Written by Ting Liu, Kathryn Holmes and James Albright.

China’s rapid economic growth during the past 30 years has fuelled an increased demand for skilled workers, and has resulted in unprecedented internal migration to urban centres. In turn, the focus has turned to the provision of education, particularly in cities, as children previously educated in rural areas now seek education in the cities where their parents relocated to for work. In 2010, it was estimated that 221 million rural people were living in Chinese cities, bringing with them a new generation of rural-urban migrant children to be educated as the skilled workers of the future.

China has a very old tradition of rigorous control of residency for rural people. However, these controls are beginning to be relaxed in response to rapid urbanisation. Historically, a dualistic system has divided the Chinese people into agricultural and non-agricultural groups, but as increasing numbers of rural citizens migrate to cities, Chinese law-makers have revisited the implications of the rigid household registration system. Traditionally, funding for education has flowed to the location of each child’s household registration, meaning that those with ‘agricultural’ status were expected to be educated in rural areas and those with ‘non-agricultural’ status in urban areas. The increasing numbers of migrant children in cities have placed considerable pressure on the public education system, resulting in the establishment of a large number of private migrant schools to cater for the increased demand.

The educational pathways for rural-urban migrant children diverge depending on the school system that they enter. Some migrant children enter the public school system if they can pay the extra tuition fees, whereas many others don’t have a choice, with private migrant schools providing their only option. There is evidence that urban public schools are generally well-resourced with qualified teachers, but in contrast the private migrant schools often have poor resources and conditions, with many under-qualified teachers. Our research examined the educational experiences of migrant children depending on the school system they attended.

We compared the mathematical achievement levels of migrant children in public and private schools and found a significant difference between the two, with migrant children in public schools achieving more highly than their peers in private schools. This difference persists and grows larger over time despite efforts by the government to standardise the curriculum and the pedagogical approaches throughout all urban schools. For example, in Shanghai urban schools, all districts are required to schedule the same subjects, textbooks, teaching time and students’ out-of-class activities. Additionally, all students – migrant and non-migrant – are required to speak the official language (Mandarin) and to complete nine years of compulsory education. Despite these efforts, educational disadvantage persists for migrant children, particularly for those in private migrant schools.

In our analysis of mathematical achievement levels, we also examined related factors such as gender, length of residence in the city, parents’ socioeconomic status (SES), size of families and preschool attendance. We found differences between the factors which were related to mathematics achievement depending on whether the migrant children attended private or public schools. In respect to students in private schools, we found that that those with more siblings or who had lived in the city for longer periods of time were more likely to have lower mathematical achievement levels. Also, those that had experienced preschool and had higher SES parents generally had higher mathematics achievement levels. For migrant children attending public schools, the only factor related to mathematics achievement was parent SES. It seems therefore that the social disadvantage that results in migrant children having to attend private, poorly resourced schools, may actually be exacerbated because the longer they attend these schools, the greater is the gap in mathematical achievement in comparison to their peers in public schools.

So what is happening in private and public schools that might explain these differences? Most educational systems recognise the pivotal role that teachers play in children’s education, and so to further explore the two school systems, we examined the perceptions of urban teachers, both in public and private schools, towards the education of migrant children. We found that urban teachers generally held slightly negative opinions of migrant children, however, surprisingly the public school teachers felt more positively toward the inclusion of migrant children than did the private school teachers, who predominantly solely teach migrant children. We also found evidence of differential working conditions for teachers within the two types of schools. The private school teachers had fewer opportunities for professional development aligned with the demands associated with the diversity of a classroom of migrant students.

Many urban teachers also lamented what they perceived as the inadequate support for education provided by the parents of migrant children, with the teachers often attributing the academic failure of migrant children to migrant parents’ lack of cooperation with the school. The teachers felt that migrant parents’ lack of confidence in helping students with homework resulted in a clear division of labour between school and home life and that generally they would like migrant parents to become more involved in their children’s education.

Our research points to several ongoing issues that need to be addressed if migrant children are to be adequately educated to meet the predicted future demand for skilled workers. Currently the two-tiered system for these children appears to disadvantage those without the means to attend public schools. Not only do they have lower mathematics achievement levels, but their progress over time is slower than that of their public school peers, resulting in an increasing achievement gap over time. A contributing factor to this disparity in achievement levels is possibly the gap in teachers’ working conditions in the two school systems, with few opportunities for professional development for teachers in private schools. As teachers are such a key contributor to students’ educational outcomes in any school, it would seem prudent for Chinese educational authorities to focus on improving the working conditions and professional development of all teachers so that all children might thrive to their full potential.

Professor James Albright, Dr Kathryn Holmes and Ting Liu are collaborating on this research in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Image credit: CC by Thomas Galvez/Flickr.