THE small office, situated in the spacious campus, is pretty obscure. Similarly obscure is the iron cabinet which stands in the corner of the office containing 27 blue file holders.
Each file holder is 3.5 centimeters wide. Put side by side on a table, they stretch across less than one meter in length.
They hold the files of around 1,900 school-age children from 12 villages in Zengkou Primary School of Bazhou District, Bazhong City of Sichuan Province.
Pink labels are glued to the ridges of the folders to indicate the specific contents of each one. They share the same name of “preventing dropouts at Zengkou Primary School.” Besides this, each has its own name, including “a letter to parents,” “investigation of students’ homes,” etc.
Students play between classes at Zengkou Primary School of Bazhou District, Bazhong City in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.
The files were created in 2017. With the implementation of the strategy of targeted poverty alleviation, in order to further ensure that no one is left out in the compulsory education period, China has carried out a package of precise measures to track dropouts during the compulsory education period in recent years. Compared with previous research, the survey is more accurate and the information more detailed.
“Name any household, and we will find out immediately which school their children are going to,” said Feng Delu, the vice principal holding the file binder.
In the primary school’s file, every school-age child in the district has his or her own line. A piece of A4 paper is divided into 20 columns to record the basic information of the child: their current school, their guardians’ names and phone numbers, etc.
Everyone Is Filed
“Impossible” was the word that first popped up when Li Xiao was first informed of the requirements of the survey of all students in the district.
As a teacher at Zengkou Primary School, she was experienced. In the past, when they were doing similar surveys, they were not that particular about the accuracy of the information. But now, the work is more demanding, “Not a single error is tolerated.” They spared no effort to make sure the information is accurate and up to date.
In August and February, Li Xiao has to take out time for two weeks before school starts. She is responsible for the village of Chunshu in the town of Zengkou. She needs to work with colleagues and local officials to publicize the education law and find out the educational status of all village members aged between 0 and 22.
If she finds no one in their house, she will search the fields. Between plowing and cutting firewood, the villagers wipe their hands on their trousers and sign the survey form. Li Xiao normally stands on the ridge of the field to read out to those unable to read themselves, telling them to do everything possible to encourage their children to complete nine years of compulsory education. “Just get them to school, you know?” “Ok!” The villagers will dip their fingers in the ink and sign with their finger prints.
Part of the student files containing information about 1,900 school-age children from poor families at Zengkou Primary School.
Normally those with their names on the school roll can attend school. In the past, the teachers just needed to get the school roll. But now the information on the school roll needs to be verified individually. The hard part is the students who live afar with their parents who are migrant workers.
Accidents can always happen at any time: the phone numbers left are not reachable, the family may have moved away, or, the grandparents do not know their children’s phone numbers.
Once Li Xiao spent around two weeks getting through a dozen people in order to get in touch with one student’s parents. The moment the phone was reached, Xiao, with an experience of over a decade, sighed, “What a big society.”
Verbal confirmation is not enough in the information gathering process.
Providing a certificate of education is the best way. Some parents do not have smart phones, so they have to ask their coworkers to help. Some schools are demanding, so teachers come up with various alternatives: they ask students to take photos with certificates with school seals, they take screenshots and text messages from parents, and even keep phone records as evidence that the student is going to school.
Most parents have never received so many calls in a year just to be asked “is your child going to school?” Therefore not everyone understands. Some parents will retort loudly, and some just hang up.
A few years ago, any one of these difficulties would have ended badly. But today, teachers and officials must overcome every difficulty. Li Xiao also experienced moments when tears welled up in the eyes. But whether it was a “serial call,” a call to the police station or a report to the government, they finally brought about the news that every child was going to school.
In the spring of 2019, there were 1,929 school-age children in the Zengkou school district, including 578 students studying in the school, 950 students studying in other schools in Bazhong City, 54 students studying in other cities in Sichuan Province, 346 students studying outside Sichuan, and one who had passed away. Every school-age child in the district is filed.
No One Should Be Left Behind
At the beginning, He Jing, a teacher at the Zengkou Primary School, did not understand the meaning of such detailed surveys until she met Feng Fenglin.
In the summer break of 2017, He Jing and her colleagues met Feng Fenglin during their survey, who had just returned home from a special education center. He suffers from a severe congenital intellectual disability – he can barely speak and can’t take care of himself. But at 13, he was too old for the center and had to go home.
No child should drop out of school. The school decided to send teachers to teach Feng at home.
Every week or two, she and her colleagues would go to teach Feng. They taught him how to write “1” by holding his clenched fist and drawing a line on the paper with a purple crayon. They would practice Feng’s concentration skills and reaction with games, etc.
