It’s a Sunday afternoon in Shanghai, and a group of primary school students are taking an English class at a community education center in central Jing’an District. The 6- to 13-year-old pupils excitedly call out simple English verbs — “See! Taste! Touch!” — and raise their hands in response to the teacher’s questions.
The scene’s familiar to many urban, middle-class Chinese families. Many such children spend evenings and weekends taking private English classes to give them a head start in their studies. But today’s class is a little bit different: The lesson is organized by Stepping Stones, a volunteer organization that educates the children of migrant workers. When class is over, the 13 pupils in attendance will be picked up by some of China’s estimated 137 million rural dwellers who have moved to the cities in search of work.
Because they don’t have residency rights in Shanghai, from Monday to Friday most children at the community center attend so-called migrant schools — specialist institutions run by either the municipal government or private education providers. Due to a lack of both qualified teachers and funding, education standards at Shanghai’s migrant schools generally fall short of those that cater to native children, and students rarely practice the conversational English skills that get the language to stick. “At migrant school, we do a lot of dictations and lesson recitals,” a 9-year-old pupil tells Sixth Tone between games for spoken English. “That’s all the speaking practice we get.”
Two students chat during a class break in Shanghai, Dec. 23, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
In recent years, a number of charities have sprung up to bring migrant children into contact with native and near-native English speakers. Stepping Stones is one of the longest-running projects: First formed in 2006, it has held weekly classes at the community center since 2009, and registered as an official charity in 2013. The organization holds classes in migrant schools and community centers, both during school hours and after class. founder and executive director Corinne Richeux Hua is a British-born former human-resources senior manager who has lived in China for over two decades. She came up with the Stepping Stones concept after visiting a number of migrant schools in Shanghai.
“When I asked what help they wanted, [the schools] said, ‘Come and teach English to the kids,’” Hua recalls. “Then I went to visit some schools in rural Henan [province], and again they said, ‘We need English teachers here.’” Hua adds that her experiences helped her understand not only how important English is in the Chinese educational curriculum — the subject is a core part of the notoriously challenging high-school and university entrance exams — but also how migrant schools lack the resources to effectively teach English, limiting the students’ chances to overcome their often-disadvantaged backgrounds.
Hua later quit her job at professional services company PricewaterhouseCoopers to get Stepping Stones off the ground. The organization’s goal is to improve the student’s English ability by eschewing rote-learning and making the subject fun. In the past decade, Stepping Stones has developed from a group of volunteers into a fully-fledged not-for-profit institution that teaches English and computer skills to migrant children in several Chinese cities and provinces and also trains rural teachers to teach English more effectively. The initiative is funded by a combination of grants, private donations, and service fees.
Stepping Stones currently boasts more than 300 regular volunteer teachers and 18 full-time staff members. Although most of the original volunteers were drawn from Shanghai’s expat community, nowadays they’re increasingly comprised of Chinese high-school and university students, as well as white-collar professionals. Volunteer teacher Deng Yuan, who is leading this afternoon’s class, has worked at the center since September 2017. “The kids weren’t like this when they first came to class,” says Deng, who from Monday to Friday is a full-time English teacher at Harrow International School Shanghai. “They didn’t speak much, and few of them wanted to answer questions.”
For Deng and other teachers, seeing their students gain confidence in English makes Stepping Stones’ project worthwhile. But the organization is facing new obstacles, too — not least a tightening of the policies surrounding the operation of NGOs. Sixth Tone sat down with founder Hua at Stepping Stones’ open-plan Shanghai workspace to talk about her experiences and the organization’s future challenges. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Corinne Richeux Hua teaches at a rural primary school in Jiangsu province, May 2014. Courtesy of Corinne Richeux Hua.
Sixth Tone: How has English teaching changed in migrant schools over the years?
Corinne Richeux Hua: When I first started in 2006, the schools were really bad. Many such schools were set up by migrants for migrant [families]. They were also fee-paying schools with little government support and often housed in very shabby buildings with underqualified teachers. They were using the Shanghai curriculum but didn’t have enough teachers to deliver it. The class was very boring. They’d just repeat “dog, dog, dog,” and “cat, cat, cat.”
Now, in a migrant school, education is much better than it used to be — both because of government investment and the improvement in these migrants’ financial conditions. But still, compared with public schools, teachers have higher workloads, fewer qualifications, less experience, and much lower pay. Most of them are English majors, but some of them aren’t. Some of them are math or Chinese teachers who’ve been asked to teach English as well.
English teachers in rural China — especially the ones in remote areas — get [almost] no training at all. After they finish teaching college, they get placed in a rural school, and that’s it. Often the teachers don’t know how to teach English.
Students do exercises at a Stepping Stones English class in Shanghai, Dec. 23, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: You’ve been in Shanghai for many years and have worked with both migrant and rural schools. What are the key differences you’ve noticed between schoolchildren born in the city, children at migrant schools, and left-behind rural kids?
Hua: When you visit a rural school, you feel that the kids behave more naturally — they are less disciplined. But also, if you get into very remote areas, you see a lot more poverty and hardship.
There’s no real difference between migrant and local kids who attend public primary schools in Shanghai. Studies have shown that migrant children can keep up [academically] with Shanghainese kids as long as they are given the same access to opportunities. The migrant children score a little lower than Shanghainese kids, but not by very much. This small gap is probably caused by the amount of assistance they get back home.
But migrant children who attend migrant schools score a lot lower [than children in Shanghai’s public system]. For students at migrant schools, I’d say the teachers’ qualifications and motivation [holds them back]. Kids are kids — they respond similarly to good teaching and activities.
Sixth Tone: What challenges remain for running an education NGO as a foreigner in China?
Hua: The legislative environment is always a challenge. It is very hard to register an NGO in China, especially when you’re a foreigner. We tried to register for seven [consecutive] years, from 2006 to 2013. What is missing here are clear legal guidelines and regulations.
Fundraising is difficult, too. Even though we have hundreds of volunteers, you need to be able to afford staff to help the program grow sustainably and consistently. Most of our previous funding came from local foundations, and the rest of it comes from donations and service fees. Also, I think it’s time to target the local Chinese communities — especially individual philanthropists — because Chinese people are increasingly charitable, and there is huge potential there.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Children of migrant workers attend an English class taught by a Stepping Stones volunteer in Shanghai, Dec. 23, 2018. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone)