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East Asia Child Science Exchange Program 6: Can Urban Cities Provide Basic Preschool Education to Migrant Children?- Public Education is One Option to Achieve Equality in Education -

Social issues concerning preschool education for migrant children due to a rapid increase in urban population

Along with urbanization in China, more and more people from agricultural villages migrate into large cities. They are called "peasant workers" and have become an integral part of the construction workforce in the development of China's economy. According to recent data, such migrant population has reached 211 million in 2009. This phenomenon can be seen mainly in medium-size to large cities such as Beijing and provincial capitals as well as southeastern coastal areas such as the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta*1.

Based on a research study conducted by the Political Consultative Committee in Beijing City, the number of residents in Beijing at the end of last year reached 19.72 million; the number of migrants who lived more than six months in the city was reported to be 7.26 million, accounting for more than 30% of the city's total population. Consequently, migrant children receiving their compulsory education at school in Beijing increased rapidly from around 90,000 in 2000 to 418,000 in 2009, accounting for 40% of the city's total population of students. The majority of migrant children (66.9%) are attending national primary, junior-high, and high schools (note 1). There is no exact data for migrant children at the preschool stage but it is estimated to be around 500,000, exceeding the number of preschool children who have been registered under the nation's compulsory family register system. This assumption is based on the fact that migrant families are on the increase and that unregistered new-born babies of migrants account for 51% of the total number of babies born in Beijing during the past three years.

A number of questions arise. How is the need of child-care services for such a large number of migrants accommodated? How do their children receive preschool education? For sustainable development, urban cities should address these critical social issues?preschool education for migrant children?and find appropriate policies and solutions that can ensure equality in society and education.

Diverse ways of public education in peripheral areas

Against the backdrop of the transformation of China's economic system as well as a rapid increase in the number of peasant migrant workers with their families, the realistic need for child education has encouraged the generation of public education from the bottom to the top. Meanwhile, various kinds of non-official private childcare organizations for children of peasant migrant families have sprung up rapidly, providing flexible and convenient childcare services under a low-cost operating model. As a result, a low-income market has spontaneously formed. In addition, there is another type of child-care service gaining popularity along with the development of civil society and the increasing need of preschool education for migrant children, known as the "cottage nursery."

A cottage nursery ( in Chinese) is an unregistered kindergarten that provides unofficial childcare services for low-income families, accounting for approximately half of the preschool education market. In the case of Beijing, there are currently 1,298 unofficial low-cost cottage nurseries, exceeding the number of official kindergartens (1,266)*2. The latest study by the Beijing Normal University provides more detailed reports on cottage nurseries (note 2). One fact indicated is that the majority of urban migrants live on the border between rural and urban areas. For example, the ratio of migrants to residents is 10 to 1 or higher in some peripheral areas of large cities such as Beijing. Most of such areas are a "village within a city" as a result of transformation of agricultural to non-agricultural land; therefore, these areas have neither a public service facility nor an official public kindergarten. Nevertheless, there exists a need for childcare services. In the end, various unofficial kindergartens started their business independently and expanded remarkably, given that they are the nearest childcare services available: indeed, 95% of children at those kindergartens are migrant children of peasant workers.

The cottage nursery is thus organized to meet the needs and realistic situation of the community. Typical tuition fees for cottage nursery services are between 200 and 400 yuan per month including meal fees, which are quite affordable for migrant peasant workers. Although low-cost kindergartens serve children with a poor quality of educational materials and teachers, their simple management system enables them to flexibly adjust to social conditions in the peripheral urban areas. There are many areas that can be said to be a "village in a city" combining rural and urban populations. Their outlook for the future is uncertain, as the government's development plans for these areas are often dismissed as misguided or left pending. The need for schools to accommodate a large number of migrant children living in such areas is an urgent issue. This is how the cottage nursery emerged and has become a facility to supply migrant children with the minimum preschool education and serve their family to meet their basic need for childcare. The report also revealed that the operators of cottage nurseries are also members of migrants or the so-called "ant tribe" who received higher education but have ended up unemployed or in poorly paid work. Some are graduates from the China Women's University or Yunnan Normal University; they run the family-like kindergartens independently, offering quality services at low cost.