“Every child has the right to education. We don’t expect him to learn a lot; we just want to train his basic living skills,” He Jing said. This wish was quietly realized under repeated practice. Now, Feng knows that garbage should be put into the trash bin, and guests who come to visit should be invited to sit on a stool. He also knows how to shake hands, and say “bye bye.”These days, he can express himself, he can say “no.”
A teacher of Zengkou Primary School gives craft lessons to a child.
Disabled children, especially the severely disabled ones, are more likely to drop out of school. After precise investigation of the situation of every disabled child, a “one solution for one person” scheme was implemented. For severely disabled students, teachers will go to their homes to teach. For children with moderate or mild disabilities, they are encouraged to attend special education schools or regular schools. Through these measures, none of the 423 disabled children in Bazhou are out of school this year, and none of the school-age children there are out of school because of poverty.
During the investigation in Sichuan and Chongqing, the reporter found that accurate and precise survey has become the basis of local dropout control measures. Every tick, note, and number on the file is turning into a better future for the children.
Xie Changqing, a ninth grader at the Nanyang Primary School in Siling Town, Bazhou District, chose to drop out of school because she “didn’t want to be a burden on her parents.” The teacher successfully persuaded her to return and added her situation to the file. “When the village and the school see this record, they will pay more attention to her,” said her head teacher.
Mou Liang, a mentally handicapped student from Dashu Village, Wulong Town, Cangxi County in Sichuan Province, learned to write his own name and his parents’ names, to recite Tang poems, and to count from one to 10 in English with the help of teachers who visited his home to teach him. In the words of his mother Li Guozhen, “He couldn’t speak before, but now he speaks quite well.”
Zhang Yuqi from Zhaizi Village who attended a primary school in another province received an education subsidy of RMB 500 from her hometown in 2018. That year Cangxi County’s financial department allocated RMB 2 million in subsidies for students studying outside the county who did not enjoy the subsidy as those who attend local schools, benefiting 3,583 students.
“Now, we can guarantee support for every student with a poor student card,” said Zhang Xingbin, deputy director of Cangxi County’s education and science and technology bureau.
We Are More Confident
“Technically, the survey is not particularly difficult; the hard part is how to carry it out well,” said Zhou Yonghong, director of the poverty alleviation and development bureau of Bazhou District.
Shortly after the teachers’ visit, He Haijiang, deputy town chief of Zengkou, began to inspect each village. He needed to randomly find 20 percent of the villagers who had been surveyed, asking them, “Did the teachers and village officials come to you? What are their questions?”
The investigation work of Li Xiao and her colleagues is included in their school’s annual KPI (key performance indictors), and all the files will be shared by the principal, the education bureau, and the poverty alleviation bureau, subject to repeated verification and spot checks three to four times a year.
In order to prevent students from dropping out of school, a responsibility system is established, applying to the head of Bazhou District, director of the education bureau, township heads, village heads, principals, and parents. Everyone shoulders their specific responsibility to prevent dropouts.
“We were not used to it at first. It has never been so rigorous,” a local poverty alleviation official told the reporter.
Some officials were criticized at conferences for failing to fill in the data of a dropout prevention plan. Others have been disciplined for failing to properly keep records of their assistance to poor families.
But with a new understanding of this work, no one muddles along.
Now, during any inspection tour, the officials need to ask any school-age child who does not go to school they encounter the reason for leaving. When they encounter children at home on a sick leave, officials will immediately call the principal to verify it.
In fact, the files play a far more important function than just as an education file.
“Whether the poor have adequate food and clothing, medical care, education, and safe housing are all recorded in the files. One page for one family, and one file for one village,” Zhou Yonghong said.
For poor migrant workers, Zhou Yonghong can accurately tell which province and factory they are working in, what kind of work they are doing, how much their salary is, who is working with them and whether they have received training or not.
“The fight against poverty has forced improvements in our work style and methods,” Zhou said.
“In the past, many rural officials went out to the field without studying specific issues,” Zhang Pingyang, Party secretary of Bazhou District in Bazhong City, said, “Now, they work more meticulously.”
In Zhou Yonghong’s eyes, not only education, but also the whole anti-poverty campaign has benefited from the establishment and consolidation of the responsibility system. He said, “Now all our work is carried out in the documentation of files. We’re confident in answering all related questions.”
“We are in the process of institutionalizing, and studying how the results of poverty alleviation efforts can be applied to rural revitalization,” Zhang Pingyang told the reporter.
Xie Changqing from Nanyang Primary School scored high in the high school entrance examination. Not surprisingly, in a few months, her information in the file will get updated. She’s looking forward to going to a college not far from home in order to save on transit fares. But when she grows up, she hopes to take her parents to “far away places” to see the outside world.
XU OULU is a reporter with Outlook Weekly.