kindergartens she visited was a joint venture that taught in Chinese and English, and charged 4,000 yuan a month. "It's expensive. But that doesn't mean it's easier to get enrolled."

At the annual "two sessions" in Beijing, members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's advisory organization on government work, have proposed free preschool education nationwide.

"It's high time to include three years of preschool education into China's compulsory education program," said Yan Qi, a member of the CPPCC National Committee. "Otherwise, high tuition fees and uneven resources will make education unequal at the very start of school life."

The government offers nine years of free education through primary and junior high school for all school-age children.

But the actual proportion of students who enjoy "free education" is never known, as most urban parents pay an additional 30,000 to 100,000 yuan for children to be enrolled at "key schools" that have better teachers and promise to make children more competitive.

The situation is worse for preschool education, with too few public kindergartens for a huge number of children, and lack of regulation for the booming private organizations in terms of pricing, quality and safety.

"It'll be a long process before China can achieve real equality in education," said Yan Qi, who runs a private business in the southwestern Chongqing Municipality. "It's impossible to promote Gansu's practice across the country right now, but government intervention is essential -- such as increasing government spending on education."

Source: Xinhua
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