By Huiyi Luo, Jiawen Lu, Jiaxin Hua, Xiru Wei, Ziwen Liu
“Before 2016, many children never stepped into a classroom before 10 years old. Now, with governmental-funded preschools, everything has changed.”
——A preschool teacher in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan, China
Located in southwestern China, Liangshan YiAutonomous Prefecture is majorly populated by ethnic Yi people. However, due to complex and superimposed reasons, Liangshan suffered from poor economic development, with about 7% of the population under the poverty line in China in 2016. After years of robust governmental poverty elimination projects, 178, 000 people in Liangshan still live on less than 1.3 dollars per day in 2020.
Struggling economically, Liangshan lags in preschool education as well. In 2016, a governmental survey showed that only 16.4% of children between 3-6 enrolled in kindergarten, as compared to a 77.4% national average. Several factors contribute to low enrollment rates. For instance, before 2016, most villages did not have public kindergarten, which would take a child to walk around an hour to get to preschools in the nearest villages.
The lack of preschool education is problematic. On an individual level, preschool education has been associated with better physical and intellectual development in long run. For a society, the annual rate of return on quality child care for disadvantaged children is 13.7 percent per annum.
Observing the dire status quo and hoping to curb the intergenerational transmission of poverty with education, the Chinese government launched the “One Village, One Pre-school” plan in August 2015. The plan ensures that every child in Liangshan could attend a preschool within their village for free.
“One Village, One Pre-school” changed the education outlook for Liangshan preschoolers. The enrollment rate soared to 83.35% in 2017. Recently, when Mrs. Luo, a preschool teacher in Liangshan was asked about enrollment, she proudly said: “There are no children in my village failing to come to my pre-school.”
As a local official points out, the changes pre-school brought to local children’s life goes far beyond statistics. Enrolled students are expected to learn Mandarin, develop social skills, cultivate hygiene habits, and gain stronger growth by fee meals at preschools.
Providing Mandarin Learning Resources
Mandarin provides a foundation for Yi Children accesses to more opportunities in more developed parts of China. Because Yi people’s ethnic language is the Yi language, which is not universally applicable, while the majority of Chinese speak Mandarin, the official language in China.
Relatively, Liangshan has a backward level of socio-economic development as compared to its nearby regions. The per capita disposable income of urban residents in Liangshan County ranked last in 21 cities and counties in Sichuan province, where it belongs.
To pursue a better life, the locals have to engage with the rest of Mandarin-speaking China. According to a village preschool teacher in Liangshan, 80% of the students’ parents at her school work outside of the village they live in. Therefore, Mandarin, in a sense, is the key to various life opportunities.
However, Yi children’s resources to learn Mandarin was scarce before 2016. At home, most children spent time with their grandparents, most of whom only speak the Yi language. Moreover, on the school level, the majority of the children didn’t receive formal education until primary school, which meant they gained exposure to Mandarin as late as 8 or 9 years old.
The “One Village, One Pre-School” plan is a turning point.
Now in public preschools funded, resources are geared toward teaching mandarin. Each preschool hires two teachers speaking both Yi and Mandarin to conducted bilingual teaching. Teachers undergo training to learn activities like making handicrafts with Mandarin instructions. “I play Chinese Songs every morning when students arrive,” says Mrs. Luo, a local preschool teacher who endeavors to create an immersive language learning environment.
Besides, teachers say that technologies supported by the government facilitated their teachings. For instance, in Xide, a county in Liangshan, an education company called Sanhao, equipped every child in some villages with a learning machine. Shaped like a bird, the machine can play Chinese nursery rhymes, poems, etc., to help children learn Chinese through entertainment.
With the help and efforts of the government and teachers, now the children in Liangshan learn Chinese earlier and faster. A local preschool Teacher Mrs.Yang said proudly: “Nowadays, upon leaving kindergarten for primary school, our children could understand Chinese and have basic communications.”
Offering Social Skill Development Opportunities
Secondly, “One Village, One Pre-school” offers young kids opportunities to develop social skills.
According to a local official, before “One Village, One Pre-school” was carried out, children could only have access to few neighboring peers because of the sparse living patterns. Situated at the eastern edge of Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Liangshan is characterized by rough terrain. To avoid steeps, villagers have no better choice but to build their shelter far apart from one another.
