By CHU QI
Childcare for the Poor
By CHU QI
IN the 1990s, rural laborers started to migrate as family units rather than individuals, to the cities and towns that would provide them a living. In order to save on their urban living costs, many left, and still leave their school-age children in the care of grandparents or relatives, taking with them only the youngest. This has led to a steady increase in the number of preschool children in urban China, and the consequent spread of low-cost daycare facilities catering to a low-income population. They are also low quality.
A 2009 study found that 1,298 unlicensed kindergartens were operating in Beijing, compared with 1,266 legally registered ones. All small and privately run, they tend to be located on the fringes of the city where low-rent houses abound, and their intake is mainly the children of migrant workers. The public attitude to them is ambivalent; while acknowledging the much needed childcare services they provide to the least privileged group, people are alarmed about their substandard facilities and teaching, as well as the potential safety risks. In recent years the debate over an appropriate policy for these kindergartens still simmers.
Shabby Custodial Shelters
A shingle on the door tersely announcing “Kindergarten” is the only sign distinguishing the house from others in Tiantongyuan, a sprawling neighborhood in northern Beijing consisting mainly of affordable housing projects. The preschool comprises two classrooms, two dormitories and a yard of no more than 15 square meters equipped with a seesaw, a slide and a couple of plastic toys, all of them shabby. In one of the classrooms an electric fan spins wildly, fighting a losing battle against the suffocating heat of a summer afternoon. The dormitories are packed with bunk beds: the top bunk for older kids and the lower bunk for the younger ones. Some kids double up in one bed.
This kindergarten opened five years ago, and now has 60-odd pupils, all kids of itinerant workers from the countryside or of poor urbanites in the neighborhood. It has two teachers, both graduates of secondary normal schools.
Asked why the institution didn’t apply for a license, the principal, a lady in her sixties, shakes her head: “The rule in Beijing is that a kindergarten must invest at least RMB 1.2 million for its facilities every year. For a school with 60 students, we would have to charge at least 1,700 yuan per month per child in order to recoup the cost. And that would be way beyond the means of the parents.” She wishes the government would consider the realities of kindergartens like hers and amend the regulations applying to them, enabling these facilities to attain legal status.
This reporter saw similar scenes in other kindergartens for migrant families: converted houses or apartments where kids eat, play and sleep in the same space; a kitchen of six square meters serving meals for 50 to 60 students; and more than 20 kids sharing a bedroom of less than 10 square meters, with beds so tightly aligned there was hardly a speck of floor space visible amongst an army of tiny shoes.
“I know this kindergarten isn’t registered, and isn’t as good as the licensed ones. But laid-off workers like me still want to send kids here, because it’s cheap and convenient,” says Fan Qing, a mother coming to fetch her four-year-old daughter. Ms. Fan and her husband scrape by on a meager income from selling vegetables in a nearby farm produce market. Because of health reasons, neither set of grandparents can help out taking care of their little girl, and standard preschools in the neighborhood charge at least RMB 600 per month, which the couple cannot afford. So they turned to this “illegal” kindergarten, which charges a mere RMB 300 per month.
Construction worker Dai Qiang is also among the crowd waiting for their children at the gate. Mr. Dai’s wife works in a barbershop. They have a daughter, already in primary school, and a three-year-old son. Every month the couple remit RMB 500, one fourth of their salaries, to their parents in rural Hubei Province, and juggle with what is left to cover the living costs of a family of four in a metropolis where everything is expensive. After paying for their rent, food, daily necessities and schooling for their daughter, little remains for the care of their son. Dai consoles himself that toddlers don’t have to learn a lot. The kindergarten he chose is obviously not desirable in terms of facilities and teaching, but he cannot expect more than someone keeping an eye on his boy.
Without local residency status, Dai’s children cannot sit the college entrance examination in Beijing after high school, so Dai plans to return to the countryside after his daughter graduates from middle school, so that she will have a chance at higher education.
Liu Yajie runs a grocery stall in a bazaar in Tiantongyuan. She and her husband are busy stocking and selling all day long, and therefore unable to look after their two-year-old son on their own. “Who wouldn’t want to send their kid to the best school available?” she asks. “We just can’t afford to. This one’s fees are acceptable for us, but you can’t ask for the moon at these rates.”
Li Li, a paedeutics expert, says that many parents have to send their children to unlicensed nurseries due to the shortage of public childcare facilities and their comparatively high fees. Run as businesses, these illegal kindergartens often find the profit motive conflicts with childcare responsibilities and education; some cut corners in services to save costs, consequently putting their students’ health and welfare in jeopardy. Early education is critical to children’s physical and mental development, particularly between the ages of three and six, so Ms. Li suggests that educational authorities should extend their supervision to all childcare institutions, public and private, registered and otherwise. She also urges owners of private kindergartens to be conscious that they are doing a job that has relevance beyond a livelihood and may have a lifelong impact on their students.
Ms. Li shares the view of many that the government should provide lower cost public childcare services in areas with a heavier migrant worker presence. Gradually the “shady” kindergartens will be motivated and prodded to improve the quality of their facilities and teachers.
Recently Beijing launched four programs concerning local childcare institutions, to build more public nurseries, expand the capacity of existing ones, upgrade their facilities, and enhance training for their staff. The city plans to establish 118 new public kindergartens in the coming years, and to open 80 more which will be affiliated with and share the teaching resources of primary schools.
Although hailing such moves, Zhang Yan, a professor with Beijing Normal University, believes the real solution is to restore the nonprofit nature of preschool education, and incorporate it into the nation’s compulsory education system, making it a public service available to all citizens. She feeds a fair society starts all kids out on an equal footing.
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