The most remarkable characteristic of the cottage nursery is its capability to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of parents. For example, when designing a daily routine and curriculum for children, they first consider the needs of parents. Peasant workers are generally engaged in independent retail business, cleaning jobs, construction-related jobs and so on, and they work at different hours on different days depending on their job. To deal with such differences, most cottage nurseries are open from 6:30 in the morning until the evening, from Monday to Saturday, and some are open on Sundays as well. There is normally no extra charge for the extended hours. This is different from official kindergartens that have strict opening hours. Since the system of the cottage nursery is small-scale, systematically flexible and community-oriented, the owners can address problems promptly while expanding their business and adjusting their service contents as needed. In this way, they provide parents with flexible and convenient services, and maintain high levels of satisfaction with them.

The cottage nursery is a privately owned and independently operated kindergarten, thus it belongs to the category of private nursery () and community nursery (). In terms of operational systems, there are two types: a small family-type daycare center serving children of mixed ages, and a medium-sized kindergarten with three classes or more, divided by age group. Some are long-established and well recognized by parents, and others are kindergarten chains.
The cottage nursery is a small-scale organization, many are located in peripheral urban areas or mixed urban and rural areas, and they mainly accept children of migrant peasant workers who live in such areas. Hence, it is sometimes called "kindergarten for labors' children" or "peasant workers' kindergarten." The name "cottage nursery" itself reveals that it is located on the border or outside of the formal education systems. Therefore, the mass media often calls the cottage nursery "illegal kindergarten" or "black kindergarten."

There is a third option*3 that can meet the needs of preschool education for the peasant workers who are migrants with low-income, that is, non-governmental organizations for preschool education. Amidst recent calls for civil society providing non-official preschool education to children of socially vulnerable people through non-governmental organizations has proved to be an effective method in terms of both theory and practice. Although official policies and measures are not tolerant regarding the development of such functions as they are outside the government and market systems, it is apparent that their role is increasingly important as a means of ensuring equal opportunity in society. One example is that of Sihuan play group. The Sihuan play group was incidentally established in one of the Beijing's free markets and has become the place for children to play, for parents to build a mutually supportive relationship with others and for volunteer students to learn and conduct fieldwork for child education. In this way, the group has successfully made education accessible to local residents and communities. The media says, "Sihuan play group offers excellent education; their quality is no different from that of formal kindergartens" (note 3). Based on their experience over six years, the group, as a non-profit childcare facility, now suggests one possible solution to the practice of preschool education that can take into account social and cultural conditions of migrant children (note 4). These non-official education models are different from those within the existing educational system, and several projects of such models are under way in the areas where many migrants live such as the Shijingshan Liuniangfu Community and Haidian Xiaojiahe. Obviously, this will give migrant preschool children more educational opportunities and provide low-income parents with greater benefits.

These organizations for preschool education were created by grassroots activities among low-income groups to cater to their needs voluntarily and collaboratively, and their existence itself has proven the power and wisdom of ordinary people. By practicing the basics of social welfare, that is, "Public education is for the public and by the public," they fill the needs of childcare for migrants, especially for peasant workers. They also provide a facility to serve their children and ensure their basic right to receive preschool education. The above examples demonstrate a practical and effective solution on how to ensure the delivery of preschool education for all migrant children.

The difficulties of public education

The concept of the cottage nursery was born out of the needs of low-income families to solve their childcare problems. However, this type of public education is not yet officially approved, and it often faces restrictions or discrimination, or in an extreme case, gets shut down. The employees of cottage nurseries feel uncertain about their jobs, as the facility is operating in a gray zone. Grassroots non-profit organizations such as the Sihuan play group are also facing similar problems such as restriction and difficulty in registration. Due to a large gap between the rural-urban dichotomy and the actual conditions over the years, it is apparent that mainstream society, especially administrative officials of urban cities remain ignorant of the actual conditions of low-income families. They never know or understand the efforts of low-income workers to improve their lives by voluntarily engaging in or establishing their own business. They view things from their own mindset, as members of mainstream society or officials of registered urban population registration, seeing things as differently as night and day (note 5).

