GUANGDONG, South China — Liang Chaowei will never forget the day, two years ago, when he left his home village of Damen for the hustle and bustle of the city. Standing alone under the hot autumn sun, he waited at the side of a dusty road for the bus that would carry him toward his future.
“I don’t know how to describe my emotions at that moment,” recalls the now 17-year-old Liang, somewhat shyly. “I was a little scared about beginning a totally different life. But I was also excited to be able to pay for the things I wanted.”
Liang had just dropped out of middle school. This was illegal, but Liang either didn’t know or didn’t care about the potential consequences. His destination was the city of Shantou, some 90 kilometers from Damen, where he planned to work at a factory that made molds for children’s toys.
Liang Chaowei returns to his home in the village of Damen, Guangdong province, May 25, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Liang is one of 1.1 million Chinese children who were scheduled to graduate middle school this year but did not, having dropped out prior to their final exams, according to official figures from the Ministry of Education. Chinese law mandates nine years of free education, from primary school to the end of middle school, but around 6 percent of students between the ages of 6 and 16 drop out without graduating, officials say. Some individual studies estimate that the primary- and middle-school dropout rate in some rural areas may be as high as 30 percent, although a nationwide survey of the issue has not yet been conducted.
Persistent social stereotypes in China depict rural dropouts as too poor to go to school, but this image is outdated. Although many dropouts hail from relatively underprivileged backgrounds, the majority can afford to stay in education. Instead, they choose not to — claiming that they dislike school, think little of the quality of rural teaching, see little point in applying themselves to their classwork, and don’t believe that good exam scores can lead to financial success later on in life.
Other children continue to attend school until graduation, but mentally check out early. They ignore their teachers, refuse to do class assignments, and do not complete their final exams. Known as “invisible dropouts,” they do not appear on school absence records or in government reports, but nonetheless can be found slumped at classroom desks throughout the countryside. Their experiences underline how, for many students, China’s rural education policy is no longer a question of access, but a question of quality.
Rural school dropouts often feel relief at getting out of the education system. But they disproportionately end up in low-paid, exploitative jobs. Waiting for the bus to Shantou, Liang was full of optimism. He had no idea that life was about to get much harder.
‘My Teachers Didn’t Care’
Two years after leaving school, Liang’s swarthy skin and gray-speckled hair make him look much older than his 17 years.
The picturesque village of Damen — where Liang grew up — lies about 11 kilometers from Tangxi, the small town in Guangdong province where he went to middle school. Liang’s mother did not live with the rest of the family — Liang is reluctant to say why — and his father, a construction worker who never finished primary school, worked for long periods in nearby towns and cities, sending money home to support the family. “My father and I never had much to say to each other,” Liang says. “Even now, I don’t talk about my work or my feelings with him.”
Most of the time, Liang was left in the care of his grandmother. It was a common story in Damen, one of many Chinese “left-behind villages” where almost every able-bodied person migrates to urban areas for work. Poorly educated and elderly, his grandmother was unable to help him in his studies, Liang says. And at the village primary school, “the teachers didn’t care about teaching me, either. Some students learned quickly, so the teachers paid more attention to them. But they didn’t bother with slow learners like me.”
Liang finished primary school without mastering the basic literacy and numeracy skills required to succeed at middle school in Tangxi. Once there, he was put into a class with children of varying abilities, drawn from across the district. As the curriculum progressed, a few abler students started pulling away, while most other pupils, including Liang, struggled to match their academic prowess. His scores in Chinese, a core subject for graduation, rarely exceeded 30 out of 100 — about half of the pass mark.
At the same time, Liang was keenly aware that his father was growing older and less capable of working. Although the family could still afford to send the boy to school, Liang now left each class demoralized and resentful that he could not earn his keep and contribute to the family’s finances. “It felt ridiculous for me to stay in school. Back then, I just wanted to make money,” Liang says.
Liang Chaowei poses in front of his former school in Tangxi, Guangdong province, May 25, 2018. Courtesy of Liang Chaowei
A few weeks into his second year in Tangxi, Liang stopped going to school. His father put up little resistance, he says. Three more students in Liang’s class, out of a total of 41, dropped out before graduation.
Since 2007, a national policy has exempted rural students from paying school fees, distributed free textbooks to countryside schools, and provided rural boarding school students with living allowances. But overall, the government still invests less money in rural students than in urban ones. A survey conducted by the Renmin University of China estimated that, in the 2013-2014 school year, the average urban middle school student received more than 1,300 yuan ($210) of government funding. By comparison, rural students received less than 800 yuan ($130).
