Everything seemed to be going smoothly at the screening site, so I took the opportunity to step out and wander around the village. I came across a courtyard with a gate labeled “(insert later) Elementary School”.
Inside, I found a couple kids playing basketball on the court. “Did you go to school here?” I ask as I join them. They did. But they never got past 6th grade. “So what do you do during most of your days now?” I inquire. They shrug. “Play basketball, I guess.”
The education system in the two rural counties I visited (likely similar to the rest of Guangdong Province and maybe even the country) is as follows: There are elementary schools located in most villages, but middle schools are only located in towns, which is surrounded by villages and can be some distance away. Some middle schools will provide on campus housing. After that, a rare number of towns may have high schools but most are located in the county-level city, which was a 1-2 hour drive for many of the villages we visited.
A good proportion of students will attend elementary schools but very few will move onto middle school, and even fewer to high school. “What percentage of rural students move onto middle school?” I ask a young doctor from one of the counties I visited. “Two students,” she replied, “myself being one of them”. Cost is one big issue; public education in China is not free, and a year of high school in Yu’nan County can cost 3000RMB (The average yearly income is (insert later)). Transportation can be another problem, as some of the mountain villages can only be accessed by winding, sloping roads in poor condition. Finally, perhaps one of the most pressing issues is a lack of parental encouragement—not sending a child to school not only saves money, but produces an extra hand to help out at home. As the students I met told me, “We stopped going because we just didn’t want to go anymore.”
A logical reason, I think darkly, yet the low level of education creates a vicious cycle that makes it difficult for villagers to pull themselves out of poverty. Of course, education isn’t free, especially higher level education such as college or technical school. But if rural students can be encouraged to complete their education, they may be the ones with the best understanding of and most concern for their rural hometowns, and may ultimately produce the greatest contribution. Thus, it seems like programs designed to encourage students to stay in school, in combination with financial incentives that offer higher education opportunities to students from poor backgrounds, can do a lot not only for China’s youth but also for the long-term development of the rural countryside.