China has approximately 60 million left-behind children living in the countryside. As many as two of every five children of the countryside have been left behind by their parents, according to a recent report by the All-China Women’s Federation.
These children depend on 3.3 million rural teachers for their education, according to official statistics. But those teachers may soon find themselves left behind by the system that put them there.
The nation’s growing trend of urbanization has split its teaching resources along an urban-rural divide. But teachers too are favoring the cities in search of more fulfilling careers.
For the past few decades, the central government has spent tens of billions of yuan supporting rural education by constructing new buildings and purchasing education facilities. Li Qiyong, deputy head of Guizhou Provincial Education Department, once told China Youth Daily that more than 4 percent of annual GDP has been invested in national education since 2013.
“In 1986, the year I became a teacher, all my school had was one teaching building. Now we have tracks, microcomputer classrooms and standardized laboratories,” Cun Mu, headmaster of a primary school in rural Anhui province told China News.
But compared to the considerable amount of money thrown into teaching facilities, the amount allocated to rural teachers’ salaries has been pitiful.
On a field visit to a rural middle school in Henan, a group of students told UNESCO that they were not attracted to the teaching profession as they felt that teachers were not respected, were over-worked and earned too little.
A research group led by Lei Wanpeng from Central China Normal University conducted a survey of rural teachers’ salaries in 2013 and found more than 75 percent of rural teachers earned less than 30,000 yuan per year.
“We used to earn two or three time more than migrant workers, but nowadays, their wages are two or three times higher than ours,” Lei’s report quoted rural teachers as saying.
In a study by 21st Century Education Research Institute, only 39 percent of rural teachers enjoyed full social security benefits, and more than 85 percent of rural teachers were never granted the benefit of a free physical exam.
The excessive workload of rural teachers is not to be overlooked. Not only do the teachers preside over different classes in different grades, they also undertake many non-teaching responsibilities. Most rural teachers work more than 12 hours per day, according to the report.
Aside from salary, an increasingly urgent dilemma faced by rural teachers is the limited chance of promotion due to school structure. This is especially problematic since professional titles are used to determine one’s salary in the education sector.
Liu said teacher salaries are pegged to professional titles, which in turn are determined by a school’s size and its students’ scores. The poorer the village, the less a teacher can hope to advance.
“Those who fail to access to build their careers are seen as losers by both their peers and students,” Liu Xieping, director of Teachers’ Training Center in Zhangjiajie Education Bureau said to China Comment.
At demonstrative senior high schools, as many as 35 percent of teacher can apply for higher professional titles. In normal senior high schools, middle schools and primary schools, the percentage is 25 percent, 10 percent and none.
Teachers are also suffering from an aging problem.
Many rural teachers are now in their late 40s or early 50s. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, these teachers were pulled from private schools to shore up the number of rural teachers. In recent years, they have been retiring in large numbers.
This June, the State Council announced its Rural Teachers Supporting Plan (2015-2020) to encourage young college graduates to work in the countryside. The plan grants rural teachers preferential policies for career advancement and raises salaries for rural teachers to achieve parity with other public servants.
The newly announced plan would purportedly offer rural teachers decent salaries and career security.
The Gansu Provincial Educational Department announced its own local Support Plan for rural teachers, stating that rural teachers in the province will enjoy a salary bump of 500 to 1,000 yuan, and that class teachers will be given subsidies and traffic allowances.
Jiangxi province allocated more than 600 million yuan as special funding to improve rural teachers’ subsidies and housing allowances, and to enhance rural teachers’ training projects. Hebei province has enacted measures to make teaching jobs more attractive.
While a good start, more down-to-earth details will be required if the government’s latest blueprint is to become a reality.