Going to preschool offers children in Liangshan an opportunity to bond with one another. To avoid the danger of walking alone in the way, students always go to schools in groups. Inside kindergarten, children entertain various sorts of activities together, e.g. paper-cutting, watching TV, taking a nap after lunch.
Through these group activities, social skill improvement is observable in some individual cases. “Having interacted only with his grandma, he was too shy to talk to any stranger at the beginning of the school year,” Mrs. Zhao showed a picture of a young boy who sat with his hand clenched and stared blankly ahead, “But now he greets teachers and his friends even from a far distance!”
Parents have testified the positive benefits preschools bring to their children as well. Dr. Lama, an anthropologist working in Liangshan, said parents are mostly content with the policy in seeing the tremendous joy their children generated from playing sports and games at school. Indeed, studies have also long demonstrated the benefit of peer interactions on Children’s intellectual development and mental health.
Cultivating Children’s Hygiene Habits
Thirdly, “One Village, One Pre-school” contributes to the cultivation of beneficial personal hygienic habits for children in Liangshan.
Before the plan took place, most children in Liangshan lacked necessary hygienic habits, like washing hands, faces, or brushing teethes. A kindergarten teacher offered a key reason. Because most children were brought up by their grandparents, who did not practice cleaning routines themselves. The elder generation in Liangshan grew up at a time when there were no pipelines and using extensive water for cleaning was considered an unnecessary luxury.
To help children form healthy hygiene habits, a series of practices are introduced in the “One Village, One Pre-school” plan.
Now, preschool teachers always start a day at school with a “health inspection”, including making sure children’s hair is not too messy, nails are clean and cut, etc. as a local teacher told. If a child does not meet the hygiene standards, in some cases, the teacher will organize children to line up and learn to perform those tasks themselves, in other cases, the teacher would help them to wash their hair, clipping nails, wash faces, and so on.
“The changes are getting bigger and bigger every year,” Mrs. Luo said. “I heard from parents that children can maintain hygiene practices even are at home. This was unimaginable previously.”
Providing Nutritious Meals for Physical Development
Last but not least, Pre-schools offer much need nutritious meals for Liangshan children, which makes sure their strong growth.
Before the implementation of the “One Village, One Pre-school” plan, the nutritional status for local children was bleak. In a medical examination in 2000, 12.69% of children in the study had symptoms of malnutrition, in which the severe malnutrition rate was 1.21%.
In recognizing the pressing situation, the local government provides nutrition supports for all preschoolers. Every child can receive daily meals funded by the Education Bureau, which include a box of milk, an egg, and an egg yolk pie. In some cases, some local institutions responsible for poverty elimination, such as the Academy of Social Sciences, would fund an additional food supply. For instance, in Xide County, some preschools receive additional boxed yogurt, vegetables, and bread.
With free meals, Liangshan children’s daily nutrition has been improved a lot. Ms. Luo said gratefully, “we have eggs, bread, and fruits, which can completely satisfy the children.”
Challenges and Future
Since the introduction of the “One Village, One Pre-School” plan, there still exist challenges.
One of the key challenges is the low teacher retention rate. According to some researches, the low pay is a recurring issue, which is around 1600 Yuan per month. In research in 2019, 94% of teachers thought themselves underpaid. Ms. Zhao said that almost all the young teachers in her current preschool leave within 2 years. Studies found that the low-salary has made teachers less enthusiastic about teaching or improving their skills.
When asked about solutions, some local officials said that, given the tremendous number of teachers in service, they could hardly get enough funds to raise salaries in the recent future.
Moreover, the lack of funding also presents another problem. Because of the limitation of governmental aid, the amount of nutritious food that local preschools received was still not enough, as reported by some local teachers. To deal with this issue, some NGOs, like Fuhui Foundation, stood out to fill some gaps by donating additional food. In some cases, teachers would use their salary to buy fruits for preschoolers, even though they were not rich themselves.
“Education is our future.” When asked about their thoughts on “One Village, One Pre-School”, both local officials and teachers replied with the same convincing tone, despite the challenges faced. In general, the plan has brought substantial changes and hopes to the community.