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[Adam Minter] How to protect China’s children

Nothing infuriates China’s online masses more than the belief that the powerless have been victimized by the powerful. The fury was particularly intense late last week, when allegations against a Beijing-area kindergarten blew up online. According to Chinese state media, kids as young as 3 years old were “reportedly sexually molested, pierced by needles and given unidentified pills.”

The news came at a particularly raw time: Just two weeks earlier, China’s internet had convulsed in anger over video footage of teachers at a Shanghai-area kindergarten beating small children and force-feeding them wasabi.

In both cases, local governments responded promptly, firing and even detaining teachers and administrators. In Beijing, the government hastily announced that every kindergarten in the city would soon be staffed by an “educational inspector.” But these steps will do little to solve the underlying problems that have led to more than 60 cases of physical abuse at early-childhood care facilities since 2010, or to satiate growing public anger. To address those issues, China must quickly improve conditions for teachers entrusted with the care of China’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

The latter isn’t a job the Chinese state historically reserved for itself. As a largely agrarian society, China had little need for formal early-childhood education so long as large extended families in close proximity could watch over kids. In urban areas, “kindergartens” -- the blanket term for facilities hosting children aged 3 to 6 -- only emerged in the 20th century, largely for the affluent.

The situation changed markedly in the 1980s, as China’s economy modernized and millions of migrant laborers moved into cities. Extended families were no longer available to take care of children while parents worked. Meanwhile, China’s highly competitive primary and secondary school system compelled many parents to seek out schooling options earlier and earlier. Demand for early education continues to accelerate: Between 2010 and 2013, China built 48,200 kindergartens, a 32 percent increase.

While the Chinese government has supported that growth both financially and with policy, demand far outstrips its efforts. In 2013, China’s Ministry of Education set the full-time kindergarten staff-to-student ratio at 1-to-5. Today the ratio is closer to 1-to-18, as China’s 44 million kindergarteners overwhelm the country’s 2.5 million kindergarten teachers.

That gap is likely to grow: China projects a shortfall of 3 million early-childhood teachers by 2021. And in the absence of qualified instructors, China’s kindergartens are notorious for hiring whoever they can find. In 2016, 22.4 percent of China’s kindergarten teachers had a high school diploma or less.

Three key factors account for the teacher shortage. First, pay is low, especially compared to salaries at well-funded primary schools where teachers can earn double what their kindergarten counterparts do. (This problem isn’t unique to China.)

Second, training is scarce, expensive and -- combined with future salary expectations that range far lower than other professions -- not worth the time or financial investment. Third, the social status of early childhood educators in China is abysmal, in part thanks to the aforementioned low pay and educational requirements. Those who embrace the profession can expect to be viewed as being unable to land anything better.

The Chinese government isn’t oblivious to the problem. At the national level, it’s implemented standards, programs and funding for early-childhood education. But, even with increased government investment since the 1980s, roughly two-thirds of the funding for Chinese kindergartens comes from the private sector, with the majority concentrated on children of low socioeconomic status. Public kindergartens, which tend to have high admission standards, higher tuitions, more qualified teachers and better outcomes, cater to the more affluent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two recent kindergarten abuse scandals emerged in private kindergartens associated with RYB Education and International.

Fixing this situation starts with raising those low salaries, especially in private kindergartens. This could be accomplished via subsidies (teacher salaries are a small percentage of early-childhood education expenditures), the establishment of a minimum salary requirement and regulations that limit the amount of money that school districts spend on buildings, technology and other infrastructure.

Longer-term, China’s Ministry of Education should seek ways to affiliate the country’s growing numbers of private kindergartens with public primary schools, which boast better resources and standards. A fix won’t be quick, but there’s no better investment that could be made in China’s future.

By Adam Minter

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.