Liang’s school experiences are similar to many of today’s rural school dropouts, says Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences in Beijing. “While poverty once drove higher numbers of rural dropouts, today’s children are more likely to say they’re bored of school,” he says. “The poor quality of education in rural areas, as well as a lack of family guidance, play important roles in making pupils feel tired of studying.”
Further systemic issues blight education in China’s countryside. Few teachers are willing to accept the lower salaries and living standards of rural areas, meaning that more qualified faculty members gravitate toward the cities. In addition, the countryside lacks an extensive network of extracurricular services — such as tutoring companies and cram schools — that many urban parents use to foster their children’s academic success.
At the same time, student numbers are shrinking in Raoping, the county that administers Tangxi. The county government has slashed budgets for new teachers, further hampering the efforts of local schools to bring in new staff. The primary school in Liang’s home village of Damen, for example, had 44 students when he attended four years ago; in the past school year, there were only 18. The school offers incoming teachers a monthly salary of around 2,000 yuan — a figure that falls far below the national average of 6,500 yuan, according to the Ministry of Education.
The average age of Tangxi’s primary and middle school teachers is about 50, says Chen Zhenping, who has taught morality and ethics at Tangxi School — Liang’s former haunt — for 33 years. Many schools in the town struggle to attract young teachers, he adds.
Chen believes that low pay not only deters new teachers from coming to Tangxi, but also discourages them from being dedicated to their students’ educations. “To be honest, few rural teachers put their hearts into it,” he says.
Children in Tangxi School’s primary division attend a P.E. class, Guangdong province, May 25, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Guo Jing, a 26-year-old short-term teacher of Chinese at Tangxi School, says that many younger students come from primary schools that lack full-time teachers in core subjects. “You can’t imagine how much the students’ academic performances vary in the same class,” Guo says. “Some students in my class can write poetry, while others struggle to write their own names. You can clearly tell from their academic performances which village schools they come from.”
In Chinese schools, students move up to the next grade regardless of how they perform on their end-of-year exams. As a result, children who fail to master the building blocks of literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking in early education can find themselves overwhelmed when they get to middle school.
Middle schools that enroll large numbers of rural students feel the problem acutely, yet often treat underperforming pupils such as Liang like “waste” because they do not consider them able enough to test into good high schools, says Li Tao, an associate professor of education at Northeast Normal University in Jilin province’s Changchun. The result is a vicious cycle in which students cannot keep pace with their peers. “Teachers turn a blind eye to their poor academic performances as long as they do not cause trouble at school. In the end, these students are the ones most likely to get sick of studying and drop out.”
Turn Up, Tune Out
Eighteen-year-old Deng Xin couldn’t wait to leave Tangxi School. His years there were tainted by confusion, apathy, and demotivation. Deng had long given up trying to study, and as the summer loomed, he looked forward to his freedom.
From childhood, Deng always knew that school didn’t matter. His parents — neither of whom completed primary education — believed that their son’s academic ability came down to fate, he says. “We all knew that I wasn’t cut out for [academics] by the time I was in second grade of primary school.”
Vehicles drive along the road outside Tangxi School, Guangdong province, May 25, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Deng says he was “a naughty boy” at school, where the only release was basketball. He would run around the court for so long that, afterwards, he often fell asleep in class. Eventually, his teachers stopped bothering to wake him up. Dozing at his desk and ignoring his lessons, Deng became an invisible dropout. In the end, he graduated from middle school, but he took away little knowledge and few job skills.
Unknown numbers of invisible dropouts populate the attendance records of China’s rural schools. Some rarely come to class and only turn up for end-of-year exams — a period when schools’ attendance rates are more likely to come under official scrutiny. Others, like Deng, come to their lessons but rarely participate.
Although the Chinese government aims to reduce the primary and middle school dropout rate from 6.2 percent in 2017 to 5 percent by 2020, some scholars suspect that the plan fails to consider the needs of invisible dropouts. Others also claim that rural officials deliberately underreport local dropout rates in order to gain favor from their superiors in government.
Schools, too, are compelled to retain pupils at all costs. Officials tend to fine schools with high dropout rates, but rely heavily on exam attendance to measure the number of dropouts. This, in turn, incentivizes some schools to summon absent students on exam day, even though they no longer attend classes, says Liu Xue, a project manager at a Shanghai-based education charity who previously worked in rural Yunnan province, in southwestern China.