While the mass media often reports that cottage nurseries receive harsh criticism for their non-official childcare services, the need of peasant worker parents for cottage nurseries is still strong, which indicates a stark contrast in the opinions of the government and the public. This proves that the needs of the public create the market and the public has such tenacious vitality. There are plenty of resources for preschool education in society that can be supplied broadly to the citizens. The market and the public can promptly respond to the needs to the extent where the government cannot reach or accomplish. We can see here the potential for very positive and creative initiatives by the public within society. Such self-help (note 6) and mutual aid activities, which have been ignored by the government, provide the basic preschool education for migrant children.

Conflicting opinions on the cottage nursery provision can be summarized by the following two points: these critics insist on the importance of the standardization of kindergartens; whereas the supporters wish to ensure the availability of kindergartens for children under the current circumstances. Their different goals indicate the difference in their viewpoints and status. The former focuses on the educational image and political accomplishment as well as the safe environment for children, whereas the latter focuses on solutions to the current educational issues from the standpoint of low-income families. "Once you concentrate on school itself, children will become less important" (note 7). Indeed, it is more important to pay attention to the opinions and choices of parents, as they are the ones who need childcare services for their children.

Under the market economy, the government does no longer have the omnipotence to solve every issue across the nation, and the powerful movement of the public implies a positive outlook for social development. Therefore, the government should recognize the existence of cottage nurseries and support them in developing their system in the right direction to become a formal educational facility. The government is also required to address the establishment and management of preschool facilities and education, while coordinating the relationship between the government, the market and the public. If they maintain rigidly conservative views and a passive attitude, they will eventually face problems arising from such ineffective controls and restrictions, and accelerate the intensity of conflict within society.

Development of public education and equality of education

Over thirty years after the implementation of China's reform and opening-up policy, urban migrants, and in particular peasant workers have made extraordinary contributions to urban construction. But can urban cities provide the basic preschool education for their children? The practice of public education plays an important role in enlightening the nation regarding the educational situation of their society such as the educational reform and realizing equality of education, and solving the abuse of privilege and the tendency towards 'for-profit' education.

1. New policies that challenge the conventional custom and systems, and improve public education

Due to the impact of political regime and ideology, there have been conflicts between the government and the public, and between the public duty and private interests. It is widely regarded that only government-run schools are good, and privately-operated schools are evil profit seekers. Under such traditional views, the government made cottage nurseries an easy target of harsh criticism (note 8). With the motto that educational discipline is the fundamental attribute of preschool education, the government overemphasizes educational discipline and ignores the basic role of childcare services. Consequently, it ends up concentrating on the uniformity and standard of official kindergartens and rejects and restricts cottage nurseries that are outside of their system. In addition, their pursuit of prime education has intensified the recent trend of for-profit education. The emergence of China's most luxurious school and kindergarten is not coincidental. The socialization of child education reflects the new conditions of society arising from the nation's economic transformation. Public education is a promise of the future developments of China, and at the same time, coincides with the reform motto "Small government, big society." For further advancement and improvement of the reform policy, it is important to dispel the erroneous perceptions about the ideology and functions of preschool education.

2. Supply more resources to public education by restructuring public finance allocation

Cottage nurseries have a decidedly poor operating environment, with little space as well as unresolved safety issues. Since their income is derived solely from the school fee paid by parents, they are obliged to operate under tight budget constraints. However, the existence of cottage nurseries enables peasant workers, who belong to socially and economically low strata of society in peripheral urban areas, to receive the minimum childcare service. Nonetheless, operators of cottage nurseries assume all social responsibilities for child education, and in the end the government takes advantage of this system. We should be aware of the fact that agricultural villages and farmers have been sacrificed for the development of urban cities; and that people who belonged to socially low strata of society had to make the largest sacrifice and received the least benefit from the reform. Now it is time to reward them. Ultimately, it is the government who should take responsibility and mitigate increasingly polarized conflicts among society and allocate more resources to public education for children of socially vulnerable people. This compensation can be started, for example, by providing a free education coupon to migrant children (note 9). For the development of child education, it is necessary to take into account its background and surrounding situations, and there is no universal format that we can apply to any situation. No educational philosophy or practice that is indifferent to the surrounding situations can achieve equal education for all children. In this regard, preschool education has become diversified in many ways according to the needs and situations of society; therefore, we should first establish a comprehensive framework for such diversified education systems.

