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Greater efforts required to provide preschool education to children in the less-developed rural areas

Despite the remarkable outcomes in global poverty reduction, the gap between the rich and the poor is becoming even wider. Ensuring there are unimpeded channels for upward social mobility is a common challenge faced by all countries.

China has given higher priority to preschool education in recent years. In 2021, about 88.1 percent of preschool-age children in China were enrolled in kindergartens, which marked a significant progress. However, there are still obstacles for preschoolers in remote regions to get enrolled in kindergartens and there is still a gap between supply and demand for preschool education in rural areas.

Since 2009, the China Development Research Foundation has partnered with local authorities to launch the Village Early Education Centers, a program that aims to make sure kindergartens are set up in villages with over 10 preschool-age children. The program utilizes unused space in villages as kindergartens and provides basic teaching equipment. The government recruits full-time preschool teachers locally, and the local education authorities provide the teachers with regular training sessions as well as a pension and health insurance. Under the program, each teacher serves an average of 19.8 preschoolers, and most teachers have received graduate education.

The program has developed its curriculum based on the Ministry of Education's guideline for the learning and development of children aged 3 to 6. While play remains the focus of the preschool education, it also features approaches that suit rural conditions and the children's everyday life. The program is free of charge for parents, but to cover the costs, the foundation provides funding for each kindergarten for a three-year pilot period, and local authorities are responsible for the long-term operation and expansion of kindergartens. The experience from several pilot counties indicates that the cost of preschool education for each child is about 2,000 yuan ($302.6) a year.

The introduction of preschool education in villages has brought about many positive changes to rural children and their families. Children with preschool education are taught to speak standard Mandarin, and they can adapt to school life more quickly and perform better in school. Several independent assessments have shown that children taking part in the program have significantly improved their cognitive, language and social-emotional capabilities.

The question is which side should be responsible for the promotion of preschool education in villages. Due to the small number of preschoolers in many remote villages, it is difficult for private kindergartens to make a profit. Even if some private kindergartens were developed, the quality of their services cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, we cannot rely on the market to solve the problem. Under the current circumstances in China, it is not realistic to include preschool education as part of the compulsory education system. The limited fiscal capacity of county-level governments in regions that have just shaken off absolute poverty cannot cover the funding for preschool education in villages. Many villages have little source of income, which means they cannot solve the funding problem. The private sector, even with their strong enthusiasm, cannot match the huge demand for funding and manpower.

We believe that the central government should take up the responsibility for overall planning in this regard.

First of all, there should be a sound system for providing preschool education in rural villages. It is important to clarify it is the primary duty of the government. Preschool educational services should be placed under the administration of the education system, including steps to recruit preschool teachers and childcare workers, and provide them with social security benefits. It is necessary to consider setting up a program for preschool education in areas that have just shaken off poverty that is jointly covered by the central and local fiscal budgets to cover the yearly expense of 2,000 yuan per child.

Second, it is important to fully explore the unused resources in villages to avoid the unnecessary expense of building a large number of new kindergartens. In recent years, the government has come up with standards on the construction of village kindergartens. The foundation launched Village Early Education Centers in two counties in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and one county in Gansu province, and all the villages have followed the building standards for kindergartens. The cost to construct a kindergarten was 1.1 million yuan in Xinjiang and 500,000 yuan in Gansu. The program in the two counties in Xinjiang recruited an average of 20 preschoolers per kindergarten, with some kindergartens even enrolling fewer than five children. The average number of preschoolers in the project in Gansu's Huachi county was about 15. The cost of building standard kindergartens in remote areas is high as such regions are sparsely populated. The kindergartens in such areas could run idle due to a decline in the number of preschoolers in a few years.

Third, it is important to fully mobilize the nongovernmental sector to deliver preschool education services to villages and improve the quality of rural preschool education. Many nongovernmental organizations have made rural children their priority. In recent years, the Village Early Education Centers program and the Child Friendly Kindergartens, initiated by the United Nations Children's Fund, are among important examples for social organizations to take part in education and poverty alleviation. Such programs also provide firsthand experience for the bettering of relevant national policies. We should continue to encourage the participation of the nongovernmental sector and give full play to the role of non-profit organizations in fundraising, training, monitoring and the evaluation of policies in a bid to make preschool educational services better and more accessible in rural areas.

Lu Mai is former vice-president of the China Development Research Foundation. Shi Lijia is deputy head of the Child Development Center with the foundation. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn