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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

ISSN: 1350-293X (Print) 1752-1807 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/recr20

The early childhood education of disadvantaged

children in China
Zhanmei Song, Jiaxiong Zhu, Zhuyun Xia & Xin Wu
To cite this article: Zhanmei Song, Jiaxiong Zhu, Zhuyun Xia & Xin Wu (2014) The early
childhood education of disadvantaged children in China, European Early Childhood Education
Research Journal, 22:3, 355-365, DOI: 10.1080/1350293X.2014.912898
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2014.912898

Published online: 02 Jul 2014.

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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 2014

Vol. 22, No. 3, 355365, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2014.912898

The early childhood education of disadvantaged children in China

Zhanmei Songa*, Jiaxiong Zhub, Zhuyun Xiaa and Xin Wua

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The Research Institute of Early Childhood Education, Shandong Yingcai University, Jinan,
China; bThe College of Early Childhood Education and Special Education, East China
Normal University, Shanghai, China

ABSTRACT: Since 2010, the Chinese government has adopted a series of services
and policies to provide early childhood education for disadvantaged children. The
rapid economic development and urbanisation process since the mid-1980s have
led to great changes in social structure and demographics in China. This creates
new challenges for the education of disadvantaged children. One important issue
to be addressed is the lack of quality education opportunities for a special group
of disadvantaged children in China, children of migrant worker families. This
article presents the social background of migrant children in China, analyses
early childhood education system of China, and argues for equal education rights
for migrant children. Finally, according to our long-term analysis of practice and
policy in early childhood education, we discuss current problems and present
future directions for providing compensatory education for these children.
RSUM: Au cours des dix dernires annes, le gouvernement chinois a adopt
une srie de mesures et de services ducatifs de la petite enfance pour les enfants
vivant dans la prcarit. Le dveloppement rapide de lconomie chinoise et du
processus durbanisation a conduit de grands changements dans la structure
sociale et la dmographie en Chine. Cela a cr un norme d lducation de
ces enfants. Une question importante traiter est celle du manque de services
ducatifs de qualit pour un groupe particulier denfants dfavoriss, les enfants
de travailleurs migrants. Cet article prsente lenvironnement social des enfants
migrants en Chine, analyse le systme dducation de la petite enfance chinois et
plaide pour un droit gal lducation pour ces enfants. Enn, en nous appuyant
sur notre analyse long terme des politiques et pratiques dans lducation de la
petite enfance, nous discutons des problmes actuels et prsentons des
orientations pour offrir une ducation compensatoire ces enfants.
ZUSAMMENFASSUNG: Im letzten Jahrzehnt hat die chinesische Regierung
begonnen, eine Reihe von kompensatorischen Dienstleistungen und Manahmen
zu ergreifen, um die frhkindliche Bbildung fr benachteiligte Kinder
auszubauen. Die rasante wirtschaftliche Entwicklung und Urbanisierung hat zu
groen Vernderungen in der Sozialstruktur und Demographie in China gefhrt.
Daraus entstehen neue Herausforderungen fr die Bildung benachteiligter Kinder
im Vorschulalter. Ein wichtiges Thema dabei ist das Fehlen qualitativ
hochwertiger Bildungsmglichkeiten fr eine besondere Gruppe von
benachteiligten Kindern in China Kinder mit Migrationshintergrund. Dieser
Artikel stellt die soziale Herkunft von Kindern aus Migrantenfamilien in China
dar, analysiert das frhkindlichen Bildungssystem von China, und pldiert fr
gleiche Bildungsrechte fr Migrantenkinder. Schlielich prsentieren wir nach

*Corresponding author. Email: songzhanmei@126.com



Z. Song et al.

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unseren Langzeitanalysen frhkindlicher Bildungspraxis und -politik einige

aktuelle Probleme und zuknftige Entwicklungsrichtungen hinsichtlich
kompensatorischer Bildung fr diese Kinder.
RESUMEN: En los ltimos aos, el gobierno chino ha comenzado a centrarse en la
educacin compensatoria para los nios desfavorecidos en edad preescolar, y ha
adoptado una serie de servicios compensatorios y medidas de poltica. Sin
embargo, con el rpido desarrollo de la economa china, el proceso de rpida
urbanizacin ha provocado grandes cambios en la estructura social y la
distribucin de la poblacin, por eso, supone (se proporciona) un gran desafo
para la compensacin de educativa (educacin) para los nios desfavorecidos en
China. Una cuestin ms importante es la de los nios desfavorecidos con
caractersticas chinas que no pueden aceptar la educacin equitativa nios
migrantes y nios que se quedan atrs. Este artculo presenta los antecedentes
sociales de los nios en edad preescolar desfavorecidos de China objetivamente,
analiza el sistema de preescolar en China, revela la particularidad de los nios en
edad preescolar desfavorecidos de China, y propone los problemas y la direccin
de desarrollo a la que se enfrenta la educacin compensatoria para los nios en
edad preescolar desfavorecidos de China en combinacin con el anlisis de la
prctica preescolar y la poltica de China por un largo tiempo del autor.
Keywords: China; disadvantaged children; compensatory education; migrant and
left behind children; policy intervention

Chinas economic development has boosted its unconventional urbanisation process,
which today has generated an estimated 262 million rural migrant workers. Some are
working in cities accompanied by their families but some of them have to leave their
children in rural area with their grandparents, relatives, or even by themselves. Therefore, due to a noticeable increasing population of rural migrant workers children, disadvantaged children in present day China have their special peculiarities when
compared with disadvantaged children in other countries. Because of the household
registration system1 in China, rural migrant workers are still marginalised and discriminated against. When children migrate to the cities with their parents, they may have
only very limited access to quality education in their chosen urban area, while children
who stay in a rural district can be separated from their parents for years on end. It may
be hard for most of us to image how a group of children aged two to six years of age
could spend their whole childhood in construction sites playing with cement and bricks,
instead of going to preschool or kindergarten; it may be even harder for us to understand that most of the young children left behind in rural areas can only see their
parents once a year during the Spring Festival, or once every two to three years. But
that is the reality. In sum, these children are a new generation who are growing up
without the basic right to necessary care, supervision and early education. We question
whether it is possible for these children to become well-developed and well-educated
Insufcient access to high quality early childhood services2 for disadvantaged children is not only an issue related to the development of education and the economy in
China, but it is also a moral issue. Therefore, this article seeks to draw more attention
from policymakers and researchers worldwide to issues of disadvantage by presenting
the urgent social risk that many disadvantaged children in current Chinese society
encounter in the very early stages of their lives. In this article, disadvantaged children

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are referred to as migrant and left behind children who have either moved with
working parents to urban areas, or who have been left behind in rural areas. In this
article, we are focusing on children from three to six years of age. This is not an
empirical study but the authors interpretation of a serious social issue in China,
namely, growing educational disadvantage for two large groups of young children.
The objectivity of the study can be judged from the selection of sources and documents
chosen for interpretation.
Disadvantaged children in China: the special group in social transition
Since the 1980s, because of the reform and opening-up policy, Chinas GDP has
increased more than 20 times with an average growth rate close to 10% (Wang
2011), creating a high-speed era unprecedented in the economic history of China.
During the processes of becoming the second-largest economy in the world, Chinese
social structure and demographics have undergone tremendous change. For instance,
the proportion of the urban population rose from 17.9% in 1978 to 51.3% in 2011,
an increase of 33.4%. This has been due in no small part to the mass emigration of
rural workers and families into the large cities. As this migrant group grew larger
and larger, they received the name nong min gong3 in mainland China. In 2009,
due to their great contribution to Chinas rapid economic development, Time magazine
named Chinese rural migrant workers person of the year, the only group on the list.
However, the problems and challenges raised by this mass migration into urban areas
have resulted in various urgent social problems. Despite their great contribution, it is
still difcult for rural migrant workers without urban registration to enjoy equal
rights and have access to the same public services as urban residents.
Of even greater concern are the children of the migrant workers. Nowadays, they are
considered by education researchers as the most disadvantaged group of children in
China. According to the Sixth National Population Census of China in 2010, the
numbers of migrant children and left behind children aged 0- to ve-years-old have
reached 9.8 million and 23.4 million respectively, accounting for 36.8% of preschool
children (0 to ve years of age) in China (All-China Womens Federation 2013). Meanwhile, there is often a two-way ow between the two groups. The migrant children can
be sent back to their hometowns in rural areas because of high living costs and difcult
entry to early childhood education institutions, and left behind children can commute
between rural and urban areas following their caregivers decisions (Figure 1).
Disadvantaged children in China: the disadvantaged groups under the
education system
The management system
At present, Youeryuan is the main form of early childhood education in China, serving
children aged three to six. Unlike many European countries, Youeryuan has not yet
been included in the public education system. The current management system of
Youeryuan is hierarchical, with government (dominant) and local responsibility. The
central government is responsible for unied development planning, policies and
basic standards. It takes overall charge of educational reform and coordinates regional
development. Local government is responsible for the implementation of national policies, carrying out the education reform experiments and the educational development
of regions.


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Figure 1.

Composition of disadvantaged young children in China.

The educational sectors at all levels are in charge of the supervision and management of early childhood education. The management system of early childhood education in rural areas is such that counties run public Youeryuan, towns set up
township central Youeryuan and villages develops various forms of early childhood
education, including all kinds of non-formal education. Because of Chinas vast territory and its uneven regional development, including economy and culture, the system is
conducive to encouraging initiatives from local governments to develop early childhood education and make suitable policies based on local conditions. However, it
also can lead to regional imbalance because of the different emphasis given to local
economic development and early childhood education (Feng 2010). What is more,
under this system, the central government sometimes passes its responsibilities to
local governments, but local governments may not be able to follow through the
actual implementation of policies (Pang 2012).

Early childhood education institutions

In China, the government plays the dominant role in regulating and running public
Youeryuan, but social forces are encouraged to operate of private Youeryuan. As
can be seen in Figure 2 and Figure 3, two thirds of early childhood education institutions in China are private, although they only serve about the same number of children as a public Youeryuan does. In addition, a public Youeryuan is more highly
regarded and preferred by the public, due to stricter government regulations, generous
public funding and higher teacher recruitment, work conditions and teaching quality.
In urban areas, the existing public resources for early childhood education are
mainly available for those children with urban household registration. However, the
migrant workers children are facing many obstacles when entering public education.
In Guangzhou for example, migrant parents have to produce temporary residence

Figure 2.

Number of Youeryuan in urban areas, 2012.

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Figure 3. Number of Youeryuan in rural areas, 2012. (Data Source: Ministry of Education
Ofcial Website).

permits, work permits, proof of residence, certicates from their place of origin, and
household registration booklets in order to apply for a place for their children in a
Youeryuan. The difculties of entering public Youeryuan lead migrant parents to
choose a private Youeryuan of various tuition levels, which has been set up to meet
different market demands. The lack of government supervision of these Youeryuan
leads to wide variation in their quality. Since private Youeryuan mainly rely on
student fees for daily operation, parents income levels directly determine the quality
of their education programmes.
The majority of migrant workers are considered temporary residents of their
migrating cities and cannot get household registration. Also, they are usually on the
lower rungs of the income ladder, and do not have much disposable income. Therefore,
migrant workers children have neither access to public Youeryuan nor the nancial
resources to go to high-quality private Youeryuan, at best they can attend only inexpensive, sometimes illegal or unlicensed private Youeryuan. On one hand, these programmes provide the only place where migrant workers can send their children for
basic care during the workday. One the other hand, the poor programme quality resulting from unregulated management, low teacher quality, and poor physical environments with potential safety hazards (Liu 2012) may put childrens healthy
development in danger. Research shows that low quality care can actually harm childrens development in various areas (Liu 2012). The hard reality is that if these educational institutions are banned or forced to close down, then the attending children
will have no other place to go (Zhu 2011).
In rural areas, 27.1 million left behind children (All-China Womens Federation
2013) are mostly located in the Midwest provinces, which have underdeveloped production capabilities and harsh natural environments. Due to the scattered population
in these areas, the township central Youeryuan is the main form of public early childhood education. However, studies show that half the provinces in the Midwest have no
township central Youeryuan, and only 10% of villages have their own Youeryuan. This
means that a large number of young rural children cannot access a public early education service within their living area. In fact, many of the older children have to
walk several hours to get to their schools. Besides the limited number of village Youeryuan, some illegal private Youeryuan and Youeryuan afliated to primary schools
exist, but in general, left behind children in rural areas face the predicament of not
enough public Youeryuan accessible to them.
Teachers of early childhood education
In 2012, there were 181,048 Youeryuan and 36,857,600 three- to six-year-old children
and 1,677,500 teachers in Youeryuan in China. With the constant expansion of early

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Z. Song et al.

childhood education, the number of teachers serving young children is still a long way
from meeting the actual demand in both urban and rural areas, especially in poor and
remote villages. For example, in 2010, the teacher-child ratio in rural areas was as low
as 1:44, and there are only 0.6 fulltime teachers per class (Pang 2012). Low salaries,
poor working conditions, non-position-based social welfare and extremely limited professional development opportunities result in rural areas being in dire need of teachers.4
In general, Youeryuan teachers do not want to go to or stay in rural areas, there have
been no new teachers for years (Pang 2012). In sum, the supply and quality of teachers
has become a constraint to the development of early childhood education in China,
especially in the rural areas.
In mainland China, a qualied Youeryuan teacher should have an associate
bachelor degree or above. However, as shown in Figure 4, only 47% of teachers
have associate bachelor degrees while 43% of teachers have achieved only high
school education or below. In short, the overall qualications level of Youeryuan
teacher in China is low, compared with their counterparts in many other countries. In
rural areas, a large number of teachers rarely receive professional development or training opportunities.
Financial investment
Before 2011, the budget for early childhood education was allocated by government
funding at the provincial level and not from central government. It was insufcient
to meet education needs of all three- to six-year-old children in China. From 1998 to
2008, the overall funding for early childhood education accounted for only 0.05%
0.07% of GDP and for 1.241.44% of the total education budget (Yuan 2010). In
addition, there were considerable variations in early childhood education funding
among different provinces. Funding for rural areas was often shortchanged to
provide sufcient public resources for public Youeryuan in urban areas. For
example, in 2008, the education funding for early childhood education in Shanghai
accounted for 7.1% of the citys total education budget, but for only 0.13% and
0.14% for Hainan and Hunan province respectively (Tian and Zhang 2011). In poor
rural areas of central and west China, there was even less funding. Scholars believe
that funding for early childhood education of China goes mainly to the public Youeryuan in cities and towns, but is not enough for children in the poor Midwest and rural
areas (Qu and He 2011; Wang 2011; Hong and Luo 2012; Zhang and Yuan 2013).
As for early childhood education fees, the cost of a public Youeryuan is
supplemented by public funding and regulated by government. On the other hand,
fees for a private Youeryuan depend on the market, and prices are set by private
Youeryuan themselves (China Early Childhood Education Development Strategies

Figure 4. Numbers of Youeryuan teachers in rural area by academic qualication in 2012.

(Data resource: Ministry of Education Ofcial Website).

European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

Table 1.


The main funding sources of different kinds of Youeryuan.

Public Youeryuan

Cost of

Government agencies
Public funding and student fees

Private Youeryuan
Student tuitions

Fee is supplemented by public

Tuition scale is determined by the
funding and its level is regulated by
private owners, based on the costs of
daily operation

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Note: On the guidance advice of early childhood education reform and development, 2003.