3. Make urban cities a "hometown" for migrants who contributed to the cities' development; public education should be supported proactively and positively and appropriately standardized

The government should shift their educational policy from a "control" style to a "service and support" style, based on the premise that they recognize the value of cottage nurseries. One option is to provide financial assistance for operational costs and training teachers, as well as other related services needed. The next step to take is to formulate a normative model, including flexible enrollment and valuation standards based on the actual conditions; new policies and regulations to support private-run kindergartens; and support for unofficial organizations to foster sound development. Our ultimate goal should be to let every migrant child receive full benefits and services.

The theme of the Shanghai Expo in 2010 was "Better City, Better Life." Migrant peasant workers and their children are new citizens of the city, but in reality, those who belong to the lower strata of society are likely to be neglected. Can urban cities be a hometown for migrants who have contributed to the cities' development? Can these peasant workers and their children live a respectful happy life in the city? These are critical and realistic issues for the entire society. The public including those from the lower strata have already made their move towards equal educational opportunities for all children. We will keep a close eye on what response the government will make to their efforts.

  • *1 Data from 2010 China's urban migration report
  • *2 Data from the survey "the number of cottage nurseries exceeds the number of official kindergartens" by the Political Consultative Committee, retrieved from xinhuanet on July 29, 2009.
  • *3 The concept of "the third educational option for children of peasant workers" was proposed by Xu Yongguang, Vice Chairman of the Board and Secretary General of the Narada Foundation at the venue for Research on New Citizen Schools' Education held by the 21st Century Education Research Institution on July 6, 2009. He suggested the possibility of non-government non-profit schools, apart from government-run schools and profit-seeker private schools. The Narada Foundation is an official private foundation organizing the New Citizen Program, a charity program specifically designed for migrant children.



Note 1          "The number of residents in Beijing is estimated to reach 25 million by 2020", The Beijing News, retrieved from in July 2010.

Note 2          Zhang Yan and Li Xiangyu, "Cottage nurseries and preschool education for children of peasant migrant workers: survey and discussion on mixed urban and rural areas in Beijing", Studies in Preschool Education, vol.10, 2010.

Note 3          "The need for educational reform to eliminate 'bottleneck' in preschool education", The Beijing News, retrieved on July 31, 2010.

Note 4          Zhang Yan, "The Story of Sihuan Play Group: a study of non-official preschool education for children of peasant migrant workers", Beijing Normal University Publishing Group, January, 2009.

Note 5          "Kindergarten for Labors' Children: the day will never know the darkness of night", Jiaxing online newspaper, retrieved on March 5, 2010.

Note 6          Han Jialing, "A survey report on the current status of compulsory education for migrant children in Beijing", China Youth Study, vol.8, 2001.

Note 7          Krishnamurti J, "Lifelong Study: what kind of schools do we need?", Qunyan Press, November, 2004.

Note 8 & 9    Zhang Yan, "Problems and challenges on preschool education arising from China's ongoing economic transformation", Studies in Preschool Education, vol.10, 2009.


Zhang Yan
Zhang Yan is a Professor at Beijing Normal University, supervising Masters students. Graduated from the Faculty of Education at the Beijing Normal University, she currently holds positions as a managing director of Beijing Preschool Research Center and supervisor of Beijing Kindergarten Teachers Studio and NPO Sihuan play group.
Professor Zhang specializes in Principle of Preschool Education, System and Management of Preschool Education, Development of Kindergarten Teachers Program, Non-official Child Education in Residential Areas, and Educational Issues of Migrant Children.
Her recent publications include: “Kindergarten Management” (People's Education Press, 2008), “Preschool Education Management” (Beijing Normal University Publishing, 2009), “The Story of Sihuan Play Group: a study of non-official preschool education for children of peasant migrant workers” (Beijing Normal University Publishing, 2009).
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