The Educated Workforce

This week, Xinhua reported that the new four-year education plan will extend compulsory nine-year education to 98 percent of children in China’s 410 poorest counties.

In 2004, children in those counties received an average of 6.7 years of education each — hardly enough to prepare them to work in today’s industrialized China.

Today, the agency reports, nine year education covers 368 of those 410 counties

These counties are mostly located in hard-to-reach mountainous areas.

To solve this problem, local governments are setting up boarding schools for junior-high level students so that they can get a state-of-the art education.

According to Xinhua, the central government allocated 10 billion yuan (1.3 billion U.S. dollars) between 2004 and 2007 to build over 7,600 boarding schools, serving about four million students in a total of 953 counties in western China.

I recently visited one such boarding school in the Sichuan province, just east of the city of Chengdu, on the western side of Longquan mountain. This is the Longquanyi district, home of the “Golden Phoenix” project — junior high school students get free housing, school uniforms and a food allowance, and attend an urban boarding school in Longquan.

More than 3,000 students have already moved from their mountain villages to the city for their educations, almost two-thirds of them subsidized by the government. The district government has already spent 14.5 million yuan on the project, and will spend another 160 million.

School officials told me that 42 percent of the district is located in the poor, mountainous parts of the province. In 2006, all middle schools and high schools located in the poor regions were closed down, and the students transferred to central, urban schools. Often, their parents moved to town as well, and got city jobs.

At the Longquan junior high boarding school I visited, the building was surrounded by new construction projects — the district continues to invest in student education. Classes were large — over 50 students per class — and both the classrooms and dorm rooms were unheated. However, this is typical for a southern Chinese city. Even in Shanghai, classrooms tend to be unheated.

The school had a huge outdoor sports field, covered with artificial turf, where students exercised. There were computer labs, and English language classes. And central plumbing.

Students and teachers all carried magnetic stripe cards which they ran through card readers to get their lunches — tofu and vegetables, slapped onto metal trays. Students bussed their own tables.

Longquan is a high-tech development district, with over half a million people. The high tech parts are in the urban areas, of course.

Now these students will have a shot at the urban jobs.

The hillsides that they used to farm will probably revert to forest, as the district finds tourism more profitable than trying to grow crops on a mountain.

I also visited some of the farms in one of the mountainous parts of Sichuan, near Yibin, and the plots of land are tiny, terraced into the hillsides. All the labor is manual — it would be difficult to get a weed-wacker up these hills, much less a tractor or a combine.

By getting a decent education, the children of these poor farm families will get a chance at a better life — and employers will be able to benefit from having a more trained workforce.