Written by Anqi Shen.

While the Chinese criminal justice system maintains punitive, youth justice in China is an exception, operating on the core principles of social reintegration. The study-work school is an example. The study-work school is a form of specialised education for school-age juveniles who have displayed certain legally defined forms of deviancy and aims to change their behaviours through education. It is essentially an early intervention mechanism available exclusively to school-age juveniles.

The primary legal basis for the study-work school is the Law of Protection of Juvenile Offending 1999. The statute defines deviancy – ‘unhealthy’ (buliang) and ‘seriously unhealthy’ (yanzhong buliang) behaviours, and first spells out the ‘study-work school’. Unhealthy behaviours refer to behaviours that generally violate socialist morality; seriously unhealthy behaviours are forms of wrong-doing that cause serious harm to society but do not amount to crime that deserves criminal sanctions, such as juveniles’ involvement in gathering to provoke trouble and disrupting public order. The law specifies that juveniles who have displayed seriously unhealthy behaviours may be subjected to the study-work school for their education and rescue.

A study was undertaken at a study-work school in the south-east of China to explore its nature, the role it plays, and the challenges facing it. In this study, a number of students and members of staff, including the headmaster, were interviewed between August and September 2013.

What is exactly the study-work school?    

The research findings show that the study-work school accepted ‘problematic students’ as well as those with behaviour problems and learning difficulties. The students’ problems typically fell inside of the definition of unhealthy behaviours and they tended to be marginalised in their previous schools.

Figure 1

Figure 1 illustrates the position of the study-work school in China. 

Unlike conventional schools in China, study-work schools are usually boarding schools. Some commentators thus argue that students in this setting are often deprived of freedom. However, this claim was denied by the student respondents, who commonly accepted that once they agreed to join the school they should abide by its rules. The result is surprising, considering the voluntary recruitment policy that is adopted by the study-work school.

However, the voluntary policy has several disadvantages. For example, evidence indicates its passiveness, and it has rendered a large number of juveniles who should have been enrolled in the study-work school to be left out.

At the same time, recruitment methods are considered unacceptable, as they technically render student consent meaningless and thus give rise to issues regarding human rights.

Surprisingly, though, student satisfaction was high in the sample school, and the research results do seem to suggest that the study-work school has played an indispensable role in specialised education and early intervention for juveniles in need.

What does the study-work school do to play its role?

From the mid-1990s, the ‘work’ element is no longer available in the curriculum of study-work school – it is substituted by hobby classes. Hobby classes aim to enable students to gain knowledge, experiences, and skills through participating in the student-centred, classroom-based group activities. However, it is not clear whether, and if so, how these outcomes are achieved.

Another feature that differs the study-work school from conventional school education in China is that their tutors typically encourage, rather than pressurise, their students to learn. In the sample school, learning and teaching was not really exam-oriented.

Moreover, unlike in a conventional school, the tutors at the study-work school were said to have paid attention to each individual student to help them re-gain confidence and a sense of self-worth. The practice was highly valued by the student respondents.

The problem, however, is that no ‘hard’ evidence found in this study which may quantitatively and/or qualitatively evaluate the educational performance of the study-work school. And, the major concern appears to be the lack of clear goal of this special education facility.

Along with the educational function, the study-work school is also expected to play an important role in early intervention.

The results show that the students were required to carry out routine activities which aimed to discipline them and also distract them from addictions, such as playing computer games. Also, moral, behaviour, and legal awareness classes were incorporated into the curriculum which aimed to actively impact on the students’ behaviour through pointing out the legal boundaries to them.

While generally knowing boundaries helps juveniles move away from law-breaking, apart from the descriptive evidence, the early intervention function of the study-work school seems hard to evaluate.

What are challenges facing the study-work school?

According to the research results, there appears to be a considerable lack of knowledge in popular, academic, and official discourses about the nature of the study-work school, how it operates, and what it may achieve and has achieved. This is largely due to a lack of evidence-based approaches in practice.

The lack of evidence and knowledge has caused a number of detrimental effects. For example, it is unclear how the study-work school should be positioned in the system, what primary role it should play, and which level of support it should receive.

Figure 1 above illustrates that the study-work school is placed in the educational system in some places (Model A), of which the supervisory body is the municipal education authority, whilst in other areas it belongs to the youth justice system and therefore led by the local Bureaus of Justice (Model B). Some study-work schools are under a dual-leadership of both authorities (Model C). Consequently, different emphasis is placed on study-work schools in terms of objectives, practices, and the level of support that they receive.

The research concludes that the study-work school is a hybrid. It may be said that it is a Chinese way of promoting social inclusion for juveniles and potentially a good practice of child protection. However, it is facing several problems.

While China shares with the West the same difficulties in attempting to evaluate the effectiveness of various policies, models, and projects, it has localised challenges. A fundamental problem for China is the lack of an evidence-based approach in its legal processes in general and in child protection and crime prevention in particular.

Anqi Shen is Reader in Law at Teesside University, UK. She is the author of Offending Women in Contemporary China: Gender and pathways into crime (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). A version of this article was first published in the journal Youth Justice.  Image credit: CC by Michael Coghlan/Flickr.