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Beijing school closures leave thousands of migrant children without classrooms

Chinese officials in Beijing shut down 24 illegal schools for migrant children over the summer in a move that highlights the institutionalized discrimination facing the migrant workforce.

By Staff writer / August 26, 2011

A teacher waves goodbye to students as they leave after the day's classes at Dongba Experimental School, a school for migrant workers' children, in Beijing, on Aug. 23.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP

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Beijing

Just days before the new school year opens, Beijing’s education authorities are scrambling to find classrooms for thousands of migrant workers’ children whose old schools the government closed without warning over the summer.

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The public outcry that followed the closures has highlighted the institutionalized discrimination that China’s migrant workers face, and the lack of a coherent government policy to educate their children.

Local officials “don’t know what to do about the problem so they just lash out” says Jonathan Hursh, founder of Compassion for Migrant Children, explaining the sudden closure of 24 technically illegal but long-tolerated schools over the past two months.

The move left 14,000 children without a school place when term starts next Thursday.

They had been attending some of the approximately 300 private schools that have sprung up in Beijing in recent years to cope with the massive influx of migrant workers who do not have resident status in the capital; there are now 249,000 such children between 6 and 14 in Beijing, according to the city’s statistics bureau.

Migrant families' dilemma

Few migrants can send their children to free public schools because they lack the documents required for entry into a system designed for settled residents of the capital.

Instead, they are obliged to pay to send their children to mostly illegal, unregulated informal schools where the standards vary wildly, but where teachers rarely have any training or much experience.

Migrant childrens’ schools “are a mixed bag,” says Mr. Hursh, whose nongovernmental organization helps educate migrant children. “Some headmasters have very little interest in the kids and some are very inspirational.”

The education authorities said they were closing the schools they targeted because of health and safety concerns, charges that the headmaster-owners of the establishments challenge.

Like 80 percent of migrant childrens’ schools “I was never given a permit,” complains Liu Jigui, founder of the Yu Cai primary school in Beijing’s poor eastern suburbs. “So I was worried that if I invested in improvements maybe the government would demolish the place the next day and the money would be wasted. But I maintained the facilities.”

Some observers suggest the capital’s rulers are deliberately making it harder for migrants to educate their children so as to dissuade them from seeking work in the overcrowded city.

“Beijing’s concern is that if they solve all the migrant kids’ education problems, poor families from everywhere will pour in,” says one official with a Chinese NGO dealing with migrants’ problems.

But Beijing depends so heavily on the migrants who clear its trash, build its skyscrapers, operate its corner stores, and run its services that the city would grind to a halt without them.

Why schools closed

The reasons for the school closures – following a similar crackdown five years ago that was later quietly reversed – seem mixed.

In some cases it appears that local governments simply want to develop and profit from the land the schools occupied. In the southern district of Daxing, for example, seven schools were closed and their pupils dispersed with their families as the authorities confiscated large swathes of land and knocked down schools and surrounding homes.

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