BEIJING // Zhang Ting smiles as she talks about the after-school classes for provincial migrant children she attends in a dusty village in the north of the Chinese capital. "There are lots of different teachers that pay attention to us," said the 10-year-old, originally from Sichuan province. "If you're not happy they come and talk to us. In the normal school they don't."
It is perhaps no surprise the youngster struggles to get attention in her regular school. As the child of migrant workers, she is ineligible to attend a state school in Beijing as a result of China's controversial hukou or residency rules, so her parents pay for her to attend an unlicensed private school set up for migrant children. Typically, as many as two-thirds of the teachers at such schools are untrained, there can be 50 children in each class and facilities are, at best, basic. Often, schools for migrant children lack heating, so during Beijing's bitterly cold winters, the youngsters sit in class wrapped up in coats and gloves. In the scorching summer, they make do with fans - not air conditioning.
Many such migrant children, of whom there are thought to be 25 million in China, yearn for the life they left behind in their home provinces. "I prefer my old town because there are a lot of mountains and trees," said Song Jing, 12, who is also from Sichuan but has lived in Beijing for the past five years. Children such as Zhang Ting and Song Jing are the lucky ones. Each evening after school, they attend free classes run by a non-profit organisation, Compassion for Migrant Children (CMC), set up in 2006 to offer "a future and a hope for every migrant child". The classes give the children extra help with their school work and let them enjoy music, art, drama and sport.
While children from Beijing's wealthiest families may be chauffeured to school each day and then have additional lessons from private tutors, the children of migrant workers could not be in a more different situation. Their parents may earn a meagre living each month working as nannies or in construction, and the family home is usually a shared apartment in the run-down margins of the city. There is barely enough money for the migrant school fees of about 500 yuan (Dh270) per term, let alone private tutors.
Groups such as CMC try to close the gap between the educational opportunities offered to local children, and those available to migrants. It offers after-school programmes for six- to 13-year-olds; vocational and residential programmes for 16- to 22-year-olds; training for teachers at migrant schools; and parenting workshops covering issues such as personal hygiene and child development. Most classes are run in the group's six community centres, five in Beijing and one in Shanghai. Funding comes from corporate donors and individuals and the group has 28 full-time staff, mostly local Chinese. Volunteers, of whom about 400 assist each week, are typically university students during the week or professionals at weekends. The organisation assists about 2,800 people a year but aims to help more, having the goal of opening 25 centres.
"Most [migrants] are coming from the countryside, from farmland in the hope of a better quality of life, mostly for their kids. What they find is often not what they imagine," said Jonathan Hursh, CMC's founder and executive director. "The children often slip through the net - they don't have the social support networks other children enjoy." The run-down areas migrant workers tend to live in are often subject to forced demolitions. This means CMC's community centres are always under threat of closure, so the group is creating mobile classrooms out of shipping containers that can be moved to new areas once a neighbourhood becomes earmarked for redevelopment.
Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based pressure group, said migrant and local children "should have equal access to education, health care and social services". "It's perfectly within the scope of the urban governments to open the access to their schools to the children of migrant workers and provide some local health insurance, vaccinations, pre-natal care and post-natal care," he said.
China has registered people as urban or rural residents since 1958 to prevent mass migration to cities, and has additionally specified which part of the country they should live in. However, in recent decades, as the economy has been liberalised, people have moved to obtain work and settled in areas despite not having a residence permit, but this has excluded them from many local services, including health and education.
While some cities such as Shanghai have relaxed the hukou rules and made it easier for migrant families to gain the benefits of local residency, Mr Crothall said many other cities were not so flexible. That means CMC and other non-governmental organisations will continue their efforts for migrant children. "Many feel lonely and they're not comfortable when they make new friends as they will have to say goodbye again," said Laureen Yim, 23, a university student who volunteers for CMC. "They don't feel loved. Their parents are away often - for some children, their mother comes home just once a month. They have meals on their own. So many of them have emotional problems.
"But we have more interesting classes for them. It's something a bit different from their normal lives." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org