Research Team 2010). Table 1 shows that the main funding source for them is the fees
charged per student. For this reason, the quality of private Youeryuan is closely related
to parents economic well-being.
Development situation
A large number of scholars have conducted research on developmental outcomes of
migrant and left behind children in China. They have found that many of these children
do not have their basic needs met. Children left behind in their rural home towns not
only miss their parents but often suffer poverty and hunger. Migrant children staying
with their parents often have to live in overcrowded dormitories provided by employers
or in tiny rented apartments shared by multiple families. These are not optimal physical
environments for young children to grow up in. In the area of physical development,
these children are exposed to higher incidences of diseases such as asthma and developmental stunting, and their general health conditions are worse than normal children
(Zhang, Li, and Xie 2007; Shen et al. 2009). In other developmental areas, migrant and
left behind children often lag behind their more advantaged peers in language, cognitive, emotional, social, academic outcomes (Gai 2008; Yao 2011; Song and Liu 2013).
Family social and economic status is predictive of these childrens academic achievement, language ability, school dropout and other development results (Song and Liu
Compared with children in urban areas, children living in rural areas scored lower in
academic, cognitive, language, emotional and social outcomes, and only performed
slightly better in motor development than urban children (Gai 2008). Separated from
parents for a long time and raised by extended family members, usually grandparents,
left behind children often face emotional deprivation. They experience more negative
feelings than their peers, and are more likely to become targets for bullies (Gao &
Sou 2001; Shen et al. 2009). All these results, together with continuation of Chinas
rural population ocking to cities, exacerbated our concerns about the early childhood
education and future of migrant and left behind children in China.
Meanwhile, there appears to be consensus worldwide that the early years are
particularly important for the development of children and early interventions have
been assumed to reduce school readiness gaps among children from disadvantaged
background (Burger 2010). Several countries have conducted long-term invention
programmes to compensate for social inequalities, including Effective Provision
of Pre-school Education (EPPE, EPPE 311) in the UK, Arkansas Better Chance
Pre-kindergarten Program (ABC) in the USA and Early Childhood Development in
rural Vietnam, etc. Much empirical evidence has demonstrated the effectiveness of


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early education and care interventions for children from families with low educational
aspirations and/or low socio-economic status, such as High/Scope Perry Preschool
(Schweinhart et al. 2005) and The Head Start Impact Study and follow up (Puma
et al. 2012). Setting strong foundations for learning begins in the earliest years of
life has been claimed by UNESCO to emphasis the support to early child development
(UNESCO 2007).
Disadvantaged children in China: action and directions
Policy intervention
At present, migrant and left behind children have drawn much attention from governments and social organisations. The Chinese central government recently promulgated
A Compendium for Chinas Mid- and Long-Term Education Development: 20102020,
and The Reform and State Councils Several Current Suggestions regarding Developing Preschool Education (Liu and Pan 2013). Local governments have also developed
their own Early Childhood Education Action Plans for the Next Three Years, based on
the new laws and regulations. These efforts aim to solve pressing problems like prolonged waiting lists for kindergarten enrolment, kindergarten teacher training, and
the expansion of early childhood education resources. The Ministry of Education has
issued a series of early childhood education policies that are relevant to migrant and
left behind children, such as the governments poverty alleviation plan, and state-led
compensatory education programmes. The new plan for investing in early childhood
education features main nancial investment by local governments, supplemented by
central government awards and social funds.
From 2011 to 2013, the central government provided 34.1 billion RMB to support the
development of rural early childhood education in poverty-stricken areas, especially in the
mid and west regions. It has also sought to guarantee early education for children in
families with economic difculties, and for migrant and left behind children. At the
same time, local governments are encouraged to devise their own measures to create
early childhood education funding system, and to provide access to Youeryuan for disadvantaged children and families with economic difculties. Local governments have been
asked to evaluate and approve universal early childhood education, which provide aid to
orphans, children with special needs and families with nancial difculties, and gradually
build up functioning early childhood education systems (as shown in Figure 5).
Although this new concern for disadvantaged children is welcome, especially the
policies on migrant and left behind children, obstacles to the implementation of the
new early childhood education policy still exist, such as the extremely limited resources
for education in China, and the Household Register System, which still remains to be
reformed and improved. Provision of quality early childhood education for migrant and
left behind children in China still has a long way to go.
The way forward
As early childhood education researchers, we hope that policymakers in China recognise that migrant and left behind children have specic needs and are products of a
unique time. They are the heartbreaking side effects of Chinas great social and economic transformation.
First of all, it should be made clear that there is a serious shortage of funding for
education in China. This funding accounts for only 1% of the worlds education

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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

Figure 5.


Financial aid policy system for early childhood education.

funds but has to be shared across 20% of the worlds population. Less than 1.5% of this
funding is used for early childhood education. The insufcient investment in young
children is further diminished by unfair allocation (Cai 2007). A disproportionate
share of the funds has been invested in a small number of public Youeryuan, provided
for non-disadvantaged groups, including the children of government ofcials and
employees (Tian and Zhang 2011). Therefore, a rst step toward solving the
problem of early childhood education for migrant and left behind children is to increase
funding and change the direction of the investment. Taking care of disadvantaged
groups through reformed resources allocation can play an important role in ensuring
social stability and social justice (Song and Ruan 2012).
Second, equal education opportunity means more than an entitlement to equal
resources. It also asks for differentiated curricula to meet childrens various special
needs (Zhu 2011). For example, in regard to children lagging behind in school readiness, the curriculum should be more focused on their school readiness skills.
Another example is that a special curriculum can be designed to help migrant children
grow respect for their home cultures while integrating them into the new environment
they live in now. For teachers who lack the necessary professional expertise and teaching skills, the development of a highly structured curricula with more detailed plans and
guidance, could help them make fewer mistakes.
Third, education quality is also very important to childrens healthy development.
However, if we blindly pursue a high quality in early childhood education, many inexpensive private Youeryuan, which provide the only education service available to
migrant and left behind children, will undoubtedly be closed. Thus, these children
will lose even the basic opportunity to receive early education. Therefore, while gradually promoting quality being condent that limited early childhood education
resources and imbalanced allocation will gradually improve we should not ignore
reality and blindly pursue absolute quality. Quality evaluation criteria and methods
which are t for local conditions should be encouraged (Zhu 2010).
We want to express our sincere gratitude to Dr Pan and Ms Shi, for their dedicated help in revising this article.


Z. Song et al.

This work was supported by national science education scientic planning project (EHA120366).

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1. The Chinese government ofcially promulgated the household registration system to
control the movement of people between urban and rural areas. Individuals were broadly
categorised as a rural or urban people.
2. In China, education and care for children aged 03 years is called Early Education
(zaoqijiaoyu), whereas the education and care for children aged 36 years is called Early
Childhood Education or Preschool Education. The centers/institutes which provide education and care for young children are called Youeryuan. These terms are often used in
government documents. In this article, we use Early Childhood Education to refer to
the education and care for children aging from 36 years and Youeryuan to present all
the centers/institutes provide education and care for 36 years old.
3. The highly developed urban areas provide better job opportunities and have attracted a large
number of workers from rural areas. However, because of their low education levels, most
migrant workers are employed in manual work in manufacturing and the construction industry.
4. In China, a Professional Title system called Zhi Cheng is implemented in education
system to indicate teachers professional levels. The titles directly relate to teachers
income, job stability and career opportunities. Teachers can achieve higher titles through
increasing their working experience and taking tests. Theoretically, Youeryuan teachers
and primary school teachers are in the same professional title system. However, Youeryuan
teachers, especially teachers from private or rural Youeryuan have little chance to receive
any Zhi Cheng because of vague identity of this position.

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