Chinese Parents: Education Challenges Facing by Urban Migrants

Urban migrants not only want to settle down in big cities but also to provide the best possible education for their children

In 2012, the Yihe Investment company developed the Hong Xing community project in an area about three kilometres from Chengdu city centre. A typical commercial and residential building, it’s particularly well-known for its prime location—within the catchment area for some of the city’s best primary schools.

Liao recalled that a salesman came over-enthusiastically to introduce this building to him as soon as he walked into the sales centre, “Your children can enrol in that primary school directly if you buy this apartment. He or she will have a bright future. “

Chinese parents call this kind of housing development as “School district housing”. According to Chinese government policies, students can directly attend high-quality schools if they live nearby. Students who graduate from an excellent elementary school are considered higher achievers than those who do not. As a result, they can enter good high schools, then pass the entrance examination to top universities or study abroad and finally, land a stable job.

Parents in China always say that “Education should start with babies”, and every family hopes that their children can make it to the starting line. With every possible advantage. Thus, buying apartments in ‘school district housing’ is every Chinese parent’s dream.

The Hong Xing project is exactly what parents are looking for. Owning an apartment here automatically brings the right to enrol at Tianyashi Primary School, the best Chengdu has to offer. Since it opened in 2001, Tianyashi has become the school of choice for parents in the city.

According to the latest data on the Chengdu housing market, the current housing price of this project has exceeded CN¥30,000 per square meter due to the local policy, which is twice as high as other types of housing in the city and elsewhere in the region.

Housing Price Fluctuation
Credit: Chengdu Housing Market

Behind this race for school places is the history of education and urban-rural development. In the early 1980s, China’s compulsory education policy didn’t reach as far as the countryside. By the mid-1980s, there were still 200 million illiterate people in the country, most of whom lived in rural areas.

Later, with the acceleration of urban development, the education system developed as well. However, the inequality of education in different areas has not yet been resolved. Although the government announced the goal of rolling out the policy of nine years’ compulsory education nationwide and basically eliminating illiteracy by 2001, this goal is still a long way off. This is precisely because the least developed areas are still in the countryside, especially in western China. Among the 410 counties in western China which have not achieved the educational reform goals, there are 215 impoverished counties, 309 ethnic minority counties, and 51 border counties. The level of compulsory education is far below the national average.

Therefore, due to the lack of distribution of high-quality education in China, many migrant parents have to seek opportunities for their children in big cities so making way for phenomena such as ‘school district housing’ to appear.

In this regard, Huai Li from the School of Social Development and Public Administration of Northwest Normal University stated that the inequality in the distribution of education resources by people is widespread whether in cities or villages. Income, wealth, power, and education are the most important standards for forming social stratification, and they are also the most basic indicators widely used in social stratification research.

“My parents brought me to Chengdu when I was little. I deeply realised the importance of a good education.”Says Liao, a 42-year-old businessman, who himself has a 12-year-old son. In the thirty-odd years since his family came from Leshan to settle in the city, he has constantly reminded himself to change his destiny by studying.

“My parents are not well-educated, and they were manual labours at the beginning. “Liao says. In the early 1980s, a large number of migrant workers poured into Chengdu from other villages in Sichuan. They saw countless opportunities in this booming city, and they did not want to return to the farmland. Their children thus became the second-generation urban migrants. Now those new migrants have their own family and jobs, and they are thinking about how to make life even better for their children.

In China, most people believe that “schools define social classes”. Xinhua News Agency once cited the status quo of India to allude to a similar situation in China. It said that there are two tiers of the educational system in India: the state-owned and the private-owned. In most cases, private schools have much better resources than public schools and it is the financial situation of the family which determines which school their children attend. “In India, you can go to private schools if you have money, or you have to go to public schools and face competition.”

In China, the same rules apply. The elite and the wealthy automatically send their children to top private schools. Other people have to search for ways to leap across the social divide and send their children to good schools. Buying an apartment in ‘social district housing’ has therefore become a lifetime’s goal for those urban migrants who, after years of hard work, have left their physical labouring jobs behind to become part of the growing middle class.

Liao took the college entrance examination in 1996. He said, there wasn’t any “school district house” pressure at that time, and he lived happily with his parents until he went to college.

Researcher Chunling Li from the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed that the traditional modernization theory believes that the degree of educational inequality will decrease with the development of the social economy. However, while the scale of opportunities is growing rapidly, education inequality has not been significantly eased, on the contrary, it has increased. Among them, the difference in family education background is the main cause of educational inequality. People with a larger social circle and more economic capital would have more advantages in the competition for educational opportunities nowadays.

After years of study, Liao was admitted to Sichuan Normal University. Compared to his friends in villages before, he got a chance to made friends with students from different social backgrounds at college, who were used to eating and buying products he had never seen before. This was the first time he’d been aware of ‘social class’ and only then did he realize how much his life prospects had changed through study.

According to Sina News, social classes in China are generally been divided into three parts, the upper class, the middle-class, and the bottom class. People who born to be the upper class only account for less than two-thousandths of the total population and the rest parts are consisting of general level people, grassroots and farmers.

Farmers always took the largest part during the whole progress of social classes division development. And since the China’s reform and opening up in 1978, the obvious changes in the structure of social classes in China’s cities have also had a positive impact on social mobility in cities, Huai Li shows that this is mainly due to the cracking of the urban-rural dual structure, which has caused a large number of migrant workers to move into cities and make them an important part of urban residents. The migration of farmers from rural to urban areas has improved the economic level and social status of this migrant group as a whole.

China’s industrialization and urbanization have promoted the changes in the professional status of urban residents, but they still want to continue to complete the class leap through education.

Thus, education became the key to social class leaps.

The Chinese writer Xiao Wu published an article on Jiliu Net. He argued that when the college entrance examination was first introduced in China in 1977, entering the university was the ticket to cross the class divide. In the 40 years since the college entrance examination was restored, those who first passed the college entrance examination back then had entered the middle class and were now considered the elite in all walks of life. Naturally, the social and financial assets they have accumulated will not be reinvested in society but left to their children.

Huai Li said that the changes in the household registration system have allowed individual factors to play an increasingly important role in social mobility since the reform and opening up of New China. This can mainly be reflected in the acquisition of educational resources. The restoration of the college entrance examination system has provided fairer access to educational resources for everyone, and the rapid development of higher education in China has allowed more and more people to enter universities with their own efforts. Receiving a good or high-quality education is generally regarded as the most important human capital in modern urban social professional competition. At the same time, the growth of educational resources has also promoted the upward mobility of more and more people.

Modern Chinese society has not yet ‘solidified’ social classes, so migrant parents are trying to help their child to leap across the class divide in order to have a better life. There are people like Liao who buy apartments for their children in order to have the “ticket” to good schools and “protect” the achievements they’ve made to date. On the other hand, there are parents who do not care at all. In the accompanying podcast, four migrant families share their views on their children’s education.

Four different families shared their views on Education topic

Three years ago, Liao sent his son who was in the third grade of elementary school to participate in a piano competition in Macau. His son won first prize. Liao says he encouraged his son from the age of four to practice the piano in order to gain extra ‘points’ in various selection competitions to enter a good school.

Next year, Liao’s son will take the entrance examination for middle school. He believes his son can be admitted to a senior middle school as an outstanding elementary school graduate and musical student. He said: “I have done my best and I believe he can make it.”