Apart from the four dropouts, Tangxi School’s Class of 2018 all attended their final exams. Forty-three percent of them tested into high school, where they can eventually sit the gaokao — China’s grueling college entrance exam. The figure is significantly lower than the national average of 56 percent.
Ninth-graders at Tangxi School take a break between classes, Guangdong province, May 25, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Zhu Xingsheng, a principal of a rural primary school in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, denies that teachers ignore underperforming or demotivated students. Instead, he lays much of the blame on the students’ families. Many children are raised by parents and grandparents who did not complete compulsory education. Nowadays, although many such families have money, some live in spiritual poverty and fail to understand that the role of public schools is to foster academic success, not to raise their children for them, Zhu says.
“Many students’ families give them whatever they ask for — like cell phones, for example — but offer little holistic guidance,” Zhu says, adding that he once repeatedly called the grandparents of a student who refused to complete homework assignments, but they simply hung up on him.
“I often feel that our efforts are in vain. We are sticking our warm faces into other people’s cold butts,” Zhu continues, using a colorful Chinese idiom to describe the feeling of seeing acts of kindness go unappreciated by others. “We try to change students for the better, but parents don’t pick up the slack.”
However, Zhu is aware that socio-economic pressures deprive many rural students of much-needed guardianship at home. Millions of parents in China’s countryside migrate to the country’s cities for work, where they stay for several months at a time. “How much can we get them to change, when they only call their kids once a month?” Zhu asks.
Many former students accuse rural teachers of taking heavy-handed, authoritarian approaches toward classroom discipline. Both Liang and Deng say they experienced corporal punishment at school, although the practice is illegal. Liang, the factory worker, still gets angry when he recalls how one teacher reprimanded him for not submitting his homework. “He fucking slapped me in the face over and over again, just for disobeying him,” he says.
Most children who fail to get into high school either go into work or enroll in vocational schools. Although local governments in China tend to frame vocational schools as havens for less academically inclined students to learn alternative skills, many youngsters see little point in them — especially as many such institutions demand that students pay part of their tuition fees. “I’ve met vocational school graduates at work, but their salaries are no higher than mine, and they’re not as good as me,” says Deng, who now earns about 2,800 yuan a month as a kitchen assistant at a restaurant in Shantou. “What’s the point of spending three years and thousands of yuan on vocational schools?”
A Rude Awakening
Liang left Damen on a Saturday morning. “Mind you don’t have too much fun,” his father told him as Liang walked out of the house.
Liang was optimistic. Shantou, he thought, would be a land of opportunity, a place to make his fortune. His cousin — who had hooked Liang up with the job — had told him that it was well-paid work on the night shift at a downtown factory.
In reality, Liang was assigned to mind-numbing drudgery in a filthy suburban workshop, churning out molds for children’s toys. He worked from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. seven days a week, sometimes completely alone, for a salary of about 800 yuan a month — less than a quarter of the average wage in Shantou. He never signed a contract and had no social security or health insurance.
Metal molds clutter the floor of the factory where Liang Chaowei once worked in Shantou, Guangdong province, 2018. Courtesy of Liang Chaowei
“Everything was different from what I imagined,” Liang says. “I was so exhausted. Sometimes, in the factory late at night, I couldn’t stop myself from crying.”
Liu Chengbin, a sociology professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, says that rural school dropouts disproportionately find themselves at the bottom of the job ladder, slaving away in low-income, labor-intensive construction or manufacturing work. “It is difficult for them to climb out of their situations,” Liu says. “They barely have the time, energy, or money for further training or self-improvement.”
Deng Xin cooks at a restaurant in Shantou, Guangdong province, May 26, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
The world of employment hasn’t worked out well for Deng, either. At first, he thought that his job as a kitchen assistant might inspire him to become a chef. But he dislikes the long working hours, the expectation to work through national holidays, and the bullying from his older colleagues. Earlier this year, Deng applied to join the military, but was rejected. He suspects it was because he didn’t have a high school diploma.
Liang says his dream is to earn enough money to build a house in the center of Damen — the village where he grew up. When he gets time off from the factory, he takes the bus home to visit his former classmates — most of whom graduated from middle school this year. “When I see them now,” he says, “I tell them to treasure their years at school.”
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Deng Xin cooks at a restaurant in Shantou, Guangdong province, May 26, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone)